Britain’s first film comedy star
Ek-Co Films was the first British film company to be owned and operated by Music-hall performers. Among its nine company directors, all described as ‘actors,’ was Fred Evans, a music hall and circus performer who began his film career with Cricks and Martin in 1910 as Charley Smiler, a disaster-prone gent dressed in frock coat, waistcoat and spats. With Ek-Co, Fred needed to create a new character and came up with ‘Pimple,’ believed to be the the name he took as a boy clown, complete with shabby tight jacket, baggy trousers and make-up.
From January 1913, the Cosmopolitan Film Agency who handled Ek-Co Films began to release the Pimple comedies under the banner Folly Films. Fred and his brother Joe then set up a temporary studio at a cottage close to Ek-Co’s studio, probably Weir Cottage in Broome Road, Teddington. Upstairs was designated a ladies’ changing room, with an office and props on the ground floor. The films were shot in the back garden and in the streets of Teddington.
Folly Films then moved to a new studio on Eel Pie Island in Twickenham where Joseph Mears, an entrepreneur who ran river excursions from his pub The Old Ship in Richmond, rented out a boatyard. Joe Evans later recalled the move to the island:
‘The pleasure part of the island was rented by a man called Stevens, who ran a nice hotel for food and had the grounds all cultivated with flowers and bushes and paths with rows of electric lamps lining the patch and in the bushes which looked very nice at night, and people flocked there most weekends.’
A high fence ran across the island, shielding the pleasure grounds from the film studio that comprised two long, single storey huts serving as an office and dressing rooms, while the boathouse had workshops on the ground floor and an upstairs studio illuminated by electric carbon lamps. There was also an outdoor stage, with photography in the hands of E T Williams, who had set up the newly established Phoenix Film Agency to take over the distribution of Folly Films.
Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine is a surviving parody of popular adventure heroes where the plot surrounded looking for the stolen vessel beneath the Thames as a stand-in for the ocean. A wooden battleship gives chase with no attempt at reality. Indeed, the purposefully poor production values were very much the heart of these films where no effort was made to raise the bar. Towards the end of the film, ‘the ocean’ clearly gives way to Twickenham Embankment in the background.
Fred went on to be voted by filmgoers second only to Charlie Chaplain as their favourite film comedian. As the roguish and anarchic Pimple, he made 200 silent movies between 1910 and 1922, running amok in frantic chases and sending-up current events and fashions. Eventually, changing public tastes tired of the continued derision of film technique and acting style and Fred returned to the stage where his name and his work was erased from British film history.
Another surviving fragment of the Pimple output is from the 1914 film Fat Man on a Bicycle where the madcap clown attempts to teach an oversized friend how to ride a bicycle, with predictable results! Most of the action takes place along Ferry Road and Lebanon Road before moving onto Twickenham Riverside by York House Gardens. In a continuity conundrum, the action then shifts to The Embankment looking back towards Riverside. The camera is set up beside the same retaining wall we see today containing the Mary Wallace Theatre. But instead of seeing Champion’s Wharf play beach dead ahead, we are treated to a rare glimpse of Bowyer’s Warehouse, demolished in 1960.
Pimple's Progress: Fred Evans, Britain's First Film Comedy Star. Barry Anthony. McFarland & Co Inc. 30 September 2022
The Story of Teddington Studios by Malcolm Newman and John Tasker (in the collection of Twickenham Museum)
British Film Studios. An Illustrated History. Patricia Warren. B T Batsford. 1995.