MAGDALEN STREET AND THE MAGIC BOX MAN by Stuart McLaren

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When the old Botolph Street Odeon in Norwich screened ‘The Magic Box’ in 1951 as part of the British film industry’s contribution to the Festival of Britain, it is unlikely anyone remembered that the subject of the biopic, the pioneer cinematographer and inventor William Friese-Greene, had once worked on his ground-breaking inventions in a dusty attic just round the corner in Magdalen Street.

Born plain William Edward Green in 1855, the son of a Bristol metalworker, William Friese-Greene adopted his more memorable professional name after marriage to his first wife Helena Friese, the daughter of a German baron, in 1874. During the last quarter of the 19th century he worked obsessively with a series of engineers, entrepreneurs and inventors to transform the fair-ground novelty magic lantern show into true moving pictures. ‘Movement is life’, he wrote in 1889. ‘Moving pictures will satisfy something deep inside all the people in the world.’ He had just patented a movie camera that could take ten photographs per second using celluloid film. Although the Lumière Brothers in France and Thomas Edison in the USA claimed to have invented the movie camera he was first. Not content with this, before the century ended he had also begun to develop a moving colour film system he called Biocolour.

In 1905, Ernest Priest, an optician and watchmaker originally from Leeds, opened a watch repair shop at 129 Magdalen Street, Norwich, a bustling but poor area in the northern part of the city. The building, which no longer exists, was located on the eastern side of the street on the north side of present-day junction with Magdalen Close. Fortunately, a photograph of the building and its attics much as they had been in Friese-Greene’s era was taken by George Plunkett in 1936 when the premises had become the Norfolk Farm Produce Stores. In the attics above the shop Priest and Friese-Greene worked together for two years trying to turn Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system into commercially viable colour movie film stock.

Many years later Priest’s son Harold recalled visits to the attics, “a horrible little place .. the windows all broken” and the moving colour film he saw there of girls dressed as tulips dancing “the loveliest dance I have ever seen; dancing and waving their dresses … like flowers in the wind”. [i] Despite this captivating memory the young Harold thought Friese-Greene was “up the pole” and he was not approved of either by Mrs Priest who regarded her husband’s business partnership with him as a money pit unlikely ever to turn a profit.

If there is one thing Friese-Greene’s biographers agree on, he was a hopeless business man and by 1907 his partnership with Ernest Priest had fallen apart. In 1912 Priest collaborated in the opening of the first purpose-built cinema in Norwich, the Cinema Palace, in Magdalen Street, just over the road from his old watch-repair shop and the attic where he had once worked with one of cinema’s greatest pioneers. Friese-Greene died in 1921, bankrupt and largely forgotten by the British public and the film industry until the release of ‘The Magic Box’ directed by John Boulting and starring Robert Donat was released 30 years later.

For more on the remarkable life of William Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinematography see the blog ‘William Friese-Greene & Me’ by Peter Domankiewicz (https://friesegreene.com)

[i] Quoted in The Picture House in East Anglia, Stephen Peart (Terence Dalton, Lavenham, 1980), pp. 18–19.

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