From Lens Hood to Robin Hood!
For anyone who enjoys reading about cinema and television — or any subject for that matter — access to the internet is without doubt a revelation. Through my interest in various aspects of early cinema and television, I frequently find myself absorbed in the plethora of information instantly available at my fingertips in the comfort of my living room. Inevitably, some of the information gleaned will be committed to memory — perhaps for recollection at the appropriate time — whilst some may be forgotten. However, of all the reported family associations in the field of screen entertainment, there is one which for some reason has stayed firmly embedded in my psyche ever since I first encountered reference to the alleged relationship some years ago. The relationship to which I refer is that of the prolific inventor and pioneer of cinematography, William Friese-Greene and none other than television's first Robin Hood, the British actor Richard Greene.
I was both delighted and intrigued upon making this discovery, and the more I checked, the more references to William Friese-Greene being grandfather to Richard Greene that I found. However, as experience has taught me, the realm of the internet — where the effortless 'copying and pasting' of text from one source to another is common practice — can be a perilous place for the indolent writer.
I recall on one occasion being required to assemble the story of a much-revered VC recipient from the First World War. The research uncovered widespread miss-information in relation to the subject's family connections, and in particular, his burial records. This was not only prevalent on the internet, but even extended to a principal caption in the Imperial War Museum, presumably because their information had been obtained from the World-Wide Web. Therefore, as much as I wanted to believe on this occasion, I knew I had to find out for sure.
Although frequently foremost on internet search engines, the online encyclopaedia 'Wikipedia' is often cited as being peppered with inaccuracies. However, I do find myself returning again and again, as although I approach with caution, on the whole, I have found it to be fairly accurate — certainly in as far as my chosen fields are concerned. On this occasion, I was encouraged — though not surprised — to see the following entry under William Friese-Greene: ‘The Actor Richard Greene was his grandson.’* This in turn had apparently been referenced from ‘The Internet Movie Database’. And so it would seem the story perpetuates.
I discovered that Richard Greene's father was also called Richard and his mother was Kathleen Gerrard; this is stated on both his birth and death certificates and is therefore indisputable. I had also encountered a reference to the fact that William Friese-Greene had apparently fathered seven children.
Any public records relating to William Friese-Greene would be classified as relatively recent history in terms of ancestry records. Armed with the knowledge that his son, Claude, and grandson, Peter, were both cinematographers of some renown, it seemed that a search for one would surely yield all, and hopefully include a 'Richard' in the family who had apparently decided to foreshorten his surname. Quite why anyone with such a famous surname would choose to do this (father or son) when trying to make their way in the film industry — of all professions — was one aspect of the story which initially prompted some scepticism on my part.
I turned initially to a leading ancestry website in order to find some answers. This however, pointed to only two apparent Friese-Greene decedents being members, one of whom had both William and Claude included in their family tree, although the Claude listed was incorrectly attributed as having been born in Brighton. The other tree owner on the site had Claude’s birthplace correctly cited as being Fulham, London, but bizarrely no mention of a William in the family. Neither family tree included a Richard. Similarly, the only family tree owner listing a Richard Greene — appropriately attributed as being born in Plymouth — did not apparently have either a William, Claude or Peter in the family.
William Friese-Greene had only one child, Ethel, with his first wife Helena, who died in 1895. He remarried and all his subsequent sons were born between 1898 and 1907.
Richard Greene was born in 1918, which makes it very tight date-wise for William's sons to have fathered a child (not impossible, but again, coupled with the fact that no Richard is mentioned in William's biography makes it extremely unlikely).
Simultaneously, I contacted the British Film Institute, as their website was the only one that appeared to question the relationship, in an entry for William which stated: ‘Grandfather of cameraman Peter Friese-Greene. Often also cited as being the grandfather of actor Richard Greene, but further research points to this being erroneous.’ Needless to say I was intrigued by this entry and entered into correspondence with the BFI in order to corroborate some facts. It seems that some of their reasons for casting doubt on this widely reported relationship were much the same as my own, with the addition of the following:
◊ In the biography 'Friese-Greene: Close-up of an Inventor' by Ray Allister, published in 1948, the children of William Friese-Greene are listed as Ethel, Claude, Kenneth, Graham, Maurice, Raymond and Vincent. There is no mention of a Richard.
◊ Microfiche relating to Richard Greene, containing newspaper obituaries and other paperwork about him throughout his career makes no mention of a relationship with Friese-Greene. There is also no mention of it in a CV for him prepared by his agents.
◊ In numerous sources it is stated that he comes from an old theatrical family, and that his parents, grandparents, brother, aunts and uncles were all in theatre. Friese-Greene's family was not theatrical.
It is not known when or how a relationship to Friese-Greene was first mooted, but it could have potentially arisen or been misinterpreted from a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Players Biography, in which it states ‘Greene's great-grandfather was one of the first to introduce motion pictures to British audiences. He hired a hall, erected a screen and invited all comers’.
The MGM entry obviously related to showing motion pictures and not contributing to their invention, and would tie-in with a theatrical/showman family background, but could be where the relationship story had its roots, with others looking round for someone with a 'Greene' surname connected with early cinema.
Although all this research would seem to indicate that the reputed family connection is entirely erroneous, the BFI has not, as yet, stated categorically that it is definite. However, the research so far does seem to be somewhat conclusive and my thanks are extended to Natasha Fairbairn at the BFI for sharing her conclusions.
The BFI has confirmed that it has now added all of the information generated from our correspondence to the biography record for Richard Greene on its website. This will hopefully provide some kind of balanced argument to counter present entries on sites such as Wikipedia,* the Internet Movie Database and Flickr which still presently cite the apparently erroneous relationship.
So there you have it. I believe that the case against the reputed relationship is fairly conclusive — or is it? If you know something I don't know, then drop me a line!
© Paul Pert 2009
With acknowledgement and thanks to Natasha Fairbairn at the British Film Institute.
* Since this reseach was published, the associated Wikipedia entries have been corrected; to date however, the relevant IMDB entry, has not.