In 1948 cinema attendance peaked with a staggering 1,650 million visits recorded in Great Britain throughout that year. This was the height of the golden age of cinema going, something that had begun in the 1920s and burgeoned throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
In this special blog we will explore this golden age of cinema going and what contributed to its overwhelming success and popularity, using pages taken from the British Newspaper Archive.
So read on to discover more about the escapism that the cinema provided, how it was truly an entertainment event, and how the building of luxury cinemas across the country helped Britain escape from the throes of the Great Depression.
Orchestras, Organs and Encores
Palladium Luxury Cinema
Like the stars hanging low on a still frosty night a picture winking and glittering with fun and romance.
It would be impossible to avoid the promised allure of this film (My Lucky Star – with Sonja Henie and Richard Greene), especially given the promise of the luxury Palladium Cinema.
And what was on offer was pure, unadulterated, escapism. As the country exited the Great Depression and teetered on the edge of another World War, going to the cinema offered an escape into a romantic, fantastic and ultimately safe world. Moreover, going to the cinema in the 1930s and 1940s was an event in itself, and not just a case of seeing the pictures on offer.
In October 1931 if you attended the Cecil Theatre in Hull, your film would be accompanied by a ‘noted orchestra’ of ‘seven instrumentalists and vocalists, fresh from a successful season at the Royal Spa Hotel, Bridlington.’ The Hull Daily Mail wonders whether this would be ‘a general movement among the cinema…or simply an instance of isolated enterprise?’
Certainly the theatre organ, played in between features, was not an isolated happening in cinemas across the land. The Lincolnshire Standard and Echo pictures Harold Cryer ‘at the console of the Everett Theatre Organ, which has just been installed at the Parade Super Cinema, Skegness’ in July 1939.
Briefly, it is this – after the most popular songs the audience is given the opportunity of hearing an encore, the same scene being repeated after a moment’s black-out. So far it has proved to be an unqualified success and its method of presentation has appealed tremendously to the public.
The encore would be played ‘if the audience’s appreciation is indicated by applause,’ introducing a ‘human element in the cinema’ that had not been seen before. However, Martin St Clair, writing for the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, laments how this innovation, ‘born of a Northern brain,’ had not received the attention it deserved due to being ‘the unfortunate contemporary of an international crisis’ – the outbreak of the Second World War.
So it was very little wonder then, with all the extras and the luxury surroundings, that ‘everybody’ was going to the cinema, as one advertisement for a Burnley cinema claimed (Burnley Express, 15 April 1931):
Everybody’s Going to the Savoy – You must see, hear and feel ROMANCE with Greta Garbo and Lewis Stone – only once in a decade a picture so real, so impressive.
And our newspapers show that cinema going had a widespread appeal, with all age groups attending the latest shows. The Chichester Observer, April 1935, writes about Mrs Ann Stansall from Mansfield, who was ‘said to be Britain’s oldest ‘film fan.” Mrs Stansall was celebrating her ‘105th brithday by going to the cinema.’
Meanwhile in Darlington, also in 1935, a loved up and unemployed young couple named Edith Hunter (16) and Herbert Jenkinson (25) celebrated their wedding by ‘going to the pictures,’ the Daily Mirror providing the headline ‘Love-on-Dole Couple Going to Cinema for Their Honeymoon.’ The cinema here provided the new Mr and Mrs Jenkinson with an affordable way of celebrating their union.
So not only was cinema going something of an escape, it was affordable too, something that undoubtedly contributed to this the golden age of cinema going. And elsewhere pains were being made to ensure the accessibility of going to the pictures.
Again in 1935 the Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press describes another innovation in the cinema industry. The Chandos Cinema, Buckingham, like many other cinemas, had installed devices for their hard of hearing patrons, ‘who have not welcomed the change from the silent picture, and because of the absence of captions and descriptive matter, are unable to follow the story along.’
But a new invention – the ‘deaf aid head telephone’ – had been installed in this cinema to help those with hearing difficulties. ‘Available to patrons upon request’ from the pay box, the user could ‘adjust the intensity of the sound to his or her requirements.’
Given its accessibility and affordability, no wonder ‘everybody’ was going. But there was another factor enticing audiences into the cinema, and that can be summed up by one word – luxury.
‘Luxury in Suburbia’
Christmas is so climactically suited to enjoying the warmth and comfort and the luxury of our modern cinemas that there is no wonder that all over the city there have been queues and packed houses. It is this luxury and comfort that has helped the cinema to become the joy it is.
Luxury and comfort were the watch words of the modern cinema. We can see this becoming evident in 1928, when the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported on ‘New Theatre Regulations‘ coming into force in London. Not only were these rules bringing up to date regulations surrounding ‘mechanical equipment and protection from fire,’ they were also ensuring greater comfort for their audiences:
Going to a cinema or theatre will in the future be no reason for the Londoner catching a cold, for provision has now been made for the warming of all parts of the premises regularly occupied by the public, the performers and the staff.
