Arts column: Seeing the world’s first colour film is a moving experience

REGARDLESS of EL James’s steamy soccer mom seduction, the most vivid shades of grey are those of the past. This is because it is almost impossible to imagine historic events in colour.

In our heads, when Richard III was expiring on the Bosworth battlefield, the blood pouring from his fatal wounds was a dark oil slick.

During Jesus’s crucifixion, the iron grey nails matched the brooding sky and the slate of his forgiving eyes.

Even those elements of historical stories that are inseparable from their colour – the blue of the Virgin Mary’s dress, the yellow of Van Gogh’s sunflowers – stand out as single vibrant splashes against a monochrome backdrop like the little girl’s red dress in Schindler’s List.

We’re just so used to the pre-1960s being screened in black and white (and in my case pre-1990 when we finally got swapped the black and white portable TV for a colour one – I only realised Bagpuss was pink when I saw a poster of him at university) that it’s hard to imagine the past any other way.

So the experience of seeing the world’s earliest colour moving pictures, unearthed in a film archive more than 110 years after it was made, is really quite surreal.

Cinematic pioneer Edward Turner shot the footage of a young family, a macaw and soldiers marching through London in around 1901.

He used a technique that involved filming through red, green and blue filters and superimposing the frames on top of each other that he hoped would playback in colour.

He patented the idea in 1899 but died four years later, aged just 29, too soon to fully develop his invention, so film historians have long assumed it was a failure.

Then a researcher at Bradford’s National Media Museum found the film in an old can buried in the organisation’s archives. With the help of experts at the British Film Institute’s National Archive it has been transformed into watchable digital files.

It’s now on display at the museum and is an exhibition worth crossing the Pennines for.

I caught a glimpse of the footage on the TV news last week and was astonished.

Not so much by the content – although the scenes of Turner’s children playing together, his little boy whacking a goldfish bowl with a (colour!) sunflower are really charming. It’s the way seeing the pictures forces you to see the past differently.

These are typical Victorian children like the sort you see on Christmas cards, dressed like little adults, with typical Victorian children’s cherubic faces. Yet seeing them in colour makes them less distant, more immediate, almost modern.

The colour creates a bridge across a century, making it easier for us to cross into their world, even if it’s only for a few seconds until the film comes to an end.

Liverpool Post, September 20, 2012

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