Film was first shown in Britain in 1896 in temporary fairground booths and converted shops – so-called ‘penny gaffs’ or theatre ‘turns’.
What followed was an endless love affair between the English and the moving image. Here we take a quick look at how our love for film inspired the construction of many glamorous and decorative cinemas, a number of which are protected by listing.
The 1909 Cinematograph Act was the first legislation in the UK to regulate the film industry. Film reels were made from a highly flammable material, creating a significant safety hazard that had resulted in a number of fatal fires. The act specified a strict building code and almost overnight a new building type emerged.
Some cinemas were newly built, but many were conversions of existing premises such as shops, community halls, corn exchanges, churches, roller-skating rinks, theatres and playhouses.
You can spot a purpose-built early cinema by the high, quite decorative front with an arched entrance way leading to a small foyer. The auditorium would be a long narrow hall, perhaps with a balcony. A good example is the Empire Cinema Great Yarmouth (1911), Grade II listed.
‘One gentleman recalls the distinct smell of perfume that consumed the cinema in an attempt to disguise the smell of tobacco and stink of the general public, who often only bathed once a week. As the joke went, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, bugs and fleas, take your seats at the cinema please!”’
The late 1920s saw an influx of large cinema chains, helped by the Cinematograph Act of 1927 which, designed to reinvigorate the declining British Film Industry, required British cinemas to show a quota of British films. Household names included the Gaumont, ABC (Associated British Cinemas), Granada, Essoldo, and Odeon.
The first Odeon was built by Oscar Deutsch in Perry Bar, Birmingham, in 1930, and the chain pioneered a modern, streamlined style.
Close to 1,500 new cinemas were built from 1920 to 1940. This was an age of mass entertainment and avid film-viewing, in which the moving image became central to popular culture, and the new cinemas displayed an architecture of glamour and escapism or modernity.
In Kent, Margate’s Dreamland (1935, by Leathart and Granger, listed Grade II*) fronted an entertainment complex with a modernist, continental-influenced cinema in brick, with an eye-catching fin tower.
Internal decoration too could be very special, as in the Gothic fantasy of the Granada, Tooting, in the London Borough of Wandsworth (1931; listed Grade I with an interior by Theodore Komisarjevsky) is still considered to be one of the most spectacular cinemas in Britain.
Fewer cinemas were built after 1945, and most were built as part of office developments as non-flammable film made it possible to combine cinema with other uses, usually by building a cinema in the basement.
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