Two decades ago, a cache of historic films was discovered in the basement of a Blackburn photographer’s shop, hidden away in sealed metal churns.
Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon’s films had been largely forgotten for nearly a century, but these pioneers of film are known far and wide again now.
And the pair are currently the focus of a play premiering at the Dukes in Lancaster.
The Life and Times of Mitchell & Kenyon celebrates these ‘factory-gate’ film-makers, who showed audiences the world as they’d never seen it before, creating cinema history along the way.
The play – at the Dukes from April 19 to May 10, then Oldham’s Coliseum Theatre from May 15 to 31 – is the brainchild of award-winning director Amy Leach, originally from Darwen and an associate artist at the Dukes.
It has a cast of just five – Gareth Cassidy, Liam Gerrard, Christopher Wright, Jo Mousley and David Westbrook – and was written by Daragh Carville.
Armagh-born Daragh, 45, based in Lancaster for seven years, is a rising star in theatre and screenwriting circles.
His first feature film Middleton (2009,) starring Matthew Macfadyen, Daniel Mays and Eva Birthistle, was seen as one of the Irish films of the decade.
His second, Cherrybomb – starring Rupert Grint, Robert Sheehan and James Nesbitt – won the 2009 Audience Award at the Belfast Film Festival.
Daragh’s writing credits also include the BBC’s Being Human.
Now he’s aiming to bring Mitchell and Kenyon back to life, telling the story of their unique film-making partnership.
The visionary pair made ‘local films for local people’, and are now regarded as a national treasure. Daragh is a huge fan.
He said: “I’ve always been interested in social history and early cinema and theatre, and was captivated by The Lost World of Mitchell & Kenyon documentary series.
“So when Amy Leach came to me with this idea around three years ago, I said yes almost immediately.
“There’s been a huge amount written about the films, but not a lot is known about Mitchell and Kenyon and what kind of people they were.
“That gave me a lot of freedom to invent my own characters. This isn’t a documentary, but more an imaginative recreation of their world.
“It’s a new departure for me, but I’m relishing the opportunity. It’s the first play I’ve written with songs in it, but in a sense they penned themselves.
“While researching I started writing, and very quickly the characters started speaking in rhyme, directly addressing the audience, and singing.
“I’d never written anything like that before, but it just felt right. It’s been an organic process, dictated by these characters and the world they operated in.
“It’s been a lot of fun and hugely exciting, and Amy is fantastic, casting five amazing, really inventive actors, with an atmosphere where everyone’s happy to throw in ideas.
“Mitchell and Kenyon honoured the people they filmed and gave them a certain respect and dignity, and I want this play to honour them in the same way.”
Daragh aims to invoke the spirit of the music hall era in which Mitchell and Kenyon made their mark, in a show packed with songs, humour and – thanks to the British Film Institute National Archive – clips from their films.
He said: “While produced in the music hall tradition, it’s very much a 21st-century show.
“We only have a cast of five, but they play an enormous number of characters, around 40, with a similar number of scene changes.
“It’s quite an undertaking, and we’ve been running through the songs and choreography, too. It’s not a traditional musical, but songs and music play a big part.
“We’re talking the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, before permanent cinemas existed, with films shown on the fairground circuit, in circus tents, along with jugglers, clowns and acrobats.
“A little later they started to be shown in music halls, but again were just part of the bill of lots of other attractions.
“This show takes its point of departure from that, so it felt to me quite quickly that this show needed music in it, and a degree of magic.
“It’s not a straightforward costume drama. It’s almost a variety show, yet one that tells the story of these men and the work they did.
“Then there are the films themselves, also a big part of the show. There’s a lot to get right.”
Lancaster’s Imitating the Dog theatre company plays a key part, projecting stunning video designs on to the set,
Daragh added: “Innovative filming methods were important to Mitchell and Kenyon, so it’s fitting to work with people at the cutting edge of film technology, using the very latest video techniques.”
