16 August 2017



Frank Percy Smith (1880-1945) was one helluva fascinating character. I'd never heard of him before doing this review, but now I'm all gung-ho about spreading the word so that other people can see for themselves what a genius he was.

He was a British naturalist, born in the Victorian era when loads of English folks were mad into science and natural history and, when you went on a visit to the Natural History Museum, you'd see all these wonderful specimens of animal-and-plant-life under these sort of glass cloche things, like what you'd serve the dinner under.

The Victorian era was certainly an exciting one for science and biology, although Smith continued working up until his death from suspected coal gas poisoning in 1945. He wasn't just a brilliant and highly enthusiastic naturalist either, with the endless patience required to wait interminably for Mother Nature to reveal herself, as it were. Ooooh, that sounds quite saucy! I can see Mother Nature sexily peeling off her stockings and unfastening her suspenders for a lascivious camera-man who's breathing rather heavily, haha.

Smith was also an inventor and a pioneering film-maker as well, who came of age when the cinema itself was in its infancy. He loved to film his specimens of plant-life and insect-life under the microscope, and he was even able to fiddle about with household items to make his own cameras and things. 

He made a load of brilliant nature movies for BRITISH INSTRUCTIONAL FILMS at a time when there was huge demand for that type of thingHe certainly ticks all the boxes for 'eccentric British inventor-type,' doesn't he?

I pity his poor wife, though, who must have witnessed many a meal going cold and many a chore going undone while her hubby slaved out in his shed for days on end capturing the life cycle of a newt on camera. 

She must have absolutely despaired of him at times, maybe even wanted to beat him over the head with his own microscope, haha. The poor woman! There's a story told about how he kept working even while bombs were dropping on his street during World War Two, oblivious to the danger. There's dedication for you...!

Remember Gussie Fink-Nottle, from the excellent television series JEEVES AND WOOSTER starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie? Gussie was a posh English twit who was positively obsessed with newts. Studying up on their habits was his porno, as it were.

It didn't seem to affect his love life unduly adversely, though, which is kind of strange. He was always falling head-over-heels in love with loud horsey ladies and they with him. Which just goes to show that general eccentricity is no deterrent to the determined, marriage-minded lady, and that there are women out there for even the most self-absorbed of wackos and nut-jobs. I expect that's reassuring to know, for the wackos and nut-jobs, that is...!

Anyway, what I'm promoting today is a real treat for lovers of both nature and also of early cinematic techniques. F. Percy Smith was a genius with a camera, apparently, and he pioneered all sorts of marvellous ways to capture the living world under the microscope, a world that starts with the simplest of single-cell organisms and goes on to explode into a veritable orgasm of life finding a way, as we're told that life usually does.

Some of Smith's original footage of life-under-the-microscope has been combined with fabulous new music from some people called tindersticks to create a black-and-white documentary film, some fifty-five or so minutes long, which makes for mind-blowing watching.

It's hard to describe this extraordinary film to people who haven't seen it so, while I was watching it, I jotted down the words that came to mind when I observed Smith's images and listened to the haunting, dreamlike musical score. Here, in a pretty much unedited version, are these very words for you lucky, lucky people. Don't say I never give ye anything...!

Day of the Triffids
Erotic mating rituals
Seth Brundle Brundle-Fly Jeff Goldblum Geena Davis
Pepperoni slices
Luminous dancing twisting entwining
Chill-out music Space-age music
The music you hear when aliens are stepping onto Earth for the first time
Millions of tiny people waving waving waving at me
Should I wave back I feel like I want to they seem nice
Not the kind to presume upon an acquaintance
Slime mould spreading outwards
Broccoli trees Cubby Broccoli
Throbbing pulsating it looks like blood
Blood coursing around veins looks like motorways intersecting with each other
Things bleeding into each other
Tiny buds look like alien faces
Plant curling its tentacles around another plant stifling it smothering it I can't breathe
Buds blossoming and opening like a vagina like a flower a flower-vagina
Bees ravishing flowers circle of life
Slug-shaped structure dancing
Shimmying seductively to the music
Stripper music strip-tease music
I say, chaps, where's the stripper pole?
Styrofoam bubbles
Synchronised swimmers
Little swimmers
Sperm-egg graphics
Little swimmers make life
Evolving Pokemon Pokemon evolving
Glossy little gem-stones give me glossy little gem-stones in a ring on my finger
Alien fingers pointing pointing at me don't point that thing at me
Frogspawn looks like semolina pudding a good reason for not eating it
As if you needed another one
Frogspawn and tadpole shapes
Foetus shapes alien shapes
Baby lizard and two lizards chatting
Chatting newts too
Yo-yos swirling
Fly proboscis the proboscis of the fly
Dramatic ritual
The lavish spectacle of the dance
F. Percy Smith
Nature Unveils Herself
To you

I should be The Poet Laurie Ate in no time after this little effort, haha. Anyway, MINUTE BODIES: THE INTIMATE WORLD OF F. PERCY SMITH is available to buy now in a Dual Format Edition from the BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE or the BFI. It comes complete with some absolutely spiffing extra features, including but not limited to... you guessed it... THE LIFE CYCLE OF THE NEWT...!

