Our school library had Wisdens going back to the 1890s. The yellow volumes, thickening as the decades passed, occupied one side of a narrow bay; the Georgian poets were on the other. This was where I spent my time over the golden autumn of 1985, holding the ancient print close to my eyes so that I could see the typeface flaws, poring over adverts for nets, bats and gloves. The paper smelt of hot valves. It was all just print and scrappy photographs: the BFI’s new Mitchell and Kenyon DVD is the moving, living sport that gave rise to it all.
Mitchell and Kenyon were a partnership of pioneering film makers in the north of England at the start of the twentieth century. Most of their work was thought lost by that small band of film historians who knew about them at all. Then, a few years ago, a shop clearance yielded up a couple of metal drums containing c.800 short Edwardian films in superb condition – a large chunk of the whole M&K output, and by a stroke of luck these fell into the right hands. Restored, they make up a startling visual record of Edwardian industrial life, and have the potential to transform our ideas of the film history of the time.
When the films first emerged in 2004, interest was huge: I attended a sell-out screening of M&K material at the Clapham Picture House, and I’d had to buy the tickets months in advance. For many people in Britain, there’s a sense that the Edwardian era was our last good time before we began to go wrong as a country, which is what I once thought. And, sharing that view, I would have wondered if there wasn’t some kind of key, some kind of secret, encoded in these astonishing films, which, if used, could bring it all back again…
Seeds of its own destruction. The new DVD shows the crowd at a Rotherham derby match, their dirty faces fresh out of work and etched with fatigue and real hopelessness. Deep tiredness, ingrained boredom, dirt beyond hope of cleanliness: Mitchell and Kenyon were too much the showmen to want to dwell upon it, but you see it time and again, creeping past the laughter and waving hats. Platt’s Works, Oldham; Parkgate Ironworks, Rotherham (a frightening, depressing film with strong undertones of violence: the cameraman is called off before he gets hurt) remind one that this was an England half-way between Henry Mayhew and George Orwell more than it was one halfway between Sherlock Holmes and Rupert Bear. (Platt’s and Parkgate are on earlier DVD releases, not this one).
Much of it never really went away, in any case. The AAA Championships at Huddersfield, featured on the new DVD, are dominated by American athletes. They wear dressing gowns between events – we wear blazers. And the big First Division games 100 years ago are still the big ones now: Everton, Newcastle, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Sunderland all feature.
There’s been plenty of football in earlier M&K releases, but it’s clear that they’ve saved up the best for this one. The games have cleaner images, better action, and a real sense of story about them.
Most of all, there’s skill, and lots of it – excellent Everton wingplay, short one-touch passing from Newcastle, mazy dribbles from a Bradford City player lighting up the first game at his team’s new ground. On Fremantle’s superb multi-DVD History of Football, elderly Italians explain their admiration for the old English game – “passionate, physical, but not violent” – and so it is here: injured players attract the sympathetic attentions of their opponents, and the tackling is hard but not malicious.
It’s tremendous to watch. You find yourself forgetting how old the film is, leaning forward in your chair as if it’s live. And you find yourself thinking that all the old theories were wrong: football didn’t succeed because it filled a hole in people’s schedules once they had Saturday afternoon off. It succeeded because it was fantastic.
The excellent accompanying booklet cites J.B. Priestley:
..football turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half.. you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders.
It’s what drives the modern “Safe Standing” campaign. The fun of football isn’t just about the play. It’s about the camaraderie, being part of a crowd and a cause, something worth shouting and singing about in a place where it’s alright to shout and sing. Much of the M&K footage here is of the fans, and – with the exception of the exhausted Rotherham ironworkers – they are having it. Unlike previous Edwardian football films, there are proper goals here, and crowd and players celebrate in a way that is instantly familiar and comfortable.
I was at Craven Cottage to catch Fulham v Portsmouth in 2006, and couldn’t help wanting to join the Portsmouth fans, who were making all the noise and – vividly – having all the fun. They turned a seated stand into a terrace, somehow, and caught some of that atmosphere that is gone from grounds now. And it is gone: I fought against the idea for a long time, but there is so much Youtube footage now of ’70s and early ’80s matches, and the sound is quite different, exhilarating and uplifting.
It was what the scriptwriters of Life On Mars finally settled upon as their theme: you need to feel to know that you’re alive. The world can become too safe and unchallenging. And too cold. 23rd March 1901 was a cold day, and the Rugby League match between Halifax and Salford took place with snow piled pitchside in great drifts. But the atmosphere is pure carnival, the action fast and thrilling. Small boys take snow off the fence and ball it to throw at the cameraman. Watching, I want to feel that snow between my fingers, but I’m in suburbia, in August, 106 years later, and can’t.