This film is held by the BFI (ID: 40578).


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). 



The opening title of Palaver outlines both the film’s claims of authenticity – it was taken ‘among the Sura and Angas Tribes on the Bauchu Plateau’ – and its emphasis on the British role in ‘civilising’ Africa – ‘less than ten years ago these tribes were cannibals’. Claims of historical validity provided legitimacy to the film’s narrative of British ‘civilisation’ within Africa. For example, the second intertitle in the film states that ‘the King and the Witch Doctor are portrayed by the King of the Sura and the Witch Doctor of the Angas Tribes’ while publicity materials emphasised that this was a ‘gripping story (founded on facts)’ (Bioscope, 9 September 1926, 23).

Early titles stress that the Africans are far removed from civilisation and in particular from Britain – a title states that the characters are ‘stranded 5030 miles from Piccadilly Circus’. This contrast is further highlighted by a title, describing the role of the film’s hero, District Officer Peter Allison, who was ‘sent from the comfort and security of home to uphold, in a wild country, the justice and traditions of the British Empire’. Palaver also accentuates this racial divide through the language used. The Africans talk repeatedly of the ‘white man’ and ‘white judge’ and this language is also adopted by the British characters – ‘it is not the White Man’s way to turn back from his purpose’ - and by reviewers. Bioscope, for example, explains Fernandez’s villainy as ‘the effect of the loneliness and hardship of the life of a white man separated from his kind’ (Bioscope, 23 September 1926, 37). This divide – and mutual incomprehension – is most clearly revealed in the final fight scenes, in which Allison, with a gun, almost single-handedly holds off the many ‘pagans’ firing arrows.

Palaver is told entirely from the perspective of the British protagonists – unlike Nionga (1925), which has an all-African cast – and largely reiterates popular British attitudes towards African culture. For example, huge emphasis is placed on witchcraft – ‘your tribe is strong but white magic is stronger’ – and the Africans are defined entirely by their relationships to the British characters. The African characters are largely treated as children and while the villainous Fernandez is most clearly violent towards them – knocking one of his workers to the ground – the film’s heroic pairing treat them only marginally better. When Jean’s car won’t start, she sits in the seat screaming at the crowds of Africans attempting to get it started - ‘What’s the matter? Hurry up! Push!’ – while Allison throws a pillow at the local who makes up the bed incorrectly.

Furthermore, the Africans are represented as impressionable and easily misled by the film’s villain, Fernandez. The Times, in a rather dismissive review of the film, commented flippantly that ‘the bad man, unfortunately white (but named Fernandez), is a gin-drinking prospector’ (The Times, 8 March 1927, 14). The film has strong echoes here of Sanders of the River and the colonial fiction of Edgar Wallace, as it is the corrupt white man (with a very un-British name), who leads the Africans astray. Alcohol is a further signifier of indiscipline here – Fernandez pays ‘the penalty of excess’ – and is the corrupting influence for the African, Dawiya.

The ideal of turning chaos into order shapes the narrative in Palaver. Such a message may be largely familiar, both in print and on film, but Palaver sought to extend and directly present this message to future generations. For example, the press book for Palaver noted the importance of these ‘boyhood tales of peril and adventure’ in shaping the young men who ‘court hardship and danger in the furthest posts of the Empire’.

Tom Rice (July 2008)


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. 



  • 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
cast member
cast member
FOX, Reginald
cast member
MASON, Haddon
cast member
Witch Doctor of the Angas
cast member
RODWELL, Stanley
Production Company
British Instructional Films





Production Organisations