The Muswell Hill magician who starred in early silent movies

Walter Robert Booth around 1898

Walter Robert Booth around 1898 - Credit: The Davenport Collection

For seven years,  Victorian magician Walter Robert Booth starred in films for early cinema pioneer Robert Paul in Muswell Hill.

Walter Robert Booth in a film by Muswell Hill cinema pioneer Robert Paul

Walter Robert Booth in a film by Muswell Hill cinema pioneer Robert Paul - Credit: Supplied

Booth's act included conjuring tricks, lightning cartooning, sleight-of-hand, mind-reading, illusions and quick change impersonations. It's possible that he met Paul while appearing at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, 'England's Home of Mystery'.

It was there in 1896, that Hampstead-based magician David Devant showed some of the first films in the UK, on a 'theatograph'  made by Robert Paul. Booth appeared in shows for both Devant and Egyptian Hall managers Maskelyne and Cooke, but in the early days of cinema he went from performing tricks between the so-called 'animated photographs' to appearing in them. 

Muswell Hill academic Dr Roland-Francois Lack is a senior lecturer at UCL in cinema, and describes how by October 1899, Booth was working for Paul at his studio complex next to Muswell Hill golf course. In 1895, Paul, an electrical engineer, had collaborated on shooting Britain's first motion picture on his co-patented 35mm camera. By 1898 he had set up Britain's first purpose built studios in Muswell Hill.

"In a manifesto-like advertisement of October 1898, Paul had announced that 'during the past Summer a Staff of Artists and Photographers have been at work in the North of London with the object of Producing a series of Animated Photographs. These Eighty Films, which have been produced regardless of expense, with specially made Dresses and Backgrounds, are now ready for issue".

Walter Robert Booth in a film by Muswell Hill cinema pioneer Robert Paul

Walter Robert Booth in a film by Muswell Hill cinema pioneer Robert Paul - Credit: Supplied

Dr Lack believes Booth may have been part of that initial staff. Speaking about his studio in 1936 to members of the British Kinematograph Society, Paul said "with the valuable aid of Robert Booth and others, hundreds of humorous dramatic and trick films were produced in the studio."

Some time between April and May 1900, Walter Booth had married Sarah Grace Roberts.

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"By March 1901, when the Census was taken, they were living as lodgers at 'Ferndale', 22 Greenham Road, N10. This newly built house was walking distance from where Booth was employed."

The film studios were on Sydney Road and Paul himself lived at 57 Colney Hatch Lane. He would film several sequences around Muswell Hill, including re-enacting the Boer War on the golf course.

In the 1901 Census Booth describes himself - not as a conjurer, or thought reader but as a scenic artist "working for his own account, i.e. self-employed, I have a sense that Booth's situation was more precarious than might have been supposed," adds Dr Lack.

Booth's first starring rôle in the film Upside Down; or, The Human Flies, was as a professor of spiritualism.

"The trick film demonstrates sophistication in both staging and editing. Paul had already mastered the necessary skills to achieve this, but the idea of combining cinematic trickery with the trickery of the stage may have been prompted by the arrival of Booth. The professor of spiritualism's first acts are basic conjuring, one of Booth's professional selling points, but the subsequent illusions, making himself disappear and turning his audience upside down, are not. Booth's contribution to the film is his stage presence. That same presence, adapted to the screen, put him at the centre of several Paul productions in the following six years, some but not all associated with his experience on the stage."

Dr Lack identifies Booth in at least nine of Paul's films: Upside Down (1899), His Brave Defender, as a concerned neighbour (1900), The Cheese Mites, as a waiter (1901), The Over-Incubated Baby, as a 'doctor's boy' (1901), Undressing Extraordinary, as a weary traveller trying to get undressed for bed (1901), The Waif and the Wizard, as a conjurer (1901), Artistic Creation, as a lightning sketch artist,  (1901), Political Favourites (1904, a lost film), as a lightning sketch artist, and A Lively Quarter-Day, as a conjuror with magic powers (1906). 

While working for Paul as an actor, Booth continued to perform around the country as live entertainment in the intervals of screenings, including Paul's series Army Life; or, How soldiers are made (1900).

Several of his films with Paul relate directly to Booth's experience as a lightning sketch artist.

"Of these, Artistic Creation (1901) survives in excellent condition, and I fully agree with the summary in Paul's catalogue: 'This is considered the finest and smartest picture of the kind ever taken, and a perfect photograph.' The film relies on cinematic not stage effects, though the staging probably corresponds well enough to what Booth's act looked like, an easel with paper to draw on and a table for props. Booth goes further, wearing for the film exactly the same Pierrot outfit he wore as 'Algy the Cartoonist' in the Devant show two or three years earlier."

Dr Lack believes the film was a "family affair". The woman whose disembodied head is joined by a body is Sarah Grace, and the baby Booth carries at the end, their three month old son.

After leaving Paul's employ, Booth set up as a full time film maker with a garden studio in Isleworth, making numerous magic and sci-fi films including the early animated film The Hand of the Artist 1906.

Walter Booth made his last film in 1915 and died in 1938.

Find out more about early cinema from Dr Lack's blog

Picture of Walter Booth appears courtesy of The Davenport Collection