FANTASY / Now you see him, now you don't: The magician and film-maker Georges Melies is being celebrated in an exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image

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THE story goes that when, one day in 1895, Georges Melies, magician, showman, theatre- owner and impresario extraordinaire, tried to buy a new-fangled gimmick called the Cinematograph, he was sent away with a flea in his ear. 'It is not for sale, but if it were it would ruin you,' said Auguste Lumiere (father of the brothers who had invented it). 'It can be exploited for a while as a scientific curiosity; beyond that it has no commercial future.'

Perhaps this was a stunning lack of foresight, perhaps it was a handy excuse (some reckon that Lumiere wanted to keep the profits to himself). Whatever the case, it's fortunate that Melies was undaunted. He located a rival contraption elsewhere, and in the next 17 years made over 500 short films that have established him as the only begetter of fantasy cinema. And their enduring charm and wit make him more than a dusty pioneer of film history.

Those who should know rate his work highly: Joe Dante was singing his praises on last Saturday's Moving Pictures, while Terry Gilliam was among the guests at a new show of Melies' work, which opened earlier this week. 'It's nice to see a completely black-and-white exhibition,' he says (it reflects Melies' custom of painting his decors and even his actors completely monochrome for his special effects). 'I hadn't seen many of Lumiere's films but now I realise that it's where I got the ideas for my cartoons and films from - in fact he even did an early version of Baron Munchausen. I'm involved right now in a project where everything is cut out in a two-dimensional effect, which is what Melies was doing, too.

'His films were made with such flair and panache, and were wonderfully silly when everyone else was being very serious. And there's something very liberating about the fact that they're not pretending to be real - they avoided that wrong turn that cinema took towards naturalism.'

Among the advisors for the exhibition is John Wade, a member of the Magic Circle. 'Melies was only in his twenties when he became so successful as a magician that he bought his own theatre,' Wade says. 'I don't know if he did what I call 'small magic' - he obviously liked the big, flashy stuff and was known for the 'De Kolta Chair', a trick which made a woman vanish - it's still being done today in The Phantom of the Opera.'

In those days, Wade says, there were intriguing links between magicians and the movies: the conjurers and illusionists which the young Melies saw while living briefly in London showed films as part of their acts. Conversely, the tricks themselves were mounted in dramatic form. 'Magic then wasn't done by a man in tails with an assistant - it was performed as little plays. For the decapitation trick, Melies had a mad old Dr Who-like type who won't stop talking. He would say, 'if you don't shut up I'll cut your head off.' And when he did, the severed head kept on ranting.

'I had all sorts of grand plans for the exhibition - I wanted a decapitated head.' Parents will be relieved to know that MOMI is a gore-free zone, although, for children, there is a professional conjurer kitted out in full Belle Epoque grandeur, who will be doing clever things with balloons, hoops and coins. SJ

Melies: Father of Film Fantasy to 12 June at MOMI, South Bank, London SE1. A major retrospective of Melies' work plays at the National Film Theatre during March, April and May

(Photograph omitted)