Great Britain was a key early adopter of emerging cinema technology. In fact, it could be argued that British cinema history predates even the arrival of the Lumière Brothers in 1895. Augustin Le Prince (1842–1890), who disappeared in 1890 while returning from a visit to his brother in his native France, was reputed to have successfully experimented with motion pictures. Patents for which Le Prince applied, as well as remnants of his work, suggest that his experiments were successful, yet his work seems to have had no real influence, and he remains a curious cinematic footnote. Instead, it is the first Lumière show, in London in February 1896, that may be said to have inaugurated cinema exhibition in Great Britain.
It was not long after this that homegrown British films began to emerge. There were three main centers of production for these early films: London, Yorkshire, and Brighton and Hove. The period between 1895 and 1905 can be seen as one of great productivity and influence, with the early British films being as innovative and prolific as their counterparts in France and the United States. Perhaps it was the influence of music hall traditions that enabled British film to emerge quickly as a world leader. Certainly, a great deal of the content of the films was derived from existing music hall acts, and undoubtedly the two popular forms shared audiences, particularly in more provincial towns and cities. Robert W. Paul (1869–1943) constructed a makeshift studio on the rooftop of the Alhambra theater in Leicester Square, making frequent use of music hall performers within his films. Another London-based company, the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, constructed its film studio at the rear of the Tivoli Music Hall. In addition to the music hall, magic lanternists and other late-nineteenth-century showmen quickly adopted film as a new form of entertainment.
One of Great Britain's most significant film pioneers was Cecil Hepworth (1874–1953), the son of a renowned magic lantern showman. Hepworth began his film career assisting another key pioneer, the inventor and sometime filmmaker Birt Acres (1854–1918), who had collaborated with R. W. Paul (before the two bitterly fell out). After working for transplanted American producer Charles Urban at Maguire and Baucus, Hepworth founded his own company, along with his cousin, Monty Wicks, in 1899, under the name Hepworth and Company, building a studio in the back garden of a house in Walton-on-Thames, a suburb of London. In 1904 the company became the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, and Hepworth turned his attention away from directing and worked exclusively as a producer. His company was responsible for a number of key early films, the most notable of which was Rescued by Rover (1905), directed by Lewis Fitzhamon (1869–1961). This film, with its narrative of a "gypsy" kidnapping of a baby followed by its rescue, seems to have been the inspiration for D.W. Griffith's first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). In technical terms, Rescued by Rover was a major innovation, and it was also a tremendous audience pleaser. Despite its groundbreaking elements, the film arrived near the end of the early period of British innovation; so rather than heralding a move forward, it seems more the peak of a primitive mode of filmmaking that would soon be eclipsed by technological and economic developments in other countries.
Other early British filmmakers also influenced developments elsewhere. A key figure in Brighton and Hove was James Williamson (1855–1933), a pharmacist and photographer who began making films in 1897 under the Williamson Kinematograph Company name. Williamson's Fire! (1901) was a tableaux film that employed the local Hove fire service in constructing a rescue narrative that included shots from both outside and within a burning building. The film was an obvious influence on Edwin S. Porter's later American film, Life of an American Fireman (1903). Williamson enjoyed success with his comedies as well as increasingly complex dramas until 1910, when changes in the economic models of international cinema led him to place his focus on the manufacture of camera equipment. George Albert Smith (1864–1959) of Brighton had enjoyed earlier success as an innovative operator of magic lantern shows, and he brought this same flair for innovation to the cinema. His films seem to have been less influential than those of some of his counterparts; rather, it is his technical developments that had the most lasting effect. Smith made innovative use of close-ups in such early films as the rather self-explanatory As Seen through a Telescope (1900) and Grandma's Reading Glass (1900); he also successfully incorporated trick elements such as reverse motion in The House That Jack Built (1900). His later career was devoted to the development of color in film through a two-color additive process known as Kinemacolor that he promoted along with Charles Urban.
This first decade of British film saw other noteworthy pioneers emerge, including the aforementioned R. W. Paul, whose Paul's Animatograph Works produced films by a number of other key figures. These included the magician W. R. Booth (1869–1938), whose films, including The "?" Motorist (1906), employed trick photography in the mode of Georges Méliès. Additionally, Frank Mottershaw's A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903), made for his Sheffield photo company, is a fast-paced action film that is said to have influenced Porter's The Great Train Robbery later that same year.
Still, despite its early influence, British cinema seemed to wane as other cinemas became more progressive and technically innovative. A reliance on adaptations of noted British novels and stage plays, while appeasing nationalist sentiments, left the British cinema stagy and wooden, with proscenium arch framing and side-to-side, stage-style movement dominating the structures of films. As the market for cinema changed, British companies were either reluctant or ill-prepared to meet the needs of the industry. Even before World War I, American companies were establishing offices in Britain, and exhibitors soon had an abundance of well-made titles at their disposal. Most of the early British pioneers had ceased making films, while those who continued, such as Hepworth, struggled. His one-hour version of Hamlet in 1913 was indicative of the reliance on stage adaptations. In 1923 he adapted Helen Mathers's 1875 novel, Comin' Thro the Rye , his second adaptation of the novel, and his company, renamed Hepworth Picture Plays, was unable to survive its critical and commercial failure. While it was an intrinsically British film in terms of subject matter, Comin' Thro' the Rye was made in a style that was outmoded, and it was no competition for the much slicker products arriving from Hollywood and elsewhere.