Monday, April 21, 2014

Palaver Was Not the First Film Shot in Nigeria

A scene from 'Palaver": "Haddon Mason (playing District Officer) wounded and at bay facing Sagaus" Dawiya and his men surround Allison's (Haddon Mason) band of warriors. Allison is wounded in the arm and the Mongu arrive just in time and see off Dawiya's men. Photo Credit: ZEN.CO.UK.

"Palaver" was one of the first films shot in Nigeria in the first quarter of the 20th century when the country was a colony of the British Empire. The film was made in 1926 and not 1904 (the wrong date published by the Nigerian Film Corporation), because, before "Palaver", Crossing the Great Sahara was made in 1924.

Directed by Geoffrey Barkas (born Geoffrey de Gruchy Barkas, 27 August 1896 – 3 September 1979), an English film maker active between the world wars. Barkas led the British Middle East Command Camouflage Directorate in the Second World War. His largest "film set" was Operation Bertram, the army-scale deception for the battle of El Alamein in October 1942. He won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 1936 for his "Wings Over Everest".

Watch "Palaver" on
  • PALAVER (Alternative)
 Technical Data
Running Time:
108 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
7329 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
BARKAS, Geoffrey
BARKAS, Geoffrey
BARKAS, Geoffrey


Filmed amongst the Sura and Angas people of the Bauchi Plateau in Northern Nigeria, where the rivalry between a British District Officer and a tin miner leads to war.

The film introduces the main protagonists. Yilkuba, the witch doctor of the Sura tribe, warns his king, Dawiya, to 'beware of war', while Mark Fernandez, a tin miner, receives a letter warning him that he will be replaced if his work does not improve. Meanwhile, the car belonging to nursing sister Jean Stuart breaks down and she spends the night in the hut of Captain Peter Allison, the District Officer. The next morning Fernandez visits Allison and finds Jean there in her pyjamas. Fernandez is next seen bribing Dawiya with alcohol('medicine') in order to get more men working in his mine, and then appears drunk at 'the social event of the year' at Vedni. Here he attempts unsuccessfully to dance with Jean and 'cut out' Allison. Allison, in his role as District Officer, subsequently 'holds court' and hears complaints against Dawiya. He visits Dawiya and discovers him drunk on 'unlawful liquor'. Allison suspects Fernandez, and on visiting him discovers the same type of liquor in his house. A drunk Fernandez visits his tin mine and strikes one of his workers. He then pays 'the penalty of excess' and collapses. During his illness, he is nursed by Jean, who pleads with him to take control of his life.

Meanwhile, Allison receives a letter revealing that Fernandez was deported in 1920, but has since changed his name. Jean asks Allison to help Fernandez, but Allison - aware of Fernandez's past - refuses. The two men fight and Fernandez with his hopes and plans shattered, 'plays his last card'. He convinces Dawiya that Allison is planning to arrest him. The misled Dawiya prepares for war - 'with strong liquor' - and Allison almost single-handedly holds off the attacking 'pagans'. After much fighting, Allison is wounded but victorious. Dawiya goes to Fernandez's house, kills him, and is then caught by Allison. The film ends with Allison sitting with Jean and asking her to marry him. They embrace in the final shot.


Throughout August 1926, Bioscope ran a series of editorials and articles assessing the state of the British film industry and emphasising the importance of presenting British films throughout the Empire. The Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had called for action in 1925 after noting the ‘danger to which we in this country and our Empire subject ourselves if we allow that method of propaganda [film] to be entirely in the hands of foreign countries’ (Royal Society of Arts, Journal, June 3 1927, 685).In August 1926 Sir Phillip Cunliffe-Lister, President of the Board of Trade, proposed in the House of Commons that ‘the whole question [of British films] should be discussed at the Imperial Conference’, after the Joint Trade Committee failed ‘to to find a solution to the British film problem’ (Bioscope, 5 August 1926).

On 5 August 1926 beneath an article entitled ‘British Industry in Hopeless Position’, there was a further article announcing ‘Three British Films in Three Days’. E. Gordon Craig, the managing director of New Era Films described this as ‘an epoch in the resuscitation of British production’ as the company announced that Nelson, Palaver, and Mons would be trade-shown on consecutive days in September. ‘Three British pictures in one week – three pictures which will convey the best of British ideals and sentiments’, wrote Bioscope (Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 19). The Times similarly discussed the release of Palaver within an article that began ‘the attempt to find an agreed scheme for the rehabilitation of the British film industry has failed’, as the press presented Palaver as part of a broader attempt to rehabilitate the British film industry (The Times, 31 August 1926, 10).

