16th May 2006
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’. 4 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...