The 20s and 30s in Colour

Long-term readers will know that I’ve been searching for pre-War colour photography of English football. So far, I’ve found almost none. That “almost” refers to the Friese-Greene trip to Cardiff in 1924, which took in a visit to Fratton Park, where the Cardiff City captain was filmed standing motionless in the stands. The skipper’s baby son was filmed playing football, badly and unhappily, and that remains the earliest British colour footage of the game. I haven’t come across any autochrome or prewar Kodachrome, Agfacolor etc. stills at all.

So I wasn’t expecting any great football revelations from the BBC series “The Thirties in Colour.” Nor were there any, although what there was was quite jaw-dropping enough for anybody. Spoiled, yes, by the excessive use of talking heads, and spoiled too by the shrewish, nagging voiceover which couldn’t contain itself about the ineradicable wealthiness of the filmmakers, or about said filmmakers’ inexplicable inability to make Marxist forecasts about the future.

The first episode featured the (excellent) work of a woman who happened to be an aristocrat – colour film was expensive technology at that time – and in the first half of the programme, covering the late 1930s, she could do no right: “failing” to see that her world was about to fall apart, “not registering” the drums of war, to say nothing about all the usual guff about dilletantes and snobs and so forth.

When war does break out, our dilletante immediately seeks to put herself at the service of the country, and the country decides that the best thing she can do is use her skills with colour photography to record what is happening. She spends the Blitz wherever the danger was greatest. Those oft-repeated colour clips of blazing warehouses and offices that you’ve seen are all hers. Of this undoubted courage and determination the voiceover says nothing. Nor does it reflect that there may be something wrong with its earlier assessment of her as a Wodehouse female in an ivory tower. A shameful performance, and a tone that occurs in almost every part of every programme. Buy the DVD, but watch it with the sound off.

Despite all this, the series has helped me in forming some ideas about why there appears to be no colour footage of prewar football.

  • Purpose I was confused initially by the fact that monochrome film cameras had found there way into football grounds in a big way within months of cinema’s invention. The first film of football dates from 1897, certainly no later than 1898 when the first documented match was filmed (Blackburn v WBA). Mitchell and Kenyon turned their lenses onto literally hundreds of Edwardian games. So why, when colour cinema came into existence, didn’t this happen again? I think part of the answer lies in what the pioneers in each case were looking for. Remember that stills film capable of capturing fast movement appeared at the same time, give a year or two, as cinema. What the cine pioneers wanted, above all, was movement, action. Only five years earlier, they’d have wanted the opposite: stillness and time to make an exposure. Now, suddenly, they needed crowds, bustle, speed – and that meant cities and it meant street scenes and factory gates and it meant football, as novel and as unknown as cinematography itself. But when colour photography and film arrived, the novelty was in getting away from monochrome. Colour itself was what you wanted, and that meant nature, native costume, blue skies and crystal seas.
  • Professionalism Most of that Victorian and Edwardian monochrome football footage was made by the people who were in the process of creating what by the mid-twenties had become the cinema industry. All of those Mitchell and Kenyon matches were merely part of the nascent industry finding its way, finding its audience. By the time colour arrived, the industry and the audience were mature; as with the arrival of sound, the new technology could join an existing stream. Most of the radical exploration of the new genre’s possibilities would be done either by wealthy amateurs – who would seek out colourful, rather than movement-filled, scenes – or by young filmmakers at the start of their careers, the likes of Jack Cardiff, who’d go on to work with Powell and Pressburger.
  • Cinema By the 1920s, football film coverage had found its level, at least for the pre-television time being. The likes of British Pathe would work a soccer clip into a cinema news bulletin. These clips were throwaway stuff in the sense that, although archived by the company, it was forseen that they’d be good only for one viewing. No more money would be spent on it than necessary – and these films would remain monochrome into the 1960s.

In short, football was an obvious target for film when both football and film itself were brand new. Latterly, it’s been an obvious target because the cine camera has been compressed into mobile phones. But colour film’s area of experiment wasn’t movement and action, as was the case with the Lumieres, Edison, or Mitchell and Kenyon. It was colour itself – and, regrettably, that meant going not to interesting places like the Chapman/Allison Highbury or Jimmy Hogan’s Aston Villa, but the hackneyed predictable tedium of India or Vesuvius erupting.

The maturity of the film industry of the 1930s put the job of random experimentation with colour film into the hands of the wealthy or the ambitious, which means that we have colour footage of polo – not a bad game, just an expensive one – but not soccer. Perhaps things would have been different if our major team sports had been more college-based as in the USA, where colour footage of college football goes back to 1940. But by the 1930s, British football had turned itself into a ghetto entertainment, run by the industrial lower middle classes at the expense of working men and women: the novelty and glamour that might have drawn the curious with colour film was long over.

When Alastair Cooke first went to America, he colour-filmed the place into the ground. Surely an American Alastair Cooke, over here, would have done the same, and he’d have had to have gone to a match. US troops in England during the Second World War certainly did: if any footage at all survives of the soccer of this period, I suspect it’s in the basement of a US Army officer’s great-grandchildren. I hope they don’t just throw it away.


2 Replies to “The 20s and 30s in Colour”

  1. Some excellent colour footage of Bradford City dating from the 1940s was unearthed about 10 years ago, found in the attic of a former club director’s house. The films show a 1943 wartime fixture at Oakwell against Barnsley, and 1944 visit by Newcastle United to Valley Parade. These were released on VHS by the club shortly afterwards. I understand this is the oldest known surviving colour footage of a football match anywhere in the world.
    The camera does struggle with the encroaching darkness as the afternoon passes in the Barnsley sequence (it was filmed in October) but it is fascinating to see a match from that era so vividly. The green of the pitch and the colour of the playing strips contrast remarkably with the greys and browns of the crowd and the surrounding grim industrial landcape – which still look as monochrome as if filmed in black and white.

    The Barnsley match can be obtained on DVD here:

  2. Thanks Carl – that’s just what I’ve been looking for. Sounds like it might be Dufaycolour – look forward to finding out. Fantastic stuff.

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