The luxury cinema had been born, and our newspapers abound with descriptions of these new palaces of entertainment, for that is what they were. In December 1931 the Regal Luxury Cinema opened in Uxbridge, being constructed from 1 million bricks and ’31 miles of electric wiring,’ its auditorium seating decorated in ‘old gold and soft purple’ with a ‘carpet of heavy pile in rich autumn tints’ (Uxbridge & W. Drayton Gazette).
Meanwhile a ‘new luxury entertainment house‘ opened its doors in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, in 1933 (Western Daily Press) and in 1935 the Olympia Cardiff reopened as a ‘gloriously modern luxury cinema…bringing you a new era of entertainment’ (Western Mail).
You could find new luxury cinemas in Greenford (the Granada, Middlesex County Times) and Northampton (the Northampton Savoy – ‘Northampton’s Latest Luxury Cinema‘ – Northampton Mercury) – indeed, they were everywhere! The Oprheus Cinema in Henleaze offered ‘Modernity in Excelsis’ (Western Daily Press) – so what exactly did these modern interiors consist of?
The design is modernistic, one of the features over the main entrance consisting of two large stone fins to permit the neon lighting of the exterior. With regard to the interior, a particular feature of this new theatre is the exceptionally large foyer and lounge, specially introduced to accommodate all waiting patrons. Queues will be unnecessary.
Leading from the foyer and lounge are the most modernly equipped toilet departments and cloak-rooms.
The decorative scheme is highly attractive. The walls and ceilings are surfaced in a plastic, acoustic texture, finished with metallic spraying. The general colouring is in rust red and silver, and a similar idea has been introduced into the seat furnishing and the carpeting. All the doors and fittings are in satin chromium and Doverite.
Further comfort and luxury was provided by the ‘super Wilton carpets on the floor.’ Meanwhile architects working on a new luxury cinema in Bath harked back to the past, evolving their design ‘from the idea of a simplified modern rendering of Ancient Roman style.’ The cinema, as the Western Daily Press relates, was appropriately to be called the ‘Forum Cinema.’
Our final trip inside a luxury cinema takes us to The Regal in Cheddar, Somerset, which opened in 1939. Not only does the Wells Journal claim that is ‘absolutely fire-proof’ due it being constructed ‘throughout of steel and concrete,’ The Regal also offers a ‘spacious car park’ provided – showing how car ownership was becoming more and more common.
Again, The Regal is decorated with a ‘luxurious Wilton carpet’ with a colour scheme of ‘artistic shades of green…and rose pink.’ The Regal goes further, however, promising that patrons’ ‘eyes will show no sign of fatigue throughout the performance and there will be no resultant eye strain’ due to the projection equipment available.
‘A Local Venture’
When The Astoria in Beeston opened in June 1936 the West Bridgford Times & Echo is at pains to point out how it was a ‘purely local venture.’ Indeed, this was true of many of the cinemas which opened up across the country throughout the 1930s.
The newspaper relates how:
The Astoria is purely a local venture, local contractors and sub-contractors have been responsible for the building, lighting, decorating, glazing, heating and furnishing, while local capital has made this magnificent building possible.
Indeed, many full page spreads giving accounts of cinema openings are filled with advertisements for the contractors who had worked on the construction and decoration of the cinema in question. One can imagine in this sense how the building of these grand cinemas contributed to the recovery of the economy which had been so damaged by the Great Depression.
The reopening of Cardiff’s Olympia as a ‘luxury cinema’ saw ‘100 local men having been employed on the task,’ the Western Mail advertising the ‘expert and reliable workmanship’ of the contractors. Therefore, the golden age of cinema going created jobs, and helped to resurrect local industry across the country.
The End of An Golden Age
Sadly, all good things have to come to an end. By December 1957 C.A. Lejeune for The Sketch is writing how ‘fewer and fewer people are going to the cinema. In five years, attendances have dropped by more than thirty million.’
A year later, Lejeune penned an article entitled ‘The Cinema Asked for It!,’ which explored the reasons for the decline in cinema audiences. From its 1948 peak of 1,650 million visits, in 1957 this number had fallen to 910 million.
Some parties blamed this on ‘the real trouble’ – namely ‘so many women [going] out to work nowadays.’ Meanwhile actor Sam Wanamaker, father of Zoe, blamed falling audiences on a new invention – the television:
Why should people leave a warm fireside, a comfortable chair and the ‘telly’ for a draughty cinema with its 1930 decor and upholstery to match?
The cinema and the home had gone full circle; comfort and entertainment were now available in a domestic setting, and the once grand palaces of film had gone into a sad decay.
Lejeune goes on to substantiate Wanamaker’s claims regarding ‘old, draughty and unattractive cinemas,’ citing readers’ complaints regarding ‘uncivil service, messy floors, damaged seats, lack of information, too much advertising, too many intervals, bad second features.’
Also in question was affordability – a family of four in 1958 could expect to spend 15 shillings (nearly £16 today – and not taking into account the price of sweets and snacks!) on a trip to a cinema. Lejeune writes ‘Even in these days of high wages that’s a mighty big consideration,’ and he blames this desire for value for money as a reason for a decline in audiences.
Sadly then, the big draws of the golden age of cinema (luxury and affordability) had ceased to be applicable in the post-war age. And with recent events and the impact of the coronavirus crisis, will the cinema habit ever again be resurrected?