Mitchell and Kenyon made their name by giving ordinary folk their moment of fame in that late Victorian period and Edwardian era.
They set out from Blackburn and travelled nationwide, filming people as they left factories and enjoyed leisure time in seaside resorts such as Morecambe and Blackpool.
The films were originally aired at fairs, theatres and other venues, where people could spot themselves, their family and friends on the big screen.
Daragh said: “I don’t think they thought of themselves as artists or pioneers. They were businessmen.
“They tended to pack each film with as many faces as possible, because each was a potential paying customer.
“If you’d been filmed, chances were you’d come along that night and pay to see yourself.
“They were canny operators, but created something that lasted, and still touches and moves people over 100 years later.”
After their heyday, these iconic pieces were largely forgotten until that 1994 discovery, something else the play focuses on.
Daragh said: “The actual story of the rediscovery, in the disused basement of a shop in Blackburn, is part of the magic.
“Because of the nature of early film, they were highly unstable, dangerous, and could have gone up in flames at the drop of a hat.
“The fact they survived, hidden away in the dark, for all that time and were then brought back to life, is very moving.
“The play tells Mitchell and Kenyon’s own story, but also that story of how the films were recovered. We felt it very important to do justice to that as well.”
The rediscovered films were donated to the BFI, which together with the University of Sheffield’s National Fairground Archive, restored and researched 800 camera negatives.
Last month, Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the latter – and born on Morecambe’s Winter Gardens fairground – hosted a presentation of films at the Dukes featuring the Lancaster and Morecambe district, with live musical accompaniment.
Daragh added: “Vanessa is the world’s leading expert on the films, and we had a packed house. The audience responded in an extraordinary way to these films. They are now well over 100 years old, but still exert a magical, deep connection.”
As it’s a co-production between the Dukes and the Coliseum, the cast have rehearsed at both sites.
Daragh added: “The Coliseum was an old music hall, founded in 1887, with people like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel playing there. It feels like an appropriate setting, because the play is so steeped in that tradition.”
Those rehearsals meant daily commutes for Daragh between Lancaster and Oldham, in what he sees as prime Mitchell and Kenyon country.
“Each day I’ve passed Hollinwood, and one of my favourite films in the collection shows workers leaving a factory there.
“It’s a film we use in the show, with a lot of young ‘half-timers’ in it, playing up to the camera, from which you get a real sense of their character.
“During the development of the film, we kept returning to that film. It’s formed an integral part.”
The wealth of Mitchell and Kenyon material featuring the Lancaster and Morecambe area also helped Daragh warm to his task.
“One of the moments when the project clicked for me was seeing a film taken on Moor Lane, Lancaster, of workers leaving the Storey factory.
“It’s now student accommodation, just up the street from the Dukes and from where I live.
“It seemed extraordinary that these men stood on that spot and made that film, one I walk past every time I go to the Dukes.
“It felt like I was almost being given permission. There are those moments when you think that’s something a little special. It’s coincidence really, but there’s a certain magic to coincidence.
“Another favourite is a film we also use, featuring a walk along the promenade at Morecambe, another area I know well.
“Seeing it in 1901 on a summer’s day, is incredibly moving, looking into another world. Again, there’s this extraordinary power to the films.”
So just what is it that’s so special about these rediscovered films?
“I think it’s the fact that we’re allowed to see in beautiful detail the lives of people who otherwise weren’t recorded by history. Apart from birth, death, marriage and census records, there’s little trace of these individuals.
“Somehow it feels like the films restore a kind of dignity to those people who would otherwise be forgotten.”
n Tickets for the Dukes run are £8 to £19.50 (including a £1 per ticket fee when booking online), calling 01524 598500 or visiting www.dukes-lancaster.org. To book tickets for the Oldham Coliseum, priced £10.50 to £18.50, call 0161 624 2829 or visit www.coliseum.org.uk.