Arthur Duncan Thomas

British showman

The film business has always attracted its fair share of 'larger-than-life' characters, and A.D. Thomas is an example of one from England who appeared in the Victorian period. Thomas was a Devonshire farmer until 1893, when he became an (illegal) touring exhibitor of the Phonograph. After the Edison-Bell company had obtained a permanent injunction against him in 1897, he turned his considerable energies to the less restricted field of early cinematography. (One source suggests that he had bought a projector from Robert Paul as early as April 1896). Brash, quick-witted and hardly ever truthful, Thomas was an archetypal example of an early peripatetic film exhibitor. Cecil Hepworth remembered him with some affection: 'He was an utter scamp, a very loveable fellow, and one of the greatest showmen who ever lived. His name ... soon changed to Edison-Thomas, and then, later on, to Thomas-Edison, and if people got it into their heads that he was the Edison, the great 'inventor' of moving pictures and many other things, well, that was their look-out. He didn't do anything to disillusion them. He plastered the whole town wherever he went - and he went nearly everywhere - with tremendous posters in brilliant colours describing his wonderful shows and his still more wonderful self'.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his flexible business ethics, Thomas expanded his enterprises rapidly and by October 1898 claimed to be running 21 English shows in addition to having an interest in several Continental ones. But by October 1901 he had over-reached himself (he blamed it on falling interest in the Boer War) and he sold his business to Walter Gibbons and went to work for the Warwick Trading Company. The scale of the exhibiting business he had built up was revealed at his bankruptcy hearings in November 1902, when it was indicated that he had run up debts of over £9,000 and had been planning in 1901 to turn his business into a limited company with a capital of £100,000. Perhaps surprisingly, Thomas and those like him, left an enduring legacy behind them. As late as the 1960s and early 70s cinema managers in circuit houses still engaged in 'stunts' and still depended on their 'showmanship' abilities for promotion, even though the social environment in England had changed so much that such an approach was totally archaic.

Richard Brown