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Gala Premiere - The First Born (1928)

7 October 2011

The First Born (1928) dir. Miles Mander

Rediscovery of a stunning late 1920s melodrama

The BFI National Archive’s gala presentation at the BFI 55th London Film Festival, in partnership with American Express, is the world premiere of a new BFI restoration of The First Born (1928), directed by Miles Mander. This little known, but deeply satisfying, British drama will screen at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday 20th October 2011, 7.30pm.

Director Miles Mander, who wrote the original stage play and co-authored the screenplay, also stars as a badly behaved aristocrat opposite Madeleine Carroll as his wife. Mander’s co-writer on the screenplay was Alma Reville (Mrs Alfred Hitchcock). The story is a late twenties melodrama of great sophistication and offers a fascinating insight into the scandalous real-life exploits of the colourful Miles Mander.

There are moments strongly reminiscent of early Hitchcock, perhaps unsurprising as Alma Reville was heavily involved with the preparation of the scenario. Could it be that the famous ‘Hitchcock touch’ is as much to do with Mrs, as with Mr? Audiences must judge for themselves.

The film is a surprisingly adult account of Sir Hugo Boycott's (Mander) passionate but rocky marriage to Madeleine, his beautiful but somewhat naive wife. Failing to conceive the heir he craves, she resorts to desperate measures to tempt back her philandering husband. Set in the world of high society and the political classes, a world well known to Mander, among whose distinguished family were several Liberal MP's, the film throws the hypocrisies and double standards of its members into sharp relief.

There are other fascinating resonances between the plot and real life, as the first-born in the film is played by Mander’s own son, and it was fairly well known that Mander and his co-star were romantically involved. Mander was also married at one point to an Indian princess called Pretty (his brother married her sister). Mander had lived a life worthy of several films, losing a fortune as an over-enthusiastic gambler while a young man, and then working as a sheep hand in New Zealand when family pressures forced him to a more disciplined environment. He amused himself as a daredevil, pioneer aviator and later worked for the Air Auxiliary Corps during the First World War. Novelist, playwright, film director, actor – there seemed no end to his talents and his ability to take on whatever role he chose and succeed in it. His acting career led him to Hollywood where he became a mainstay as a popular character actor. He eventually ended up a radio host.

Heather Stewart, Creative Director, BFI said, “The BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala gives us an opportunity to showcase important restorations from the BFI National Archive. These enable us to highlight lesser known or previously unavailable works which deserve to be widely seen and The First-Born is a tour-de-force of late silent film-making. New restoration techniques and digital technology give us the chance to give a new lease of life to the rich heritage of British cinema.”

Technical background to the BFI restoration

The BFI National Archive acquired a nitrate positive of The First Born in 1939 as an example of the work of its writer, director and star, Miles Mander. The print, which we still have, is tinted and we have created a new print using a combination of new photochemical and digital restoration.

The current running time of the BFI’s original material is 6942ft @22fps = 84 mins of 94 advertised at the original trade show in 1928. With no surviving script that we know of, and no records concerning the film with the heirs of the production company, we can’t tell what the missing footage may have contained and can only work with the prints that survive. Using a 16mm abridged version courtesy of our colleagues at the George Eastman House, we have found several missing shots and jump cuts. Although this 16mm copy has been abridged, as is common for 16mm versions, it does in fact contains several short scenes and longer shots not in our 35mm material and has been invaluable as a guide to the correct sequencing of some scenes. Matching the 16mm material, which is of inferior picture quality, with the 35mm nitrate original has been a considerable challenge for the graders. We scanned the original nitrate and the dupe negative as well as the 16mm print and selected which shots should be taken from which source. Decisions were then made about tinting based directly from the evidence of the tinted nitrate print. The tinting is understated and subtle – amber for lit interiors and violet for evening shots.


This world premiere screening will be accompanied by musician Stephen Horne who will be performing his newly commissioned score with Janey Mercer and Martin Pyne. Horne is one of a small but dedicated group of specialist accompanists to silent film. He works regularly at BFI Southbank and is much in demand at film festivals around the world.

Stephen Horne’s credits include scores and performance on a series of key BFI releases including: A Cottage on Dartmoor, Primitives and Pioneers, RW Paul: the Collected Films, Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Sports, and Tales from the Shipyard.


Production Company: Gainsborough Studios
Producers: M Woolf, Michael Balcon
Director: Miles Mander
Scenario: Alma Reville, Miles Mander
Photography: Walter Blakeley
Editor: Arthur Tavares

Cast: Miles Mander (Sir Hugo Boycott, Bt.); Madeleine Carroll (Madeleine, his wife); John Loder (David, Lord Harborough); Margot Armand (Sylvia Finlay); Ella Atherton (Mme. Nina de Landé); Ivo Dawson (Derek Finlay)

Music composed and performed by Stephen Horne
Tinted print restored by BFI National Archive running time 88 mins
Restoration credits: BFI National Archive; Deluxe; with thanks to Simon Hessel, George Eastman House

“British cinema of the 1920s is a pleasure garden that has remained locked for eighty years. Some of its blooms have died of neglect. The rest remain as fresh as they were when British cinemagoers were first thrilled by their gorgeous spectacle.” Broadcaster, Matthew Sweet in his preface to the BFI’s groundbreaking Twenties season in 2004

Bryony Dixon, curator, Silent Film, BFI National Archive is available for interview by arrangement. Author of 100 Silent Films (BFI Publishing, 2011) and programmer of the British Silent Film Festival, Bryony Dixon is an internationally acknowledged expert on cinema of the silent period. She is currently working on the BFI’s major project for the Cultural Olympiad 2012, the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films, including The Pleasure Garden (also starring Miles Mander).

For further information please contact:

Judy Wells, Head of Press and PR, BFI 02079578919/07984180501

Brian Robinson, Communications Manager, Archive and Heritage, BFI