In its review of Palaver, Bioscope stated that ‘it is a welcome sight to see the Union Jack in a film of this type’, further noting that ‘the narrative is inspiring, showing, as it does, the heroic work of those young Englishmen, who seek danger and hardship in the outposts of the Empire’ (Bioscope, 23 September 1926, 37).  The film’s pressbook further promoted the ‘heroic’ work of the British within Nigeria – ‘of this colonising genius and skill in the handling of native races Nigeria is a shining example’ – and attempted to validate historically the actions within the film. ‘Here, as elsewhere’, the publicity stated, ‘men of our race have plunged into the Unknown, and set themselves to transform chaos into order and security. Battling against slavery, human sacrifice and cannibalism, against torture and devil worship, against famine and disease, they have worked steadily on, winning the land for the natives under the Imperial Crown’ (‘Palaver Pressbook’). Such writing characterised the publicity reports on the film. When the film – advertised as ‘a marvellous story of Empire conquest in Northern Nigeria’ – played at the Stoll Picture Theatre for three nights at the end of April 1927, the programme stated that ‘Northern Nigeria is not a nice country to have to colonise’ as ‘slavery, human sacrifice, cannibalism – particularly devil worship – have been the chief obstacles, but gradually chaos has yielded to order’ (Stoll Herald, 24 April, 1927, 5).

Palaver was produced by Geoffrey Barkas and photographed by Stanley Rodwell. The pair had previously worked together filming the Prince of Wales’ Tour of Africa in 1925 and, when working on Palaver during the following year, secured local assistance through the Nigerian government, who helped in providing transport and in ‘obtaining suitable pictures of native life’ (CO 323/985/23). Barkas, who would subsequently film material in Africa for Rhodes of Africa (1936) and King Solomon’s Mines (1937), wrote a two-part account of his experiences producing Palaver in Bioscope. He initially outlined the personnel involved in the six-month production, beginning with himself (‘running the show. Selecting my native cast from cannibal pagan tribes. Finally producing the film’) and including his ‘assistant’, and soon to be wife, Natalie Webb. Barkas explained his methods of story writing – ‘I made a point of meeting as many actual District Officers as possible’ – of finding suitable locations and in particular of casting. Barkas stated that ‘it was a laborious business for the whole thing [filming] was entirely outside their [the locals] comprehension’. He suggested that the locals were particularly reticent when gun shots were fired and noted ‘the possible danger of so many raw savages entering into the spirit of the thing [attacking the District Officer within the film] with too much abandon’ (Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 22). The language he uses – he quotes one local as saying ’”Master, you are wise and powerful. You are our father and mother. We believe everything you say”’ – largely echoes the rhetoric within the film and he concludes by commenting on the ‘blind savagery from which they [the Africans] are so slowly emerging’ (Bioscope, 12 August, 1926, 20).

Palaver played at the Marble Arch Pavilion in March 1927, and a letter from a member of the Crown Agents to the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in July 1927 stated that Palaver, ‘as far as is known, is being booked extensively by the cinema theatres’. The letter suggested, in light of the commercial failure of the short instructional documentaries within British Instructional’s Empire Series, that Palaver ‘would appear to be the type of film which is most likely to appeal to cinema audiences in this country’ (CO 323/985.323). However, the film was not a great commercial success, although it did enjoy a life beyond its initial release. For example, it played for a week at the Imperial Institute in January 1930 as part of a free programme of films provided by the Empire Marketing Board (The Times, 14 December 1929, 8).

Works Cited

‘Look to the Imperial Conference’, Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 2.
‘Three British Films in Three Days’, Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 19.
‘The Joys of Filming in West Africa’, Bioscope, 5 August 1926, 22.
‘The Joys of Filming in West Africa (Part II)’, Bioscope, 12 August, 1926, 20.
‘Three Big British Productions’, Bioscope, 9 September 1926, 23.
‘Palaver’, Bioscope, 23 September 1926, 37-38.
Holbrook, Arthur R., Colonel Sir, KBE, MP, ‘British Films’, Royal Society of Arts Journal, 3 June 1927, 684-709.
‘Letter from the Crown Agents to the Under Secretary of State, Colonial Office’, dated 11 July 1927, accessed at National Archives, CO 323/985/23.
‘Palaver Pressbook’ available at the BFI.
‘Palaver’, Stoll Herald, 24 April 1927, 5.
‘The Film World: Many New British Pictures’, The Times, 31 August 1926, 10.
‘Palaver’, The Times, 8 March 1927, 14.
‘Films at the Imperial Institute’, The Times, 14 December 1929, 8. COPYRIGHT: Colonial Film Office of the Royal British Empire..

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