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Cinemas & Cinemagoing: The Rise of the Cinemas by Allen Eyles



First Film Shows

The first public performances of films before a paying audience in Great Britain began at the Polytechnic in Upper Regent Street, central London, on 21 February 1896. Consisting of short films made in France by the Lumière brothers and shown via their Cinématographe equipment, the programme was so successful that it transferred to the Empire music hall in Leicester Square as one of the top items on the bill. A British inventor, R. W. Paul, showed films at Olympia the following month via his rival system, which was booked into the Alhambra music hall in Leicester Square and elsewhere. The third major variety theatre in London, the Palace, adopted the American Biograph system in March 1897.

The new marvel of 'animated pictures' spread rapidly through travelling fairs, through showmen hiring local halls for special shows, and through the music halls everywhere. Once film had demonstrated its lasting appeal, businessmen began taking over shops, halls and railway arches, painting over the windows and otherwise rather crudely converting them into full-time cinemas. A slightly more elaborate variation involved an auditorium resembling a railway carriage presenting moving views ('Tours of the World') that had been photographed along railway lines.

Purpose-Built Cinemas

Electric Pavilion, Brixton c. 1911

Electric Pavilion, Brixton c. 1911

Under the Cinematograph Act of 1909, new regulations came into effect in January 1910 to improve safety. As the nitrate film stock being projected was highly inflammable, the Act required the provision of a fire-resistant projection booth (occasionally this was established behind the screen to provide 'rear projection'). This legislation greatly encouraged the spread of purpose-built picture houses. These usually had flamboyant exteriors to catch the eye, with payboxes open to the street, and the frequent use of the word 'Electric' in their names as a reminder that electricity was something of a novelty. As shows were made up of short films, including travelogues and news items, and lasted only for an hour to 90 minutes (feature films began to arrive around 1914), these cinemas were generally provided with tiny foyers and minimal toilet facilities.

Electric Pavilion, Brixton (restored)

Electric Pavilion, Brixton (restored)

The auditoria had sloping floors and, usually, parallel side walls with decorated panels separated by pilasters. Barrel vault ceilings incorporated richly decorated plasterwork bands. Seating was rarely for more than a few hundred patrons and balconies were not often provided.

All picture houses had a range of prices, commonly starting at 3d. (threepence) and rising to 1s. (one shilling - 5p in decimal currency), with reduced prices for children. The best seats in the house cost four times as much as the cheapest and this was a pattern that prevailed until recent times. The cheap seats (at the front) often consisted of benches and frequently were only accessible via a separate side entrance. There were padded, 'tip-up' seats further back, with or without arm rests. Unpleasant body odours, dense cigarette smoke and a lack of fresh air were problems that could be alleviated by opening windows, and sometimes a ceiling dome or sliding roof, during intervals (ceiling fans were also used) and by spraying the air above the audience with strongly perfumed disinfectant at regular intervals.

Electric Palace, Harwich, 1913

Electric Palace, Harwich, 1913

Films were usually projected onto a whitewashed plaster screen on the back wall of the stage. They were accompanied by a pianist or small orchestra. Sometimes, sound effects (such as coconut shells to imitate horses' hoofs) were added from the side. Members of the audience would commonly read out the intertitles for the benefit of illiterate companions.

After local authorities began banning and censoring films, the film industry in 1912 hurriedly set up the independent British Board of Film Censors to classify films according to audience suitability, and its decisions have usually been accepted.

Permanent picture houses had appeared in virtually every town by the outbreak of World War One in 1914, which put an end to new building schemes for the next few years.

Electric Palace, Harwich (restored)

Electric Palace, Harwich (restored)

Unless they were rebuilt or enlarged, the early picture houses were usually destined to become 'fleapits' because of their cramped facilities, outmoded style, and small size compared to the new cinemas of the 1920s and 1930s, which also took the best new films away from them. Some early cinemas located in poor areas resorted to admitting children in exchange for empty jam jars or other salvageable items.

First Cinema Chains

Cinemas attracted the attention of promoters and many small regional circuits were established, building new cinemas and acquiring existing ones. One of the most active was the Pyke's circuit in London. Over-expansion was widespread and many of these companies failed and were absorbed by stronger competitors.

The first national chain to emerge was Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (PCT), which established a 'Picture House' in the centre of most major cities. These and individual new cinemas like the West End in London's Coventry Street (1913) were built to a high standard to attract the more affluent classes and featured a full orchestra to accompany the 'silent' films, private boxes at the rear, elegant decoration, cafés or tea rooms, smoking lounges, ladies' only salons and even writing desks with free stationery.

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