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Cinemas & Cinemagoing: WWII and Beyond by Allen Eyles



The War Years

When war was declared on Sunday 3 September 1939, all cinemas were immediately closed as a safety precaution. But most were back in business within a week as the authorities realised that the nation needed entertainment to keep up its spirits.

Odeon, Harlow, 1960 (later subdivided into three cinemas)

Odeon, Harlow, 1960 (later subdivided into three cinemas)

After bombing began, programmes were interrupted by managers appearing on stage to announce air raid warnings, but most patrons preferred to remain in their seats. Eventually a slide was flashed on the screen over the film without interrupting the performance. Cinemas came to be regarded as safe havens against all but a direct hit and patrons were usually clustered under the balcony for maximum protection. Basement cinemas like the Ritz Leicester Square were also particularly popular. A shortage of projectionists due to the call-up resulted in many women being trained to work in the 'box'.

In areas of heavy bombing, attendances were decimated for a while; but cinemas generally enjoyed a huge boom in attendances from 1941 onwards, many receiving additional patronage from servicemen stationed in their area. Audiences flocked particularly to morale-boosting films with a war theme, such as 49th Parallel (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1941), and to Hollywood escapism in Technicolor.

Postwar Peak and Big Decline

Cinemas also benefited in wartime from the absence of most rival leisure activities, and, in the wake of its victorious conclusion, an all-time peak of 1,635 million admissions was reached in 1946. However, building restrictions meant that new cinemas could not be build in areas of expanding population nor war-damaged ones repaired. A tax dispute, which resulted in Hollywood withholding new films for nine months in 1947-48 and encouraged the hasty production of inferior British pictures, did little harm, but several factors contributed to the slow decline in attendances up to the mid-1950s: the revival of other forms of leisure, the rise in the number of people watching black-and-white BBC Television (especially after the live coverage of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was watched by half the population in 1952), and the increasing comfort of the home.

Hollywood suffered the impact of television from the late 1940s, much earlier than Britain. Its attempts to fight back with more colour films, 3-D, and wide screens had a beneficial effect in British cinemas until the novelty element wore off. Admissions more than halved between 1956 and 1960, particularly as a result of the regional spread of ITV, which offered a more popular alternative to BBC programmes and highlighted the showing of films, some quite recently made. But the fall in attendances was exacerbated by the reduction in the number of cinemas and by a serious shortage of American movies. Cinema newsreels closed down because they could no longer compete with the immediacy of television. (Most newsreel cinemas survived by showing cartoons or new foreign films or old features.)

Some cinemas were built in new towns, such as Harlow and Hemel Hempstead. Many huge picture palaces were replaced by smaller modern cinemas, primarily included to obtain planning permission for office developments and often tucked away in the basement. The most profitable cinemas were extensively modernised but others were turned over to potentially more lucrative leisure uses, becoming bingo halls, bowling alleys, dance halls, etc. - or sold off to be replaced by supermarkets, petrol stations and office blocks. Still more sat as boarded-up, derelict eyesores, testimony to the big screen's grave decline. From a postwar total of 4,700, the number of British cinemas had declined to 3,050 at the end of 1960, and to 1,971 at the end of 1965.

Changing Audiences

With films such as A Streetcar Named Desire (US, d. Elia Kazan, 1951), Hollywood tackled more controversial subjects, leading to the introduction of the X certificate (no persons under 16 years of age to be admitted), which was blamed in some quarters for destroying the habit of family visits to the cinema. However, as in America, it was Britain's younger generation which increasingly formed the bulk of the audience, as teenagers had both the funds and the social incentive, while married couples with children and older people found it more convenient to watch television at home. Films like Rock Around the Clock (US, d. Fred F. Sears, 1956) were specifically aimed at the teenage audience.

The success of Cinerama with its huge screen (introduced to London in 1954) encouraged other cinemas to install large screens, so that expensive American productions such as Around the World in Eighty Days (d. Michael Anderson, 1956), South Pacific (d. Joshua Logan, 1958) and Ben-Hur (d. William Wyler, 1959) could be given extended runs with separate performances at increased prices before eventually receiving a wider release at standard prices. South Pacific sent a new record by running for nearly four and a half years in London.

By the mid-1960s, there were only enough mainstream films to provide weekly releases for two chains: ABC and Rank (combining Odeons and Gaumonts). Many large cinemas denied access to either of these product streams were forced to close for lack of suitable 'product'. Occasional attempts were made to play films for a fortnight or longer on general release but audiences, from habit, tended to flock to them in the first week.

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