The amazing Mr Jeffs


Coming up soon is Flatpack Festival, an inventive film extravaganza organised by 7 Inch Cinema, taking place in Birmingham (UK) 11-16 March. Most of the festival is devoted to present day cinema, but it’s worth out taking note of because its dedicatee is Waller Jeffs (1861-1941). His is a name that you won’t find in many film histories, because he was a showman rather than a producer, but he was one of the major figures bringing films to British audiences (alongside a whole panoply of variety acts that he also handled) in the era before cinemas arrived, particularly in the Midlands region. As the festival blog puts it:

Between 1901 and 1912 Mr Jeffs introduced hundreds of thousands of Brummies to the delights of cinema through his annual seasons at the Curzon Hall, Suffolk Street, with light opera, military bands, live sound effects and intriguing novelty acts like ‘Unthan the Armless Wonder’ presented alongside the films. Towards the end of this period the first proper cinemas started to arrive in the city – including the Electric – and Jeffs’ audience rapidly disappeared. He ended up in slightly less elevated circumstances, managing the Picturehouse in Stratford-on-Avon.

There’s a little-known history of British film, John H. Bird’s Cinema Parade, which is centred upon Waller Jeffs, showing us the development of film in Britain from the showman’s point of view, and with a salutory change of emphasis from the usual London bias.

As well as naming Jeffs its ‘patron saint’, on March 11th the festival is putting on Curzonora, an evening of early film in the spirit of Waller Jeff’s programmes, with “fifteen-piece ‘musical whirlwind’ The Destroyers” who will be “exploring the full spectrum of 1900s filmmaking ingenuity from actualities and travelogue to sci-fi and melodrama”. And on March 12th it is hosting ‘The Amazing Mr Jeffs: Birmingham’s premier film exhibitor‘, an illustrated talk by the practically ubiquitous Professor Vanessa Toulmin,covering Jeff’s working relationship the famed producers Mitchell and Kenyon.

More information, as ever, on the festival website.

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