The son of a painter and decorator, James Bamforth started in business as a studio photographer in 1870 and began the production of magic lantern slides, photographed at a studio at Station Road, Holmfirth, around 1883. At first a small-scale enterprise, Bamforth's production of photographic lantern slides was so successful that by 1898 a factory extension to the studio in Holmfirth was built, enabling production on an industrial scale. At first the company specialised in 'life model' slide sequences, in which simple narratives, usually conveying moral, temperance, and religious themes, were photographed in front of a painted backcloth; the models used were members of the Bamforth family and workforce, and other locals. By the late 1890s, Bamforth production became increasingly dominated by slides intended to accompany popular songs and hymns.
The manner in which these life model lantern sequences were made and exhibited had a profound influence on the company's first period of film-making. Unlike other early British production companies, Bamforth already possessed a studio, painted backcloths, and an available pool of local performers, not to mention years of experience in constructing visual narratives for projection on screen. Possibly in response to this expertise, Riley Brothers of Bradford, who had been involved with moving picture technology since 1896 and had already begun to make films of their own, commissioned Bamforth in 1898 to produce further films to be sold exclusively to purchasers of their equipment. Although the exact business relationship between the two firms and the production dates of the films remain unknown, the subsequent advertisement of these productions in a 1903 Hepworth catalogue as 'RAB' films acknowledges their partnership.
A large proportion of the fifteen RAB films advertised in the 1903 catalogue are comic regional subjects. Among these are several depicting mischievous local children playing schoolyard games, such as Boys Sliding and Leap Frog. Bamforth films of this period also include an unusually high proportion of fiction subjects, such as Kiss in the Tunnel, Women's Rights, and The Tramp and the Baby's Bottle, and these are of greatest significance in terms of the early development of British narrative film. For example, Kiss in the Tunnel contains an early example of continuity editing in which an amorous scene from inside a darkened train is placed between shots of a train entering and departing a tunnel. The existence of another, almost identical, version, The Kiss in the Tunnel, produced in 1899 by the Brighton film-maker George Albert Smith, suggests that one of these producers had 'borrowed' substantially from the other, as was common practice at the time.
Bamforth's company also adapted some of its life model lantern material to the new medium. For example, the Bamforth film Women's Rights, also known as Ladies' Skirts Nailed to a Fence, replicates an earlier comic lantern lecture, in which 'Mr Niggle' and his son humiliate his suffragette wife and her friend. Indeed, a similar lecture may well have accompanied the film's projection. The action depicts two men nailing the women's skirts to a fence, and features the earliest known example of a continuity cut to a different perspective within the same scene. In fact, the shots, apparently taken from either side of the fence, are achieved by turning the fence and the performers through 180 degrees. Although the principle of spatial and temporal continuity implied by this cut was new to film, it had long been present within the magic lantern tradition, in which the detailed arrangement of contiguous spaces, supported by the description of a lecturer, was already fully developed.
After 1902, James Bamforth, increasingly supported by his sons, concentrated his efforts on postcard production. Sets of song and hymn illustrations remained a specialty, alongside voluminous comic subjects. Some early sets used the lantern slide negatives as source material; most required newly staged images, quasi-cinematic in their separation into three or four 'shots', one for each postcard, and the use of superimposed vignettes. A limited company after 1911, Bamforth finally returned to film production in 1913. The Holmfirth studio was enlarged, and films emerged under a named director for the first time, Cecil Birch. He concentrated on short comedies, though Birch also rose to the heights of a five-reel drama, Paula (1915), based on a once risqué novel. For modern viewers, the most notable among surviving Bamforth films of this period may be the bizarre comedy Finding His Counterpart (1913), in which a man visits a phrenologist, and then attempts to discover his ideal mate by feeling the heads of a succession of unlikely paramours. In 1914, the company engaged the music-hall comedian 'Winky' (Reginald Switz), who became the successful star of around forty of Birch's comedies, from Winky Learns a Lesson in Honesty through to Winky Is the Long and Short of It, passing through Winky Waggles the Wicked Widow and the especially worrying Winky Causes a Smallpox Panic along the way. By 1915, other comic performers such as Lily Ward, Alf Scottie, and the child star Baby Langley had been signed up.
Soon after, perhaps due to the impact of the war, Birch and the production team became incorporated into the newly-founded Holmfirth Producing Company, which quickly moved operations to London, with Bertram Phillips as eventual managing director; the last Holmfirth film, Meg o' the Woods (Bertram Phillips), emerged in February 1918. Bamforth postcards ceased using models around the same time, relying instead on artists' drawings or straightforward, often garish, scenic views. Production continued until the 1990s, well into the time when Holmfirth found new renown as the location setting for the TV comedy series Last of the Summer Wine (BBC, 1973-). The Bamforth name is now chiefly remembered for its cheeky seaside postcards, drawn with crude vigour: Kiss in the Tunnel, perhaps, reshaped and retooled for a different era.