In 1924 Claude Friese-Greene (cinematographer and son of moving-image pioneer William) embarked on an intrepid road trip from Land's End to John O'Groats. He recorded his journey on film, using an experimental colour process. Entitled The Open Road, this remarkable travelogue was conceived as a series of 26 short episodes, to be shown weekly at the cinema.
When first exhibited at trade shows in 1925, Claude's colour process attracted the following comment: 'The Open Road, as the excellent series of English, Scottish and Welsh beauty spots and industrial glimpses is called, represents a big advance... it is easily the best approximation to natural hues yet seen here, many of the examples attaining what is surely perfection... in some respects the greatest British contribution to screen progress for years.'
The 'New All British Friese-Greene Natural Colour Process' represented the culmination of experiments in the development of colour film begun by Claude's father, William Friese-Greene. The enthusiastic reviews did not lead to success in persuading others to use the system - there were inherent flaws. This was a two-colour successive frame process, with alternative frames tinted red and blue-green. When projected at 24 frames per second, the two colours combined to create the illusion of natural colour through persistence of vision. The major problems were flicker and fringing of the colour during rapid movements within a scene. Although seen as a technological achievement, no further development took place.
The original negatives of The Open Road were deposited with the BFI for preservation in the late 1950s. The nature of the colour process presented a considerable challenge in terms of preserving the original nitrate negatives and creating viewable material. In addition, the content (some three hours in total) was unedited and when viewed did not follow any chronological order. The transfer of the film onto tape enabled the content to be logged and reassembled in a coherent form so that the journey could be recreated.
Following the BBC's three-part documentary, co-produced with the BFI The Lost World of Friese-Greene, the BFI National Archive has restored a special 65-minute compilation of highlights from the journey, using digital intermediate technology to remove the technical defects of the original.
The Open Road is important both as a landmark in the development of colour on film and as a fascinating social record of inter-war Britain. The journey, from Land's End to John O'Groats and back to London, was made in a Vauxhall D type. The travelogue format provided the ideal way to profile the colour process - the natural world was more of a challenge than the contrived studio set, featuring iconic landmarks that would be instantly recognisable to the audience.
The car sets out from Land's End and the first startling image is that of the artist Lamorna Birch at work in Lamorna Cove. St Michael's Mount and St Ives follow before arriving at Plymouth. The journey continues through South Devon depicting picture postcard villages and seaside resorts, then on to Exmoor where a hunt is in progress, Wells Cathedral and the beach at Weston-super-Mare.
In Cardiff we see the city centre from the top of a tram, a student rag and the Docks. Cardiff Castle shows a fine example of Claude's use of red and blue-green subjects to illustrate the colour process - the little girl in a red coat and hat climbs steps where peacocks wander into shot. In direct contrast, the mining villages provide a means to experiment with time-lapse photography.
The Wedgwood Pottery provides the only internal sequence in the film - the potter at his wheel and the ladies at work in the painting room.The Pleasure Beach at Blackpool provides fascinating images of the popular resort, followed by the more robust activities of the climbers at Borrowdale.
In Scotland Claude celebrates the art of the weavers at Kilbarchan before moving on to the industrial heart of Glasgow (featuring shipbuilding on the Clyde), the shores of Loch Lomond, Stirling Castle and the harbour at Oban. A wonderful panning shot of the bay then leads into close-ups of the fish market and the herring girls at work.
We reach the most northerly point of the journey at John O'Groats, with an elderly gatekeeper showing the way up to the entrance of the famous John O'Groats Hotel.
On the return south, Edinburgh - where we visit the animals in the Zoo - is the last city before the final leg takes us back to London with its instantly recognisable sights.
This restoration, made possible through the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen Charity, remains true to the original colour while using the latest technology to create a clearer image with a remarkable reduction in the flicker and colour fringing. We hope that a whole new generation of film-goers will now be able to experience and enjoy this remarkable footage on the big screen, and that the original publicity from 1925 still holds true:
'These beautiful novelties will make your audience gasp with wonder and keep your patrons talking about them for weeks.'
Jan Faull, Archive Producer, BFI
With thanks to the Eric-Anker Petersen Charity