Local films for Local People
No, I’m not talking about Royston Vasey’s new cinema. This tag-line was how Waller Jeffs’ shows were billed in Birmingham newspapers at the turn of the century. Having been introduced to our friend, Jeffs, at Curzonara, I decided to attend Professor Vanessa Tomlins’ complimentary talk on the city’s premier film exhibitor.
Kicking off the second day of festivities, Tomlins gave a fascinating insight into the ‘lawless’ world of early cinematographs. Jeff’s long-time collaborator, A.D. Thomas was a particularly shady character – fraudulently associating himself with the inventor, Thomas Edison, he eventually went bankrupt leaving Jeffs to work with greater freedom under Sydney Carter at New Century Pictures. Jeffs himself emerged as a far more civilised personality, preferring to offer educational travel shows to the football and factory gate films favoured by Edison. These travel shows were so popular that when one Birmingham teacher asked a child where the North Pole was; he replied, ‘I don’t know, Miss, but I think it’s at the Curzon Hall’.
That is not to say that Jeffs didn’t like courting the masses. Through Tomlins’ choice of film clips, we were treated to several early Birmingham and Aston Villa football films and also caught several glimpses of Jeffs on camera, working the crowd and pointing them in the direction of the camera. Jeffs was a great one for publicity and showmanship, which Tomlins demonstrated through a slideshow of print advertisements.
While Curzonara was more theatrical and impressionistic, Tomlins presented in-depth historical background to Jeffs’ story. A specialist in the Mitchell & Kenyon collection, it was clear that Tomlins had meticulously searched the archives for interesting anecdotal material. A particularly charming story revolved around a Jeffs’ film showing Joseph Chamberlain giving a speech to guests at his home near Edgbaston in 1902. Greeted with the silent film, it was reported there were heckling cries of ‘speak up!’ and ‘Hear! Hear!’ from the audience. Those attending Tomlins’ talk were equally willing to get involved and it was interesting to hear discussions about filming locations around the city. Audience members were calling out as they identified well-known streets and the steps of the city art gallery. It was great to see local films with local people.