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The Mitchell and Kenyon Collection:
Rewriting Film History
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In July 2000, the British Film Institute (bfi) completed the transfer of the Peter Worden Collection of Mitchell and Kenyon Films from its place of storage (an unplugged chest freezer in a garage in Blackburn, in the north of England) to the bfi National Film and Television Archive's Conservation Centre (NFTVA) in Berkhamsted, near London. This was one of the largest collections of camera-original nitrate material that had been offered to the archive in over fifty years, and completed stage one of a five-year plan of action agreed on by the bfi with the University of Sheffield in November 1999. The discovery of the collection is one of the most important finds in the field of early British film history and presents film historians with an unparalleled opportunity to examine the entire surviving output (commissions and distributed films) of a northern regional company in the first decade of film production. [End Page 1] In order to fully understand the significance of the collection and the impact this material will have on film research, an introduction to the material, the nature of its discovery, and the rationale behind the restoration and research project will be presented.
A Brief History of the Collection
The Mitchell and Kenyon Collection consists of approximately eight hundred negatives of nonfiction titles produced between approximately 1900 and 1913. The geographical spread of the material encompasses Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands, Scotland, Ireland, North Wales, the North East, Ireland, and Bristol. The collection belonged to Peter Worden, an optometrist who had rescued the films in July 1994, subsequently storing the nitrate material in his garage at the family home in Blackburn. The material was largely unknown outside a handful of archivists and film historians, although a small proportion had been shown to the public on perhaps ten occasions between 1994 and 1999.
The existence of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection, both in quantity of material and type of films produced, had immediate consequences for both the archival and academic communities. In terms of the NFTVA, it increased the number of films held from this period by as much as 25 percent.
In the case of the academic community, the number of British films of the period surviving in the form of camera-original negatives—as opposed to prints, sometimes several generations away from the negative—had been small. Nonfiction titles by Lumière, Biograph, and Edison have of course been extensively investigated by academics and scholars, 1 and John Barnes's pioneering work on the Victorian cinema in Great Britain stresses the importance of nonfiction during this period, 2 but otherwise the emphasis on early narrative fiction film had resulted in nonfiction material and its importance in the development of early filmmaking and exhibition being insufficiently investigated. Film historians in the United Kingdom had previously ignored or downplayed regional film producers outside the South East region and emphasized instead the work of the Brighton School and London-based pioneers such as Cecil Hepworth, Robert Paul, and Charles Urban. The relative neglect of early nonfiction production in the United Kingdom can to some extent be ascribed to the effects of the Brighton project in 1978, which concentrated on fiction films produced after 1900. Events in the past decade have begun to shift this emphasis. The Nederlands Filmmuseum publication Uncharted Territory: Essays on Early Nonfiction [End Page 2] Films, 3 the third Domitor conference in 1994, and the recent publication of a special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 4 devoted to nonfiction material are attempts to bring nonfiction back into the mainstream of early film history.
Another reason for this neglect is that until the discovery of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection a comprehensive body of relevant material did not appear to have survived, and it was therefore difficult to link titles to particular filmmakers or exhibitions. This is partly because...