About the music
The film and its musical score evolved over a three year period. The music was created from a loose collective of invited musicians. With tindersticks at its heart, it also greatly benefits from the involvement of Thomas Belhom (Percussion) and Christine Ott (Ondes Martenot and Piano). There are also cameos from David Coulter (Musical saw and Nose flute) and Julian Siegel (Saxophone). It was recorded and mixed at the band’s studio in France.

Stuart A. Staples, director
Writer, singer, producer and founding member of the band tindersticks, formed in 1992. At the helm of ten tindersticks studio albums to date, as well as seven film soundtracks for renowned French director Claire Denis. The band have been regulars in the concert halls of Europe over the last 22 years, playing often with orchestras and guest musicians and vocalists. Their music has been used variously in art installations, dance and theatre projects, numerous films and TV productions and fashion shows.

More recently Stuart has been creating the orchestral soundscapes for the In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium and curating, in collaboration with the Clermont – Ferrand Short Film Festival, ‘The waiting room film project’; a series of short films inspired by the latest tindersticks album.

F. Percy Smith - biography
A dapper man in a fancy waistcoat, wearing protective gloves and goggles, endeavours to feed two baby herons who seem intent on biting the hand that feeds them. The man is Percy Smith (1880-1945), doyen of interwar natural history filmmaking, performing for the camera in one of the shorts he made for the American entrepreneur Charles Urban in the years immediately after the First World War. In the years afterwards, as he became increasingly well-known he disappeared behind the camera, but for occasional sightings of his hands. As a cameraman specialising in time-lapse, microcinematography and pond-scale underwater filming, he had no peer in his period of activity.

Already a keen amateur naturalist and photographer, Smith had come to Urban’s attention in 1908, more than a decade after he had joined the Board of Education as a clerk, aged 14. In that same year they released The Balancing Bluebottle, a series of close-ups of a tethered insect seeming to juggle various objects. It became a sensation, inspiring not only fascination and amusement but even some political cartoons. In 1910 came his The Birth of a Flower, probably one of the very first time-lapse films to be seen by the general public, so amazing to an early audience that they refused to leave the cinema until it was rewound to be shown again. These films are emblematic of Smith’s signature capabilities: knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the plants and animals that were his subjects; and a knack for creating gimcrack devices to film the almost unfilmable. Cuckoo clocks, cocoa tins and alarm clocks could be modified to become the timing devices that would enable the time-lapse exposures to continue day and night, feather boas could be deconstructed to make animated bees, and drawings could be animated to show what could not be filmed.

Birth of a Flower was so successful that Smith could devote himself full-time to filmmaking, establishing a ramshackle studio in his new house and its greenhouse in Southgate, north of London. By 1914, he had made 54 films for Urban, for whom he provided footage until 1923. After some difficult years, he benefited from the decision of British film entrepreneur Harry Bruce Woolfe to move into nature films. Smith joined Woolfe from 1925, staying until his death twenty years later, providing the footage for well in excess of 50 films in the Secrets of Nature series and its successor, Secrets of Life. He was often the subject of profiles in newspapers and popular magazines. He was also highly respected; the biologist HR Hewer described him as ‘a genius with apparatus’ and explained that ‘Smith understood to a very great extent what he was filming because he was an amateur biologist of distinction’.

Tim Boon, The Science Museum London, author of Films of Fact (2008).

BFI releases are available from all good home entertainment retailers or by mail order from the BFI Shop. Tel: 020 7815 1350 or online at www.bfi.org.uk/shop

About the BFI
The BFI is the lead body for film in the UK with the ambition to create a flourishing film environment in which innovation, opportunity and creativity can thrive by:
·       Connecting audiences to the widest choice of British and World cinema
·       Preserving and restoring the most significant film collection in the world for today and future generations
·       Championing emerging and world class film makers in the UK
·       Investing in creative, distinctive and entertaining work
·       Promoting British film and talent to the world
·       Growing the next generation of film makers and audiences


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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