The story of Bristol-born film pioneer William Friese-Greene is told in The Magic Box, which was made for the Festival of Britain 70 years ago to celebrate British ingenuity.
Based on Ray Allister's book, Friese-Greene, Close-Up of an Inventor, the film offers fascinating insights into the pursuit of a dream – in this case to invent moving images – and the impact this has on the inventor’s family (Friese-Greene died virtually penniless thanks to his obsession). It’s also a defence of cinema as an art form for the people.
With a stellar cast and a brilliant production team – the film was made by the Boulting brothers and had a screenplay by Eric Ambler – it has been attacked as inaccurate. Although it plays with the facts as all biopics do, it provides a vivid representation of Friese-Greene, both the man and the way he lived his life. And it doesn’t claim that Friese-Greene invented moving pictures; as he says in the film, he was just one of the pioneers.
Terrifically entertaining with an engaging lead role played by Robert Donat, The Magic Box puts forward a great story with a great cast, with many cameo appearances by British stars, including Laurence Olivier playing the policeman who becomes the first member of the public to see Friese-Greene’s motion pictures projected on a screen.
Opening Up the Magic Box – a heritage element of the Film 2021 programme – marks the centenary of the death of Bristol-born film pioneer William Friese-Greene and the 125th anniversary of the first public cinema screening in Bristol, which took place at the Tivoli on 8 June 1896, as well as celebrating Bristol – a UNESCO City of Film since 2017.