David Wilkinson’s first film as a director is called The First Film – not as a nod to himself, but in homage to the man he believes invented movies. Edison? No. The Frères Lumière? Non plus. You will never guess, and that is precisely why David made a documentary about Louis le Prince, a Frenchman who fell in love with a Yorkshire lass and moved to Leeds, where he made the world’s very first film.
One of the men vying to make the first film was prolific Bristol inventor William Friese-Greene. He claimed to have filed his patent in 1887, but records show it was 1889, a year after le Prince, and for a double-lens apparatus as, unlike le Prince, he hadn’t invented a single-lens camera.
“Friese-Greene was a liar and a fantasist”, David says, “Replicas of his machines can only manage four frames a second”. Le Prince managed 30 or more.
Through his research, David came across a 1951 English film, The Magic Box. It was supposed to be the star exhibit in the Festival of Britain, but wasn’t finished on time. Dozens of well-known British actors at least made a cameo appearance in it. The script was based on a controversial book by Ray Allister, unfortunately full of inaccuracies and contradictions.
Patriotism over truth!
The UK government didn’t care. Ministers didn’t want the truth to get in the way of a patriotic story.
The first film had to be a British invention, and what’s more, it had to be a Brit who invented it. A Frenchman inventing it in Britain was not good enough. The government fully financed the film, throwing £220,000 at it (£7.7m today), more than for any other film since World War II.
The film was a box-office flop. Proof, if it was needed, that governments should stick to governing and leave the arts to creatives.
Counting all the research, David spent 30 years on and off, making The First Film. The project went on the backburner more than once, after someone wrote a book about it and after Channel 4 made a drama about Louis le Prince focused more on his disappearance than his filmmaking.
David kept coming back to the project though, because he would get so annoyed hearing people laugh at him at Cannes and other film markets when, in answering where he was from, he’d tell them he was from the place The First Film was made – Leeds.
That ‘right, I’ll prove you wrong’ spirit, is probably the key to David’s success. People mocked him when he said, in his 50s, that he wanted to become a director, and that made him all the more determined to do it. He had needed that kind of grit in the early days of his acting career too.
David was talent-spotted while out doing his paper round in Horsforth, the area of Leeds where he was born and grew up. While attending Benton Park Secondary Modern in Rawdon, he delivered the Yorkshire Post in the mornings for 12 shillings a week, and the Yorkshire Evening Post in the evenings for eight shillings a week.
David as a model
One day, the milkman (a family acquaintance) told him he was quite good looking and could do well in modelling. As it happened, he had shares in an agency. David soon began modelling for Bradford-based Grattan’s Catalogues. He would earn three guineas for an afternoon modelling football kit. What boy wouldn’t prefer that to a paper round or two?
The modelling left its imprint, for David is always well turned out – although his wife Amy Roberts, award-winning costume designer for The Crown and myriad other productions – may have something to do with that too.
After his foray into modelling, one of David’s schoolteachers introduced him to the Yeadon Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, and he soon attracted the attention of Leeds-based agent, Vicky Sinclair.
“I’ve got a job as a call boy”, David proudly announced to his parents. “Well, I know what a call girl is”, said his mum, “but I don’t know what a call boy is”. Too young to understand, David was perplexed by his family’s laughter.
From elocution lessons to going on tour
Despite his family’s scepticism David won the role of Ronnie, the boy in the Terence Rattigan play, The Winslow Boy. He had to have elocution lessons, but after that he went on tour. The first tour with veteran British actor Kenneth More ended in disaster, when he was fired after a few weeks.
He thought that he had done something wrong, that he was not good enough. It was only after his father died in 1999 that he found the letter from the production company saying that he was being let go because More thought he was “a working class oik”.
Had he known that at the time, David said it would have driven him into becoming the best British actor of all time, just to prove More wrong. He has certainly had the last laugh now, with first a successful career in acting, producing, distribution, and now writing and directing.
Life as a filmmaker is not all glamour, though. Scraping the money together to make a film is one of the toughest aspects of filmmaking. Fittingly, it was a Leeds man who gave David a break. Keith Loudon, lord mayor of Leeds in 1994, was the first to invest in the film. Eventually it would open in 2015 across 50 cinemas, but it was a battle to get the film made.
The search for a director
The next difficulty was finding a director. The first one asked for one-third of the budget as his salary, when less than 5 percent is more typical. He didn’t last long.
David next approached one of his closest friends to do it. After seeing the rough edit, he backed off. He found the format of two old blokes talking to each other boring and non-filmic, and was not about to risk his reputation on the film.
That’s when David realised it was not only a new director he needed, but also a new editor who would assemble the footage in the way he wanted the story told.
Gradually it dawned on him that he could direct it himself. Gavin Poolman, a film financier who appears in the film, later told him, “You’ve been talking about this for years, you were always the director, the only person who didn’t know it was you!”
The journey David would undertake on this film would not only be one of learning, as he assessed the competing claims to making the first film, but also a psychological one as he discovered his metier, and a physical one, taking him from Leeds to London, to Paris, Dijon and Metz, to New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Memphis.
Leeds at the center of Wilkinson’s films
It is Leeds that is at the film’s heart though. “I include Leeds in all my films”, David says. “Everything I am is informed by Leeds.”
To a certain extent, all David’s films contain a love letter to Leeds. Postcards from the 48% has a scene in a factory that was shot in Leeds. Likewise, in his new film, Getting Away With Murder(s), one of the Holocaust survivors is interviewed in Leeds.
After 31 years of the idea/story being turned down by every single UK broadcaster at least twice, and others around the world, including Netflix, because they thought there was “no interest in the story”, the film was a critical success. It had editorial features on the Today Programme, News at Ten, CBS This Morning, Calendar, Look North. In addition, many other TV, radio and newspapers covered the story, because there was after all great interest in the fact that the world’s first film had been made in Leeds.
Famous in Leeds is a brilliant place to start
One last anecdote will illustrate the impact the film has had. David was filming scenes for his latest film, Getting Away With Murder(s) in Leeds when two schoolchildren took an interest. He overheard one say to the other, “I think he’s famous”.
David was quick to reassure them that he was not famous, but just at that moment a man walked up, asked him if he had made the film about Louis le Prince, thanked him for what he had done for Leeds, shook his hand and walked off, to the utter bemusement of everyone present.
“I told you he was really famous”, said the schoolchild.
Maybe just in Leeds, but that is a wonderful place to start.