Early Colour Football Film – Or Not!

Well, not, not really. Regular readers will know that I’ve been on something of a quest to find the earliest colour film of football – of sport in general, still or moving.

It’s a cliche that we see the past in black and white, that colour comes as a shock where it exists. The BBC’s excellent Edwardians in Colour series has been full of these shocks, but also full of frustration. Here’s Piccadilly Circus at the turn of the twentieth century, taken by one of Albert Kahn’s peripatetic autochrome photographers:


Photographers in every age go after the picturesque, and Kahn’s colour archive is frustrating for doing so. The chance to wander the old East End of London with an autochrome camera, or to stand at the platform end at Paddington with one, or simply to take one to a match, is now gone. These days, the quaint costumes of Japanese priests in the earlies are only slightly interesting. But look at this French wall in 1914:


Thus far, the oldest actual colour film of sport that I’ve come across is a childrens’ park kickabout in Cardiff in the early 1920s. And that’s away in the distance. Not quite what I’m after.

The first major sportsman I’ve found is Fred Keenor, captain of Cardiff City. I haven’t a still to show you, unfortunately, but imagine him standing motionless in front of the camera with a matey smile on his face and you’ll have the idea. Here’s Keenor in his original black and white:


And here, courtesy of Claude Friese-Greene, the Bfi and the BBC, is the London of his day.


Somehow, if it’s in colour, it did happen after all: the past is not just a series of rumours spread by the elderly.

Fred Keenor’s Cardiff were the first team – and, still, the last – to take the FA Cup out of England, beating Arsenal in one of the early Wembley finals, 1927. Even then, programmes for major finals were things of beauty:


Sir Richard Doll was 14 years old at the time:


And there – proof that you no longer had to actually go to the match…


Autochromes were a poor medium for anything on the move, demanding long exposures. Kodachrome didn’t really hit the shops until the very end of the 1930s, and was highly expensive, perhaps putting off the kind of person who might be interested in taking a camera loaded with it with him to the game.

If there is prewar colour footage of football – or indeed any sport at all in the UK – it’s well hidden. Even genuine colour stills are – thus far – elusive. Still, you never know. In five months’ time, you could find Billy Meredith or Alex James belting down the wing, vivid as the Boys of ’66.

FIFA have in fact colorized some footage of the 1930 World Cup Final. I’ve seen it, and I’m afraid it’s not a great success. The grass is green, the crowd is brown, and the Uruguayan’s shirts have a radioactive glow. The footage they didn’t colorize, of that same side growing through two Olympic tournament victories in the ’20s, is far more interesting in footballing terms. For one thing, you can actually tell if they’re any good. As we’ve seen here before, that’s not something early football footage always allows you to do.

(And they are good – very good. It’s on this DVD, as a bonus feature. The rest of the DVD is the usual brainless clip-programme dreck. FIFA celebrates its centenary by producing a film that confirms every Australian and American prejudice about the game.)

UPDATE: here are thumbnails to almost 2000 Edwardian colour photographs. You’ll be familiar with the photographer, Sergei Produkin-Gorsky and why his work is exceptional (sadly another sports-blind photographic pioneer) but you might not have seen the entire collection.