Frank Gray, film historian and archivist
Frank Gray massively developed film studies and film research resources at the University of Brighton, where he worked for over thirty-five years, providing a centre-point for film history and culture in the South East of England and an international impetus to early film history research, including Magic Lantern technologies and the Brighton School.
As a lecturer in art and film history in the 1980s, Frank Gray devised and taught a range of course units on aspects of European modernism and British and American cinema, and always worked to emphasise the inter-relationships across the visual arts and the importance of the social and economic contexts. In 1992 a consortium of local authorities and the University of Brighton created the South East Film & Video Archive, a public sector regional film archive for the region. This was renamed Screen Archive South East in 2006 and, with a background as a film and art historian, Frank Gray became its first director.
Since its early years, the archive staff have built a collection for public and scholarly use and developed a programme of public activities. Research was from the start an essential part of the archive’s work as every item in the collection needed to be investigated in terms of its history of production, exhibition and its relationship to ‘history’.
Most of the films in the Screen Archive South East collection are works of amateur non-fiction and, because of their regional character, they are intriguing representations of place, period and lives. Frank Gray was fascinated by the way selected films from the collection might be combined with relevant commercially-made feature films in order to analyse the range of representations of one place. He developed an exhibition which explored, for the first time in 2002, the many representations of Brighton on film through materials drawn from the collections of Lord Attenborough, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, the British Film Institute and the South East Film & Video Archive. The exhibition and the catalogue essays focussed on the many feature films associated with the city and considered how they have contributed to popular understandings of Brighton’s history and its character. They revealed the critical value of exploring the popular mythologies that develop through the fictionalisation of a particular place and the dialectical relationship between such fictions and ‘actual’ histories.
The films, as Frank Gray showed, became a site for extreme emotions and conflicts found within narratives that were always set either on the seafront with or at the Royal Pavilion. The everyday world of Brighton, the Brighton as lived behind the seafront by its residents, had either little or no part to play in these ‘big-screen’ identities. In fact, it could be argued that these Brighton films were not about Brighton at all, as they were vehicles, contrivances, for the expression of popular anxieties, concerns and desires. As such, they transcended the specificities of place and particular histories and become projections of what could be described as a national unconscious. As N Richardson reviewed in the Daily Telegraph 20/4/2002: “… I left this clever exhibition pondering the uncomfortable truth that Brighton had been appropriated and rather misrepresented by outsiders.”
Following the exhibition of Brighton on Film, Frank Gray, together with Tim Brown, created the city’s film festival, CineCity. From 2003, it became the South East’s most significant film festival with an identity is shaped by interest in city cultures and their representation by the moving image.
Frank Gray curated many exhibitions annually for CineCity, with record numbers attending, notably the 35,000+ who visited the Jan Švankmajer exhibition at the University of Brighton Gallery in October and November 2013. During his career, he developed large scale exhibitions in the city’s galleries, tirelessly bringing aspects of film studies and the growing collection of Screen Archive South East to the public. His curation of the exhibition Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder for Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, for example, focused on the emergence of ‘colour’ in moving images from the 1890s to the digital present, with particular emphasis on hand-colouring, stencilling and additive processes at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the later developments of three-strip Technicolor and Kodachrome – the first true colour film.
Frank Gray’s work on the ‘Brighton School’, the work of the early English film-makers George Albert Smith (1864-1959) and James Williamson (1855-1933) was a major focus of his research. During the years 1897 to 1901, when film was emerging as a new technology and as a new form of entertainment, Smith and Williamson made significant contributions to the early development of both film editing and narrative film as well as the development of coloured film, and were at the forefront of Britain’s contribution to the birth of film language.
George Albert Smith (1864-1959) established his ‘film factory’ at Hove in 1897 and it was here that he produced his major films. For this work, he drew upon his knowledge of contemporary music hall, theatre, pantomime, popular literature, mesmerism, the magic lantern and film-making in Europe and America. Smith made two very significant examples of the edited film: The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) and Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900) demonstrating a new understanding of continuity film editing and signalling the end of the unedited, single shot film that had been the dominant mode of film production since 1893. James Williamson’s early work drew on aspects of contemporary English life and current events such as the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion. Inspired by George Smith’s concept of the shot and the edited sequence, he produced his first multi-shot narrative films: Attack on a China mission (1900) and Fire! (1901).
Frank Gray’s archive created, in partnership with Hove Museum & Art Gallery, a study collection at Hove of films and objects (such as cameras and projectors) related to the history of the Brighton School. This work led in 2003 to the opening of a new gallery devoted to these film pioneers. He also pioneered research into early ‘Magic Lantern’ cultures in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The magic lantern as a medium and as a cultural phenomenon represents a distinct screen practice that has developed systematically from its origins in the seventeenth century to the present day. The late nineteenth century marks that moment when the lantern had its greatest cultural capital. What is obvious and crucial to an analysis of this history is that it presents the visualisation and narrativisation of sets of related images, enlarged and projected onto a screen for an audience. Frank Gray employed historically informed description and analysis that positioned lantern practice and culture within a defined ideological context and locateed it within particular moments of production and consumption. Drawing upon Screen Archive South East’s unique collection of lantern slides and publications acquired from the Church Army in 2009, Frank Gray developed ‘Mission on screen’, an empirical investigation into the public work of the Church Army and its use of the magic lantern and the cinematograph around 1900.
As an early film historian, Frank Gray’s research has investigated systematically the history and the cultural, economic and technological nature of early film production and consumption in Brighton from 1895-1914. During his career at the Polytechnic and later the University of Brighton, Frank Gray was an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellow, a member of the AHRC’s Peer Review College, a co-director of Cinecity (the Brighton Film Festival) and a Brighton & Hove Arts Commissioner. In 2012 he was elected the Chair of Film Archives UK – the national organisation that represents the UK’s public sector moving image archives. He retired in 2023.