Click/tap on headings to reveal text
By Lez Cooke
This is a revised version of an essay originally written in 1999-2000 and published in Reclaiming Stoke-on-Trent: Leisure, Space and Identity in the Potteries, edited by Tim Edensor (Staffordshire University Press, 2000). This updated version takes into account subsequent developments, such as the opening of the Warner Village multiplex in Newcastle-under-Lyme in September 2000, the closure of the ABC cinema in Hanley in December 2000 and the 30th anniversary of Stoke Film Theatre in September 2004.
The original intention of the essay was to explore the social and cultural significance of cinema in Stoke-on-Trent, from the 1910s to the present day, and to reveal the important place that cinema-going had, and continues to have, in the lives of local people, revealed through the memories of a small number of interviewees whose ages range from 24 to 89. Their recollections provide an opportunity to chart the changes in cinema-going in the Potteries over a period of nearly 90 years, serving to illustrate the extent to which cinema was central to the lives of many people in the 1930s-1950s, becoming less so as new forms of leisure and entertainment emerged to challenge the cultural monopoly of the cinema from the 1950s onwards.
THE FIRST CINEMAS
It was in 1910, the year in which the Six Towns were federated to form the County Borough of Stoke-on-Trent, that the first purpose-built cinemas opened and cinema-going started to become established as a legitimate and important leisure activity. Prior to this, films had been screened in a variety of environments, from fairgrounds to music halls. In his book The Lost Empire: The Picture Houses of the Potteries and Newcastle-under-Lyme (Brampton Publications, 1990) Barry Blaize notes that programmes of moving pictures were being shown at theatres and concert halls in Hanley from 1896 and travelling showmen were a regular feature at fairs and wakes with their cinematograph shows.
Early cinema in Britain developed haphazardly and the first films were novelties which featured on variety programmes in theatres and music halls and formed part of the carnival of attractions at fairs and wakes. Cinema at this time was subject to little or no regulation, but in 1909 a Cinematograph Act was passed with the intention of regulating and institutionalising the new form of entertainment. One of the concerns that the Act wished to address was the danger from fire as a result of the highly inflammable material which was used for the film stock. Thus began the process of converting the halls, skating rinks and other exhibition spaces to make them safe for showing films and the construction of the first purpose-built cinemas.
The local entrepreneur George Barber, later to become Lord Mayor, is credited with the establishment of the first purpose-built picture house in the Potteries, and one of the first in the Midlands, when he opened Barber’s Picture Palace in Tunstall in 1909. Barber was an important figure in the development of the cinema in the Potteries, putting his name to cinemas in Fenton, Biddulph, Hanley and two cinemas in Tunstall, all of which were established between 1909 and 1913. The year of the federation of the Six Towns, 1910, saw a flurry of activity following the Cinematograph Act, with cinemas opening in each of the remaining five towns, following the establishment of Barber’s Picture Palace in Tunstall. In that year also, no less than four cinemas opened in Newcastle-under-Lyme, including ‘The Temp’, named after the Temperance Hall in which it was situated, the conversion of which symbolised the increasing social importance of cinema in the community.
In the next ten years at least twenty more cinemas opened in the area. Even during this early period, well before the introduction of the talkies, cinema was already becoming established as a mass entertainment activity. One of the first cinemas in Hanley, the Empire Electric Theatre, could seat more than 900 people (compare this to the largest cinema screen at the Odeon Festival Park today, which seats 560, or the Film Theatre at Stoke, which seats 212). The Burslem Picture Palace, converted from a skating rink in 1911 to become the first cinema in the Potteries ‘mother town’, could seat 1,200 and was described as ‘the largest and most comfortable picture theatre in the Midlands’ with ‘velvet tip-up seats throughout’ (Blaize, 1990, p.15). In Stoke, the Prince’s Hall Cinema, which opened in 1913, could accommodate 1,100, while the Majestic, which opened the following year just a few streets away, could seat 1,000 on two levels. Even a smaller cinema, like the Longton Cinema Theatre, which opened in 1911, could seat 500.
