A Peculiarly British Obsession

How Percy Won the Beauty Competition
R: Alf Collins. D: Alf Collins. P: Gaumont. UK 1909
Print: BFI

“This early British short is a simple but frantic farce which sees Percy entering a female beauty contest in order to win the prize of £100. He immediately heads for Charles Fox, theatrical wig-maker and costumier (still to be found in London’s Covent Garden). (…) Men in women’s clothing were something of a staple of English music hall and translated very quickly onto film, where the possibilities for mayhem gave delighted audiences a comic frisson.”
Brian Robinson

“The UK branch of the Gaumont Film Company was founded in Camberwell’s Dog Kennel Hill in 1898. Its head, Alfred Bromhead, was soon boasting in Magic Lantern magazine of getting through 80,000 feet of film a week. This was, as local historians are now calling it, Dog Kennel Hillywood. (…) The early Gaumont never even had a building: until better electric lighting was invented, they had to use natural light, so they shot interiors on a couple of roofless walls set up on a stage in a field. For exteriors, they shot guerrilla-style in the surrounding streets. More than 500 shorts were filmed here between 1904 and 1912. Of the 30 that survive in the BFI archives, 14 were exhumed by the Friends of Dog Kennel Hill Wood and given a one-off outdoor screening on Saturday night, in the very place where they were first shot. Most have not been seen on the big screen in over a century. (…)
The director of these films, and star of several, was music-hall veteran Alf Collins – ‘an auteur before his time, and our equivalent of DW Griffiths’, says film historian Tony Fletcher of the Cinema Museum, with a dash of overstatement. Collins pioneered the use of close-up, chase scenes (he would corral drinkers from local pubs as extras with the promise of a free pint), and that peculiarly British obsession with dressing up in drag. His handbaggings could easily have inspired that Monty Python sketch in which the Batley Townswomen’s Guild re-enact the Battle of Pearl Harbour. How Percy Won The Beauty Competition (1909) shows Alf dressed, as so often, in drag, but this time playing a man playing a woman, rather just simply playing a woman. Deep. (…) Pause it at 3.56 minutes, as the thwarted female contestants chase Alf through a field of sheep, and you can see the Gaumont ‘studio’ and crew on the left.”
Dominic Wells