We’re digging back into the world of old movies, as we celebrate the short films of 125 years ago, that offered a glimpse into a whole different era.
On my way to a Victorian London landmark – Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel – I climbed aboard a bus. Luckily for me, it was relatively empty, and I could occupy everyone’s favourite seat: the top front seat. A window to the merry sites of the capital was they stride by. With music bouncing jovial in my ear, I could drift into a hapless daydream.
A few stops into my journey, a family of tourists boarded and rushed excitedly up the stairs, choosing the empty seats next to me. I’ve been a Londoner long enough for this to bristle somewhat within me, longingly looking at other end of the bus as it remained vacant and unused. I shuffled closer to the window.
Then, the youngest girl of the group, pulled out a mobile phone, pressed record, and focused on the scene unfolding before her. The little device captured the treasures as this city unfolded before us. The Strand, Fleet Street, St Paul’s Cathedral, Monument. A momentous journey for someone new to this vast and vibrant town.
The presence of the phone made me smile. For as innocuous as it may have seemed, I couldn’t help but think back to the 1890s. To a series of videos made popular by the Victorians.
They were called Phantom Rides.
The idea is simple enough – a camera sits atop a vehicle and records the journey.
As a viewer, you watch as though you are in the front seat. A complete exhilaration.
What Phantom Rides offered during the Victorian and Edwardian eras was a window into worlds beyond their own. Filmmakers from across the globe began to compile footage as such. From the Peak Tramway in Hong Kong to the mountainous tracks in France, and even boat rides in India, these films could help folk travel to distant lands, and view astonishing sites, from the comfort of cinemas and exhibitions. Phantom Rides were an extraordinary point of view journey.
Closer to home, Phantom Rides showcased anyone from the working class through to the middle-class people, and then to the upper classes, in different cities across the United Kingdom. As people lined up on tram and train tracks to watch the camera glide by, these films were a window into the walks of life that others may not have seen.
My particular favourite is a short film called Tram Rides Through Nottingham. Filmed in 1902 by filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon, the short film pretty much does exactly what it says, for six minutes. The directors have mounted a camera on the front of the tram.
The reason I love this so much is not so much the entire journey, as fascinating as that is, but the two men you encounter at the beginning of film. They are in the tram below, friends perhaps, and they spot the camera and politely tip their hats to it. Within seconds they are waving wildly before they turn back to their conversation. However, upon realising the camera is still filming, they resume waving until their tram takes-off and pulls them out of view.
It is in this moment when you realise that humans haven’t really changed throughout history. These small fragments of the past – captured in the Victorian or Edwardian era, show behaviours we see now. Whether it is two men greeting the camera, or children curiously running up to see what is being filmed, or even factory workers swearing at the machine, jostling their more embarrassed friends in front of screen. In these moments, as simple as they may seem, humanity stretches over the centuries divide. You can see yourself in those faces as they become alive as they were when they were first filmed.
Though this craze was short lived, as film progressed into narrative structures, Phantom Rides were still, and continue to be featured. 1977’s Rollercoaster combined ride footage with Sensurround, to give the viewer a sense of the shaking and vibration at the front of the eponymous vehicle. Even Gerard Butler’s more recent adventure Plane (2023) had scenes from the cockpit, showing us the intensity of flying a jumbo jet.
And it is clear this love extends across the decades and centuries, and even beyond movie magic, people are wowed by a simple journey through a different country and city. So much so that they’ll prop their phone up and capture the wonders, so they can revisit for many years afterwards.
I think our Victorian ancestors would be proud.
You can watch Phantom Rides on the BFIPlayer for free.
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