At this time there was little or no sense of Stoke-on-Trent as a unified city, a characteristic of the area which persists to the present day. The Six Towns and the many villages were all quite separate and self contained, with their own identities and their own social and leisure spaces, and the cinemas soon became an important and integral part of the social and cultural life of each community. Villages such as Biddulph, Hartshill, Kidsgrove, Smallthorne and Wolstanton each had a picture house before 1914, by which time, according to Barry Blaize, there were about 25 cinemas in the Potteries (Blaize, 1990, p.x). However, Brian Hornsey, in his meticulously researched booklet Ninety Years of Cinema in the Potteries (Hornsey, 1992) suggests there may have been as many as 35 cinemas in operation by 1914.
With so many cinemas, there was usually one within walking distance, even if it did sometimes mean walking a mile or two. For the industrial working-class communities of the Six Towns money was scarce and yet it did not cost much to get into the cinemas and there were always ways of getting in even if you did not have money. Madge Foulkes was born in Longton in 1909 and lived just across the road from the Empire, which was a theatre before converting to a cinema in 1920. She remembers going to cinemas in Longton from the age of ‘six or seven’:
We never got much money go to cinema, we didn’t go only if we could sneak in. We used to go in back way ... and of course it was three-storey, you know three balconies at the Empire, and we used to get up to what we called the gods, up top, and course there was about six flights of steps you used to clatter down if you tried to sneak in. We ‘ad some gay old times I tell you … When I got a bit older I could afford tuppence, when I’d left school, but before then we used to go to matinees and pay ‘apenny, either ‘apenny or a penny, if you went in plush seats you paid a penny.
Both Madge Foulkes and Evelyn Fryer, who was born in 1912, remember going to see silent films, although in fact they were rarely silent, usually having some form of musical accompaniment. Evelyn Fryer remembers early visits to Barber’s Picture Palace in Tunstall:
We ‘ad to walk from Turnhurst to Tunstall ... there was no buses then ... I went there, as a little girl, and me Dad always insisted we went upstairs, out of the rough stuff ... They had an organ and Mr Longshaw, from Packmoor, used to play it while the film was on, and it was silent, black and white, and the words ran along the bottom, so you knew what they were saying.
Children went to the cinema from an early age, as young as five or six, and often unaccompanied. Most of the people I talked to rarely went to the cinema with their parents, who were often too busy working. Instead they would go with friends, or sometimes alone, often asking someone in the queue if they would take them in if they needed to be accompanied. The latter was a common occurrence, as was the tendency to sneak in through a back door and stay in the cinema for several hours. It mattered little at what point you entered as the performances at this time were continuous. If you got in half way through a film you simply stayed through the programme - which would usually include a cartoon, a newsreel and a supporting film in addition to the main feature - until the film came round again.
Bill Cawley was born in Shelton, in 1924, and remembers going to the Prince’s Hall Cinema, as well as the three other cinemas in Stoke, in the 1930s:
As you know there used to be ‘A’ films and ‘U’ films and when it was an ‘A’ film you had to go with an adult and, incredibly, as an eight year old I’d be standing outside ... me mother was aware of this ... you know it’s incredible when you think about it, I used to go down to the Prince’s, stand outside, somebody’d go in and I’d say ‘Would you take me in please?’ and they’d say ‘Yea, okay’ ... You see it was somewhere to go. My mother used to go out, me sisters would go out - of course they’d go with their friends and I was left on me own. Cinema was a sort of refuge to me, really and I’d go at 5 o’clock and I’d be there until 10 o’clock until it closed ... I’ll tell you something that used to happen, and it’s perfectly true, when I got hungry I used to grope around for orange peel, you wouldn’t believe that, honestly I used to grope around for orange peel in the cinema and invariably I’d find some and I’d eat the orange peel and I’d be alright then.
For working-class children like Bill, the cinema offered fantasy and escape from poverty and neglect, a ‘home from home’ providing shelter, and even sustenance (of a sort!). Even at a downmarket cinema like The Prince’s Hall, which backed onto the Trent and Mersey Canal and ‘was often plagued with rats, which would scurry around the auditorium when the lights went down’ (Blaize, 1990, p.59) the cinema-going experience was a liberating one, where even the most unsalubrious environment could become a magical space for the consumption of Hollywood fantasies.
