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Local History

1946 - Modern times

Photograph showing the outside of a disused cinema

The graph below shows the dramatic decline in cinema attendances in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the rise of television was obviously the main reason for this, there were several others. The years after 1945 were hard for Britain. The country was in debt after the strain of war and there was a severe housing shortage. Both of these factors affected cinema business.

The Entertainment Tax, which was added to the price of a cinema ticket, was raised. It was nearly 47% on the price of an expensive seat. At this rate people could not afford to keep up the twice-a-week habit of pre-war years. Smaller audiences meant that owners had to keep putting up the prices to make any profit.

Building materials, money and labour were channelled into house building. This meant that very little was available for building new cinemas or even repairing old ones. No new cinemas were built in Britain until 1954. Old ones became increasingly scruffy. Slum clearance and rebuilding programmes left many inner-city cinemas without a local audience.

From August 1947 to March 1948 US film distributors boycotted Britain because the government proposed putting a high import duty on imported films. Robbed of Hollywood films, British cinemas had to fall back on old copies and poor quality films. Cinema audiences never recovered.

Graph of cinema attendances 1945-1994

Television

There were only 15,000 television sets in Britain in 1945, but by 1955, when commercial television started, there were 5 million. By 1961 there were 11 million sets and cinema admissions had fallen by 75%.

All these factors together meant that cinemas struggled to compete with television. Who would want to go out to a cold, draughty cinema, with decor that had not been painted or repaired since the 1930s, and pay prices that had risen much faster than inflation, when television could entertain you more cheaply in the warmth of your own fireside every night?

Filmmakers tried to fight back by taking on techniques that could not be copied on TV. 3-D films appeared, requiring the use of special projectors, screens and expensive glasses. It was a short-lasting gimmick, although 3D has returned in the twenty-first century! Cinemascope brought wide-screen 'epics' that only big cinemas could manage to show effectively. Some new cinemas were built, usually on the same lines as 1930s cinemas.

Cinema owners were sometimes slow to see that times had changed. The chain system, in which all the cinemas in a particular company would show the same film in the same week, might have saved some money in distribution costs. However, the result was that the new car-owning public, perhaps wanting a change from TV and willing to drive across town to see a film, were faced with less choice than there could have been. Only later did owners think of splitting large cinemas up into two, or even three separate, smaller cinemas, thereby offering more choice and cutting running costs.

The rise of video and video rental in the 1980s was a further blow to the cinema. At the lowest point, about 1985, there were less than 1,000 cinemas open in Britain.

Photograph of an old cinema being used as a car showroom

What happened to the cinemas?

The two most common fates of old cinemas were demolition or bingo. The bingo craze started in 1961 and turning cinemas into bingo halls at least kept them more or less intact. The other fates of old cinemas are too many to list. They have become shops, carpet warehouses, chapels, bowling alleys, and temples, even car showrooms.

The Multiplex Fight Back

If you look again at the graph, you can see a slight rise in attendance after 1985. One of the reasons for this may be the rise of 'multiplex' cinemas. The first of these was opened in 1985 in Milton Keynes and others have followed in many cities. There are now over 50. Multiplexes try to put cinema going back into people's lives by fitting into how we live now. They are situated on out-of-town sites with easy access by car. They are therefore surrounded by large, but well-lit, car parks. They offer a huge choice of films, with eight, nine or even twelve different screens. These always include a choice of children's matinees, for whole-family outings. There is always a good choice of fast food outlets nearby. The most successful ones are also situated near out-of-town shopping facilities, such as the Metro Centre at Gateshead. They are clean, comfortable, friendly, but so far at least, totally lacking the atmosphere of old. At £3.5 million each to build, they need to attract a lot of people to refreshments as well as tickets in order to stay in business.