Why Was Cinema Going so Popular in the First Half of the Century?

Frances Connolly Year 1 Modern Britain Linda Polley 16th May 2006 Essay Why was cinema going so popular in the first half of the century and why did it decline after 1950? Both the rise in popularity of cinema going and its spectacular decline are not only well documented and discussed, but surprisingly, have generated little general disagreement among historians. Eddie Dyja states categorically that cinema popularity is easily explained, ‘it is cheap accessible and glamorous’1. Where as most of the blame for the decline is attributed to the advent of television.
Each is correct; however neither is the complete explanation of either scenario. No study would be complete without examining the social aspects of the cinema going experience, audience participation as well as demographics. The impact of the war cannot be ignored. A war time social survey in 1943 found that seventy percent of the adult population admitted attending the cinema regularly. James Chapman tells us that during this period ‘larger groups of the population are relatively better represented in the cinema audience than they are in the publics reached by other media’2.
Similarly, to explain the decline in cinema solely in terms of television is to ignore the fact that television had actually been around for some time before the decline. Also although the rapid decline began in 1945 television wasn’t widely available until after the coronation in 1953. 3 In addition, an examination of both what was happening in the industry and particularly to the cinema buildings themselves sheds further light on the decline of audiences.

The first public screening of a film in this country before a paying audience was on 20th February 1896. It was orchestrated by French magician Felicien Trewey using a Lumiere cinematograph, at Regent Street Polytechnic in London. Admission was 1s and it marked the beginning of Britain’s fifty year love affair with the cinema. Luke Mc Kernan and Stephen Herbert tell us that by ‘the close of the nineteenth century it was firmly established as a medium of entertainment, instruction and experiment’. During the first 10 years of the twentieth century Britain was at the cutting edge of developments with the work of men like William Friese Greene who made the first moving picture on celluloid film in Hyde Park. Another British man, George Albert Smith, actually devised the first colour system Kinemacolour in 1908. Interest in innovation and scientific advancement coupled with a political will to change the lot of the poor meant that this new, cheap form of entertainment appealed to an increasing number of people.
Social developments in the early twentieth century, for example Lloyd George’s ‘peoples budget, meant that a slowly increasing number of people had money to spend on non essential items. Also increasingly, those people with money to spend were women and they needed a socially acceptable venue for their entertainment, the cinema fitted the bill. As they bore the brunt of the drudgery of daily life so their need for escape and a vision of another world was greater. Not only the choice of film but the whole nature of cinema going were factors which drew audiences.
The early small ‘flee pits’ where local communities gathered to socialise, Marwick suggests that ‘eating, dozing and, for young couples courting, were all part of the experience’5. Behaviour was somewhat less than decorous; it was accepted practice for audiences to shout at the screen and across the auditorium, making it a much more interactive experience. The films either in the silent era or the early talkies showed a world that the average working class audience could not know about any other way.
Even when the images were idealised and less than accurate they provided a glamorous escape from the reality of poverty. When the ‘dream palaces’ typified by the Odeon cinemas built by Birmingham Businessman Oscar Deutsch began to replace these small local cinemas they simply added to the glamour of the occasion by providing atmosphere from the moment a person entered the building. Film choice was a similarly crucial indicator of the reasons people went to the ‘pictures’. The most popular films were in general the American imports.
The industry there had expanded exponentially, the studio system created by the major studio owners and the huge home audiences allowed for the production of big budget high quality films on a tremendous scale. The studios spent vast amounts of time and money marketing not only their films but their stars. Creating a culture of stars, Hollywood royalty who’s every action was big news, world wide and whose salaries could not be conceived of, by the poor working class audiences in Britain who devoured their films.
Cinema really came to pre eminence as ‘the entertainment of the masses’ during the war. Michael Sissons and Phillip French tell us that ‘whether it involved Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable cheering up the boys with displays of leg, or Noel Coward and John Mills inspiring them with displays of stiff upper lip,’6 the cinema made a significant contribution to the war effort. In effect, as well as entertaining the cinema now served a higher purpose. War was declared on 3rd September 1939, and although war fare did not immediately reach British shores the effects began to show quickly.
Gas masks were issued, blackouts enforced, shelters built, rationing introduced and sand bags were stored everywhere space could be found. On 7th September 1940 the Blitz began and London saw seventy six consecutive nights of bombing. Altogether sixty thousand British civilians were killed and two out of every seven houses was damaged. The brunt of this devastation was born by the working class, in such circumstances it is easy to see why the need for escape was greatly increased. Add to this the social changes brought about by necessity during the war and the rise in cinema attendance is easily understood.
Conscription drained the country of young men, (in fact conscription was extended to single women between the ages of nineteen and twenty four,) at a time of greatest need. This drew women, particularly significantly married women into the general work force for the first time. This gave women economic and social freedoms as never before. This same lifting of traditional restrictions was extended to the young. Many young people had to be left to their own devices and the cinema provided a couple of hours of cheap baby sitting. Matinees were a staple for the young and dreaded by the cinema owners.