By the 1930s the talkies had arrived and cinema was well on the way to becoming the pre-eminent form of mass entertainment. Twenty million people were going to the cinema in Britain every week and the transition to sound at the end of the twenties saw the demise of many of the old ‘bug huts’, with their benches and bare floors, and the building of vast new ‘pleasure palaces’. While some cinemas did not survive the transition to sound, others, like the Imperial Picture Palace (1913-31) in Hanley, were converted for sound and renamed, in the Imperial’s case as the New Roxy, after the Roxy Cinema in New York, although the Roxy in Hanley apparently retained its reputation as something of a fleapit!
Other cinemas were somewhat grander, ‘dream palaces’ offering a comfortable and glamorous cultural space to entice both working-class and middle-class audiences. Perhaps the epitome of this was the Regent in Hanley. Built in 1929 and capable of seating 2000 people in a huge, ornate auditorium, the Regent was the first cinema in the Potteries to screen talking pictures, showing The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, in July 1929. The decor was opulent with a marble floor in the entrance hall and a grand stairway leading up to a cafe, with appropriately attired waiters and waitresses, on the 1st floor. Mary Frost (born 1937, Norton-in-the-Moors) remembers trips to the Regent as a very special occasion:
I can remember when I was a little girl we went to the Regent in Hanley. That was very posh, to go to the Regent in Hanley, because there was the Regent Cafe, so that was a real treat if you went there. I can remember at Christmas you always went to the Regent Cafe and then were taken to the Regent cinema. The cafe was upstairs, you went in the foyer, I seem to remember steps and then like a carriageway ... and of course you see there wasn’t many cafes, when you think about it, there was nowhere to go like that ... You had your best things on if you were going there ... black-button shoes and I remember I had a red coat, years and years ago ... It was special to go there, that was a treat, you were taken as a treat.
Mary Frost’s earliest memory of going to the cinema was being taken by her mother to the Regent when she was three, to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Bill Cawley also recalls being taken to the Regent by his mother as a special occasion, in marked contrast to going to the Prince’s Hall Cinema in Stoke:
Me mother took me to see Mutiny On The Bounty with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, that was at the Regent, that was one of the very few times that I went into the big cinema, you know it was a treat, I don’t know what the occasion was ... the Regent was really posh. I do recall that I was keen on going in the navy when I was young and my mother she said to me when we come out I remember ‘You don't want to go in the navy when you see Captain Bligh!’ Whether or not that was something in her mind that she took me to deter me from joining the navy, I don’t know, but we went to see that.
With the increasing popularity of the cinema in the 1930s the picture houses were being built larger and larger to accommodate the huge numbers of people who were going to the cinema on a regular basis. The Palace, which opened on Boxing Day 1932, was another of Hanley’s enormous ‘pleasuredromes’ which Bill Cawley remembers going to:
We used to go to the Palace in Hanley ... that was a huge cinema, huge. I think it would hold about 2000 people, but it was huge, and it was a wooden structure and it used to be a skating rink and before that they had boxing matches and all things but it was converted in a cinema early in the thirties. I saw King Kong there ...
The association of certain cinemas with certain films is a sign of the importance of the occasion as a remembered cultural experience. It seems significant that Bill Cawley recalls the special occasion of going to the Regent to see Mutiny On The Bounty, one of MGM’s most lavish, exotic and successful films in the mid 1930s, while in the huge space of the Palace he remembers seeing one of the biggest screen stars of all time: ‘King Kong’!
By 1937, when the Odeon opened in Trinity Street, Hanley, on the site of the old Grand Theatre (which had itself shown films from 1896), Hanley had become established as the Mecca of the Potteries. It then had six cinemas, which between them could accommodate nearly 10,000 people. Even then, queuing to get into a cinema, especially on a Saturday night, was a regular occurrence. After the initial development of cinemas in the 1910s, the transition to the talkies saw a major development in cinema-going in the Potteries. Hanley led the way with four new cinemas, while in Burslem the Picture Palace was rebuilt in 1936 as the New Palace, seating 1,800, with a cafe-foyer on the second floor. In Tunstall, the Ritz opened in 1934, seating 1,600, and in 1936 The Broadway opened in Meir, near Longton, with a seating capacity of over a thousand. In Stoke, the 2000-capacity Danilo, which opened in November 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two, was a major development in the town, with a modernist architectural design similar to the new Odeon circuit cinemas.
