Silent Steve asked me if I had a minute to spare. I did, and we crammed an early – nay, primeval – British comedy short into it. A project from the documentarians of the North, Mitchell and Kenyon, it was one of their forays into drama. Well, comedy. Well, slapstick of a sort. Set in a pond in a park, it is a bit weird, very quick, and Diving Lucy.
The scenario – which’ll take less time to watch than to read: Two chaps are walking strangely through a park. They see a woman’s legs sticking out of a pond. Panic! They rush off-camera and come back with a mighty plank of wood, they knock over a park bench and rest the plank on it, pushing it out to where the legs protrude from the water.
Cue policeman, pompous in his middle years. Plainly a comedy fellow, not wildly respected by the film and I suspect the audience of the day, he crawls out onto the plank, keen to reach the woman, as the original pair provide counterweight on the plank.
Go on, guess where this is going…
He gets to her! Noble copper pulls on the legs and – comedy gasp – they come up in his hands. Just legs. And on them is a sign saying RATS!
And that’s it, except for a final two seconds that I’ll leave unspoilered.
Hmmm. It’s not entirely clear whether this is a practical joke on the copper, but…okay.
Diving Lucy is fast, furious, inventive, and reflects a fresh, funny angle in films. It’s 1903, people. There are no cinemas, so you’ve just caught it in a tent at a fairground or just possibly in some freakish modern contraption in a photographer’s or some such. You may even have caught the filming at the Queen’s Park Boating Lake in Blackburn, England.
The film went down a storm at the time, apparently. Edison and co distributed it across America claiming it was the biggest of hits in England. Which, given I’ve had longer coughing fits, is a bit of a claim.
So, Silent Steve made the cheery point that this represents the UK’s place in the earliest films. People were busy in France, beginning to give it a go in the States, but the UK was also a hub of small, sharp, pointed shorts – pantomimic, dramatic, or funny. They did enough to kick-start a film industry some decades before the glories of Ealing, Donat, Mills, Carry On and production support on all the decent blockbusters at the turn of the next century.
And isn’t it a bit of a relief to see something being in-your-face funny, anti-establishment and a bit strange (“RATS”? Really, guys? What was that about?), and not trapped in a studio using jump-cuts and fades to animate old stage acts? Mitchell and Kenyon, those electric Edwardians, made their names through filming locals leaving factories and charging them to look at themselves later that day. Their films were stuck in the basement of their shop, lost, for eighty years. Recovered by chance, resurrected by intense care at the British Film Institute, they make old Jack here feel very young indeed. For their local-people films bring back stories from my Grandpa Gus, and the comedy nails the value of a good laugh from decades before I was born.
Scroll down and give it another go. The pompous copper is the pompous…old…us.
Oh – lesson to the long dead: don’t mention the ending in the opening titles. Even if it is deeply odd.