The Victorian Age

March 21, 2019

Produced at the London Film Studios in Denham and released in 1937 and 1938 respectively, ‘Victoria The Great’ and ‘Sixty Glorious Years’ represent British pre-war film making at it’s most lavish – both were milestone achievements and the most expensive films made in England at the time. Commissioned exclusively by Network, the two films have now been restored for Blu-ray as part of The British Film range of releases.

The Neagle Has Landed

Starting out in her working life as a dancer, Anna Neagle quickly gained a place as a lead actress on the silver screen. In feature films from 1929, it was with her (later) husband, the Irish born director Herbert Wilcox with whom she had her greatest successes. Following three mid-30s musicals, Wilcox had the best idea of his career: a film on the life of Queen Victoria, just in time for Coronation year when the ban on representations of the Queen on stage and screen had just been lifted. The roaring success of ‘Victoria The Great’ in 1937 (with it’s final Technicolor reel) brought the opportunity of a full colour sequel/remake the following year and cemented Neagles enduring popularity that would last for the next two decades (and beyond).

Material Gains

As both films were originally photographed on nitrate stock, the licence holder for the films held very little film material in their library – just a single 35mm combined print (all monochrome) for ‘Victoria The Great’ and one faded colour print for ‘Sixty Glorious Years’ – so it was necessary to contact the British Film Institute to ascertain what they might be holding. As the films were both cut together for a compilation re-release in 1943 to give a morale boost to wartime audiences (comprising the first half of ‘Victoria The Great’ with the second half of ‘Sixty Glorious Years’), the original negatives for both titles are believed to have been accidentally destroyed. The earliest, most complete elements held for each subject were nitrate combined prints – for ‘Sixty Glorious Years’ there was brief hope that an intermediate might have been an earlier generation but it transpired that it had actually been duped from the Technicolor print as protection. In the case of ‘Victoria The Great’, the print yielded a very nice surprise: a longer cut of the film!

The Queen Unseen

The BFI-held nitrate print of ‘Victoria The Great’ was found to be nine minutes longer in duration, at theatrical running speed of 24 frames per second, than all recorded release durations of the film (121 minutes instead of 112 minutes). Barring around 30 seconds extra for a more stately page-turning main title, the rest of the recovered footage either adds full sequences or lengthens existing scenes. The Queen’s mother, generally removed from the release cut, is here re-instated in the early part of the film (although she’s not seen in a particularly flattering light, being overbearing and controlling), and is the butt of a very funny joke in the bedroom she shares with Victoria at Kensington Palace. Other new sequences include Wellington being told by the Queen that she WILL ride a horse to review the troops (in a scene that was re-filmed in colour for ‘Sixty Glorious Years’), Albert and his brother Ernest singing in German while waiting to dock in the rain at Dover and Edward Oxford addressing a crowd prior to his assassination attempt on the Queen at Constitution Hill.

Regal Restoration

Each print was scanned to 2K resolution by mastering facility house Silver Salt Restoration and then extensively restored by them in the digital domain. The images were carefully processed for excessive grain before more specialised repairs being carried out. On ‘Victoria The Great’, the restoration included fixes for both positive (black) and negative (white) dirt as well as red, green and blue defects on the final Technicolor three-strip reel. Film tears and splice damage required detailed treatment as well as additional processing for density fluctuations visible throughout the entire feature. The most serious issue here were two sections of print (around 7,000 frames) that looked to be largely destroyed by glue or fluid marks. The alternative source print was not only missing several of the scenes but was such poor quality that to use it would have seriously compromised the restoration. Anthony Badger (Head of Restoration at Silver Salt) set about analysing the damage and repairing each individual image via frame synthesis and manual reconstruction. The result, as seen below, is astonishing:

Example of fluid damage to film surface.

Reconstructed frame.

The dye-transfer print for ‘Sixty Glorious Years’, whilst retaining a useable colour palette, unfortunately had extreme colour breathing throughout the entire duration (similar to the black and white density fluctuations in the earlier film) and this is very distracting to the viewer. It required further processing to minimise the effect and the picture is now much improved with a more stable, even image. Large amounts of red, green and blue dirt, some serious instability and green scratching over two complete reels were among other faults that required specific attention.

The Queen’s Colours

The grades for both feature films were carried out by Silver Salt’s senior colourist Ray King – aptly named and already a Royal veteran having graded the only colour footage of Queen Elizabeth II in ‘The Queen Is Crowned’ for Network’s Blu-ray release. The work proved challenging as, despite much of the heavy fluctuation being calmed in restoration, the slight variations in colour and density meant that often grading could not be done on a still frame and needed to be assessed with a running image.

One problematic facet of archive transfers is the framing around when one scene dissolves to another scene. The images require careful re-positioning as they tend to  shift out of alignment that means a visual ‘bump’ that can detract from the viewing. There is also a change in film stock for these transitions that means, although the consecutive frame is a continuation of the scene and start or end of the dissolve, the actual contrast and density are completely different, with the image being softer (like it’s slightly out of focus). Care was taken to match these changes from original footage to duplicate intermediate and while it’s not possible to replicate the contrast completely, it has been corrected so the visual jolt is lessened.

Other tricky amendments included grading out partial and full frame light drops/flashes from one scene to another (particularly noticeable where the change in exposure from a light scene to a dark scene occurs) and this happens at many shot changes and requires individual attention to fix.

The last reel of ‘Victoria The Great’ bursts into Technicolor (rarely seen as some previous home video releases had been transferred from a completely monochrome print) and has been graded to retain the distinctive look of the colour process. Similarly, previous releases of ‘Sixty Glorious Years’ have been almost devoid of colour – the difference between them and the new restoration is simply stunning and it can now be enjoyed as it would have been seen on first release:

It’s possible that some versions of the original release for ‘Victoria The Great’ included tinting of the black and white section of the film but, as no tinting guide was available (and the fact that tinting can itself be a distraction if done badly), the presentation on the Blu-ray is black and white as per the original nitrate print.

Long May She Reign

The success of the Queen Victoria feature films ensured that Neagle was a guaranteed box office draw, and arguably the most successful British female star of all time. Along with Wilcox, she went on tomake many well received historical biopics as well as some very popular light comedies during the 1950s, often co-starring Michael Wilding (and several already available on DVD from Network).

Coming soon from Network’s The British Film Range will be a High Definition restoration of the Neagle/Wilcox version of the Florence Nightingale story from 1948: ‘The Lady With The Lamp’.

Mark Stanborough

Restoration Producer


  1. Richard Seedhouse Reply

    Well done – a fascinating and great restoration story

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