Follow us on: Twitter, Facebook RSS

Skip to main content

Local History

1914 - 1946

Picture of a cinema restaurant

Source: Sheffield City Library

Entertainment For All

In the 1930s half the population of Britain went to the cinema at least once a week. Many people who lived through this period remember their cinema going with affection:

Lucy Glide, born 1907:
‘We had the main film then we had a feature film and then we had a comedy and then we had a newsreel film... and then a band show on the stage… It was for a shilling!’
Enter the Dream-House, MOMI

A shilling was 5p. Often the complete programme lasted four hours. Four hours solid entertainment, in the warm, luxurious atmosphere of the cinema was very good value. Remember that cinemas were at their most popular in the 1930s, when many millions of people were unemployed and overcrowded slum housing was the norm in many British cities.

Many cinemas still had live shows. Those with no stage or organ still managed a varied programme by including more films, often travel films about far away places; this was long before foreign holidays were common.  The cinema was for every generation. Teenagers met there, as Aine O'Halloran remembers:

‘The thing was, the lads came in and the girls came in and you'd see them over there, usually about half a dozen, and you'd hope they'd come over and talk to you. Everyone would get in really early, before the film, so you could be seen flitting around, and you could shout over at folk. It was a social gathering rather than a visit to the cinema as such.’
Enter the Dream-House, MOMI

Once you had paired off, going to the cinema was a popular choice for dating, too. Some cinemas had double seats on the back row. Never wanting to miss a possible audience, cinemas offered penny shows for children on Saturday mornings, when their dads wanted a lie-in and their mums wanted to clean the house and shop. It was called 'The Rush', and was pretty rowdy, as someone from Nottingham remembers:

‘We'd all be there, cramped on the doorstep of our local fleapit at first light.  Milling, jostling, whiling away the time eating bacon sandwiches, and sherbet, and generally encouraging the management to open up by breaking a window or two and drawing moustaches on every poster in sight. We didn't really watch the films at all. And we certainly didn't go to hear them. I don't remember hearing more than a snatch of dialogue, ever. The air was solid with screams, cheers, hisses, boos, insults, redoubled when someone in the balcony climbed high enough to hold his hand in front of the beam of light from the projection box.’
At A Cinema Near You: A History of Cinema in Nottingham

Dream Palaces

Picture of inside the cinema

Films remained silent through the 1920s, although there was usually piano accompaniment, sometimes to specially written scores. The grander cinemas might even have a full orchestra. Some films came with special records to be played to provide sound but it was hard to get them exactly synchronised. Fully synchronised soundtrack arrived in 1929, and films took on a new grandeur.

Most films from this period were escapist fiction: romances, adventures, westerns, musicals and comedies. In the Depression years, this was just what people wanted and just what Hollywood supplied.  To accompany these kinds of films, ‘escapist’ cinemas were built, dream palaces where you could leave reality behind as soon as you stepped inside. The first of these were called 'atmospheric' cinemas as they tried to create the atmosphere of a palace or castle. The Astoria, Brixton, for example, gave the illusion of sitting in the open air in a Mediterranean square.

Theodore Komisarjevsky, a Russian theatre director, designed some of the most fantastic interiors.  His creations were sometimes based on Moorish castles, sometimes on Venetian palaces, like the Granada, Tooting.  Quite different and distinctive in style were the cinemas owned by Oscar Deutsch, many of them Odeons. His main architect was Harry Weedon and Deutsch had over 300 cinemas in his chain when he died in 1941.

World War II

By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, there were 5,500 cinemas in Britain and cinema going had become part of the British way of life for people of nearly all classes. There was, of course, a huge variety, from the dream palaces and the monster cinemas of the big cities, to small cinemas in quiet provincial towns. Yet everywhere, they were the focus of people's lives.  Pinxton, Derbyshire, was a mining village where social life centred on the cinema, as Bill Belshaw remembers:

‘We used to call it the 'Bug Hut' but when I was in my early teens it was the only bit of life we had in the village. No telly, of course. We had a change of programme three times a week, two houses on a Saturday, two matinees, one on Monday when we came out of school at 4.30 and the tuppenny rush on Saturday afternoon. You always had to queue to get in. We didn't have much money in those days, but we used to enjoy ourselves.’
The Thrill of it All: The Story of the Cinema in Ilkeston and the Erewash Valley

When war broke out all cinemas were closed but re-opened again after two weeks. Escape from another kind of harsh reality was just what people needed and the cinemas provided it. If there were an air raid, a slide would be put on the screen saying:

‘Air-raid in progress - you may leave the cinema if you so desire’

Very few people did; cinemas were solidly built and would survive anything except a direct hit. Ticket sales were 600% higher in 1945 than they were in 1939.  Immediately after the war people were only too keen to pick up where they had left off with their leisure activities. In 1946 cinema attendance in Britain was the highest it had ever been.