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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 April 2006, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
A moving picture postcard
By Simon Ford
Executive producer, The Lost World of Friese-Greene

Girls in Cockington Forge, Devon. Photo: BBC/BFI

In 1926, pioneering film-maker Claude Friese-Greene travelled from Land's End to John O'Groats. His unique film - one of the first in colour - reveals not only how life has changed, but what remains unaltered.

Britain between the world wars enjoyed a golden age, yet it is a period typically captured in monochrome. But a recently restored film from the British Film Institute's vaults puts the colour back into this bygone age.

The Open Road was made by Claude Friese-Greene in 1926 to showcase his new colour filming techniques. Having borrowed a flash convertible, he drove the length of Britain - in the early days of the motor car - making one of the first colour films of Britain.

Like the film-makers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon - whose 100-year-old footage had lain forgotten for decades before being broadcast by the BBC last year - Friese-Greene captured and preserved a documentary portrait of a Britain that has almost passed from living memory.

But whereas Mitchell and Kenyon focussed largely on urban Britons at work and at play, Friese-Greene also recorded life in the countryside.

In colour - five scenes from around the country captured by Friese-Greene in the 1920s

His is a picture postcard view of the nation - quite literally. He wanted to impress movie moguls in order to take his colour filming process to Hollywood, so at each stop would buy scenic postcards and then film from that same vantage point.

To tell the story of how Britain has changed and, surprisingly, how much it has stayed the same, we retraced his steps in order to find the people and places captured on film.

The pretty village of Cockington Forge in Devon is a place that seems just the same as it was 80 years ago. There's a well-kept churchyard, thatched cottages, quiet roads, tea shops - all the Devon clichés.

Small wonder that it was in this picturesque location that Friese-Greene filmed two teenage girls in flapper-style dresses posing coquettishly for the camera. The daughter of one, Pat Williams, told us how her mother came to feature in the film.

"Every year, without fail, [my mum's] parents came to Torquay for a holiday. And sometimes she would come with a friend. Helen was her bosom friend then. They were walking on the promenade in Torquay when this open tourer stopped and a young man leant out.

Photo: BBC/BFI
Walking in Cockington Forge
"He said, 'I wonder if I could ask you two young ladies to come with me to Cockington village?' My grandfather asked what was going on and then this guy said, 'my name's Claude Friese-Greene and I want to take some cine film of the young girl'."

Luckily for Claude, Pat's grandfather was a bit of a film buff, so was only too happy to give them permission to star in what turned out to be a piece of film history.

Although the Cockington scenery remains the same, in these less innocent times getting permission from an anxious guardian would be a good deal more complicated.

Health and safety

Frank Farr of East Budleigh, Devon, was just five or six when Friese-Greene and his camera captured rural life in the village.

But having lived in the area all his life, and run a roadside fruit and veg stall there for 50 years, his local knowledge shows that certain ways of life have now disappeared altogether.

Among the scenes Friese-Green shot in the area, one shows a horse-drawn farm cart being stacked with hay - a haywain - and one of the attendant farmhands is happily swigging from a flagon of cider while he works.

Cider drinking farm worker. Photo: BBC/BFI
A whistle wetted
Frank tells us his friend Herbie recognised the drinker as farm worker Ned Clements: "He was a proper farm worker, you know, a real horseman."

But proper farm workers also liked a proper drink. "Cider? They'd drink a gallon a day. Oh, it's proper farm cider. You won't want much of that. Couple of pints'd turn you over."

Behaviour that would be frowned upon today.

Having followed in Friese-Greene's footsteps, we found that much of the green and pleasant land that he filmed remains unaltered. But while the physical environment is largely recognisable, the social changes have been momentous.

Having watched Friese-Greene's idealised view of Britain, we rather expected the elderly people we spoke would regard it as a rose-tinted lost era. But despite their fond memories in fact, almost universally, they recognised most were much poorer and for the vast majority lives were much harder then.

The Lost World of Friese-Greene is broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Tuesdays from 18 April at 2100 BST.


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