The best seats were only a shilling and at least half the audience paid less. Combined with this, the war years saw an eighty percent rise in wages. An average weekly wage in 1938 was approximately fifty three shillings and three pence; by 1945 this had risen to ninety three shillings. The cost of living in this same period was only thirty one percent. 7 With married women working some households now had two incomes for the first time put simply there was more money to be spent on leisure when there was limited choice of suitable leisure so the cinema was an excellent option.
When we come to examine the evidence for the decline in cinema attendance it is blatantly obvious that television played a considerable part. The opportunity to watch events of national significance such as V. E. Day parades and the marriage of Princess Elizabeth from the comfort of the home was a great advantage and gradually did draw an audience. When the Queen was crowned in 1953 there was a concerted effort made to ensure that the whole nation could see the coverage on television if they so wished and twenty million did.
After this date the steep incline of the attendance figures graph can without much fear of contradiction be attributed to the upsurge in television purchases. However, by this stage the decline in audience numbers had already been significant. Many of the reasons for the increase in popularity can also help to explain its demise. An examination of the cinema building themselves shows several points. Firstly the change from the small local cinema had brought about a change in the experience which actually reduced the social aspect of the experience.
By moving the location from town centres people no longer met their friends and neighbours, the new cinemas discouraged rowdy and licentious behaviour so the experience became less of an interactive, social occasion. The purposes the old cinema building were put to adds another dimension to the debate. Many were converted to dance or bingo halls, the former for the young the later for their parents. The variety of activities which had become acceptable during the war had increased, when people particularly the young went out they wanted to interact with the opposite sex as well as their friends.
Youth as a separate group with expendable cash were now demanding other forms of entertainment as well as the cinema. In addition to this many of the big cinemas were no longer that new and provided a much less glamorous environment at an ever increasing cost. In his study of the geography of cinema going in Great Britain Barry Doyle found that during the period when cinema attendance was at it’s peak the number of cinemas especially in urban areas was correspondingly high. As new large out of town cinema complexes began to spring up many of the more convenient cinemas closed.
He suggests a possible correlation between the decline of cinema attendance and the availability of access to cinemas. 8 Another factor in the decline in cinema attendance can be found in the film industry it self. The British film industry at this time was experiencing a ‘golden age’; its films were well received and more critically successful then ever before. However the picture was something of a mirage. During the late twenties the financial situation for British production companies was so dire that production was all but at a standstill.
In an attempt to bolster the industry The Cinematographers Trade Bill was introduced in 1927, in essence it was a quota system whereby owners were forced to show at first five percent (rising as high as forty five per later), British films in their theatres. 9 In practice what happened was that the British production companies had neither the money nor the infrastructure to produce sufficient good quality films. They made terrible film which in turn gave the American studios the excuse and the opportunity to buy up or into British companies.
Films could then be made in Britain using British talent using American money which could be shown within the quota system as British. This did have the short term effect of supporting the British film industry but drained revenues out of the country. So when the Americans hit problems as happened after the war there was no way of filling the gap. After the war the studio system in America could no longer sustain itself, the stars were demanding independence and freedom to choose their own material this meant ever increasing production costs.
At the same time the studios lost their other main source of revenue, ownership of the distribution and theatre chains. This monopolistic practice was curtailed when they were forced by the American government to divest themselves of their theatre empires in 1949. 10 American Film simply cost more and there were less of them available. Perhaps the greatest threat to the British cinema came from the British Government who’s interference in the industry had devastating consequences at this time. An audience once lost is hard to regain.
In 1947 Dr Hugh Dalton was Chancellor of the Exchequer and in an attempt to curtail the flow of revenues from the country to America decided (without any consultation with the industry), to impose a seventy five percent duty on all imported films. This resulted in the American film industries embargo on Britain. No films until the tax was rescinded. After many machinations committees and discussions, it was lifted and the only tangible action taken was to raise the price of admission thus alienating the public even further.
According to the figures of the British film Institute five of the top ten films of all time were made in the nineteen forties and one, the oldest in the list Snow White and the seven Dwarfs was made in 1937. This is because cinema attendance in that decade were ten times higher than today. The changing face of British society throughout the early part of the century meant that the majority working class group had both time and money to spend on entertainment and the cinema provided a social and socially acceptable environment to spend that time and money.
In the ‘Good Housekeeping’, Magazine of 1942 there is an article entitled ‘Budgeting for Victory’. In it the housewife is advised to reduce costs as much as possible, yet some provision for ‘Holidays and amusements’ is still allowed. 11 So even at a time of great national crisis spending on entertainment is accepted as an essential all be it a minimal one. The decline in popularity was more complex than it seems at first with many factors playing a small part not least access. However it cannot be disputed that television with its convenience and it aid to status put the final nail in the coffin.
