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The detective work in David Nicholas Wilkinson’s The First Film is amateur in the best, most shining sense. He loves his obsession; he can’t afford to hire a Sherlock Holmes; but by the end of this hunt for the man alleged to have made literally “the first film” — Leeds-dwelling expatriate Frenchman Louis Le Prince — we are gripping the seat arms, saying “Oh let it be so!”
The flickery seconds of the single-lens film — four people balletically playing the fool in an English garden — date from 1888, putting Edison, Lumière and Co in the latecomers’ shade.
Wilkinson, our director and guide, is a bit Victorian himself (bird’s nest beard). He stomps around the UK, the US and France interrogating the expert, the semi-expert and those shyly startled that anyone is still interested. Le Prince himself disappeared without trace after boarding a train in 1890. Dropped dead? Murdered by Edison’s thugs? It’s a Holmes case better than many of Holmes’s. And I wouldn’t swap Wilkinson’s dapper monomania for even Sherlock’s sure-footed expertise.