It has been estimated that more people owned a television in 1960 than owned a refrigerator. 12 Showing it to be of significance in its own right as a symbol of the growing affluence of British society. By the late fifties early sixties entertainment and the need to be seen to be doing well was of more importance than any convenience which might be gained from the purchase of an item that could not be displayed. So the cheap medium of the entertainment of the masses to the occasional, one option out of many, in under a decade. References
Chris Wrigley, ‘Blackwell Companion to British History, A Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain’, (Blackwell Publishers ltd, 2003) Alan G. Burton, ‘The British Consumer Co-operative Movement and Film,1890-1960’, (Manchester University Press, 2005) Brian McFarlane, ‘The Encyclopedia of British Film’, Methuen, London,2003) Eddie Dyja, ‘BFI Film Handbook 2005’, (London 2005) Shay Sayre, Cynthia King, ‘Entertainment and Society Audiences Trends and Impacts’, (Sage Publications,London,2003) Claire Monk, Amy Sargeant,’British Historical Cinema’, (Routledge, London 2002) Robert A.
Rosentone, ‘Revisioning History, Film and the Construction of a New Past’, (Princton University Press,1995) Marcia Landy, ’British Genres Cinema and Society 1930-1960’, (Princeton University Press,1991) Jeffrey Richards, ‘The Age of the Dream Palace Cinema and Society in Britain 1930-1939’, (Routledge, London,1984) John Hill, Pamela Church Gibson, ‘The Oxford Guide to Film Studies’, (Oxford University Press, 1998) Paddy Scannell, David Cardiff, ‘A Social History of British Broadcasting’, (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, 1991) John Barnes, ‘The Beginning of the Cinema in England 1894-1901’, ( University of Exeter Press 1998) Charles Barr, ‘Ealing Studios’, (Studio Vista, London,1993) Robert Murphy, ‘Realism ans Tinsel Cinema ans Society in Britain 1939-49’, (Routledge, London, 1992) Michael Sissons, Phillip French, ‘Age of Austerity’, (Greenwood Press,Connecticut,1976) Arthur Marwick, ‘British Society since 1945’, (Penguin Books, London,2003) Arthur Marwick, ‘War and Social change in the Twentieth Century’, (Macmillan, London,1974) James Chapman, ‘The British At War Cinema State and Propaganda 1939-1945’, (I. B.
Tauris Publishers, London, 1998) Barbara Dixon, ‘Wartime Scrapbook, Good Housekeeping’, Collins and Brown, Chester, 2005) Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol 22, no 3, 2002 Frank Kessler, ‘Introduction: Visible evidence – But of What? Reassessing early non fiction cinema’ Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 23, no. 2, 2003, Adrian Smith, ‘Humphrey Jennings’ Heart of Britain (1941):a reassessment Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 23, no. 1, 2003, Barry Doyle,’The Geography of Cinemagoing in Great Britain,1934-1994: a comment’ Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television,vol. 23, no. 4, 2003, Josephine Dolan,’Aunties and Uncles: The BBC’s Childrens Hour and liminal concerns in the 1920s’ Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 25, no. , 2005, Su Holmes, ‘Designed Specially for Television purposes and technique: The Development of the Television Cinema Program in Britain in the 1950s’ Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 24, no. 4, 2004, Sue Harper, ‘A Lower Middle-Class Taste Community in the 1930s: admissions figures at the Regent Cinema, Portsmouth,Uk’ Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, vol. 25, no. 4, 2005, Lawrence Black,’Whose Finger On the Button? British Television and the Politics of Cultural Control’ Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, http://www. zenbullets. com/britfilm/article. php? art=history The British Film Resource 1890-1910, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. bftv. ac. uk/ , The Centre for British Film and Television Studies, accessed April 10th 2006 http://news. bbc. o. uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/4051741. stm BBC News Entertainment, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. bbfc. co. uk/about/index. php British Board of Film Classification, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. bfi. org. uk/nftva/ British Film Institute, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. britishcinemagreats. com/cinema_history/pre_british/page_1. htm British Film History, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. history. qmul. ac. uk/research/BFIproject. html Queen Mary University of London, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. ealingstudios. co. uk/history_home. html Ealing Studios, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. filmsite. org/pre20sintro. tml ,Film History before 1920, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. bafta. org/site/page13. html , British Acadmy of Film and Television Arts, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. movinghistory. ac. uk/index. html Moving History, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. screenonline. org. uk/film/id/448216/index. html BFI, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. victorian-cinema. net/sources. htm , Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, accessed April 10th 2006 http://www. pinewoodshepperton. com/html/filmography/filmography. htm Pinewood, accessed 3rd May 2006 http://www. screenonline. org. uk/people/id/460162/index. html Denham Studio, accessed 3rd May 2006

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