It is difficult now to conceive of just how popular cinema-going was as a social activity in the 1930s and 1940s, the peak years of cinema attendance in Britain. Even during the Second World War people flocked to the cinema as a means of escape from the austerity of wartime, as well as a source of information about what was happening in the war, courtesy of the newsreels. Cinemas during the 1930s and 1940s were cultural spaces in which fantasies of escape to exotic lands, and dreams of identification with idealised images, could be given free rein. In a predominantly working-class area like the Potteries, and in other industrial towns and cities, the cinema was the dominant leisure activity for millions of people every week.
Something of the attraction, and the popular appeal, of cinema-going as a social and cultural activity in the 1940s and 50s is conveyed in the following extract from a letter sent to me by Doreen Roberts (the daughter of Madge Foulkes) who was born in Longton in 1930 and spent much of her childhood going to cinemas in Longton, Normacot and Meir before venturing further afield to Stoke and Hanley in her mid-late teens.
I was about seven when I saw my first film. It was a Shirley Temple, at the Alhambra, Normacot. I, along with a group of local children, walked the one and a half miles to get there. It was 3 pence, and we got an orange, to eat inside, after waiting in a long queue to get in, on a Saturday afternoon. Although it was lovely to see Shirley Temple, who all the young girls loved, it was a shock to my young system to be amongst such a lot of noisy, unruly kids. What a job the ushers had in those days! ... My choice of film was its stars, and once I could venture beyond Longton, I would go to Hanley or Stoke. I recall the Hippodrome in Stoke as being a dreadful place, only visited once. The Majestic was alright, but the Danilo was like the Broadway, very nice. Hanley had the Regent, that was really something. The huge foyer, (the huge queues!), the lushness of it was worth the extra price. I think the prices went from 1s 6d to 2s 9d (shillings and pence) and I usually paid 2s 3d. I would pay 1s 9d at the Broadway, for a seat upstairs. The cinema was my treat. I thought the Capitol quaint. It had a large waiting room with basket chairs, that everyone moved along one, as the seats inside became available. It was almost a shock if there was no queue anywhere. I only went to the Odeon a couple of times, and the Palace the same, as it was a huge barn of a place. Only the stars drew me to these places.
For many people going to the cinema was a social activity involving a trip with friends but for others it was a more solitary activity. Reg Colclough, who was born in Hanley in 1935, had a physical disability which prevented him playing football and other sports and led to him becoming an avid cinemagoer from an early age. For Reg the cinema offered not only a refuge and fantasy world into which to escape, it also offered a social life through the children’s clubs, which were an integral part of the cinema-going experience for children growing up in the 1940s and 1950s:
There were very, very little to do in my childhood, the only thing we’d got was the cinema and I used to go to the cinema very, very young. We used to go to what we’d call the ‘Saturday Rush’, it was tuppence, old money, to get in. I used to go to the Roxy. We had films like Flash Gordon and things like that. They were like serials, you went one week and then you ‘ad to go the next week to follow through. As I say Flash Gordon, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, all them type of cowboys that were about, but they were all serialised, er Hopalong Cassidy, he was another one, and then as I got about ... I would say that I was about eleven when I went to become a monitor - we used to call them monitors - at the Capitol cinema in Hanley and what your job was was to make sure that all the children behaved themselves and you had an armband and a torch and of course you thought you were some kind of a policeman ....
Elaine Mulholland (born Longton, 1936) also remembers being a monitor in a children’s club, at the Empire in Longton:
I was in the ABC Minors and I rose in the ranks and became a monitor, had a special badge ... it used to be for youngsters, you used to have to join, you used to have to fill in a form. You were then called an ABC Minor and there used to be Saturday shows for about sixpence and people used to just flock, and if it was someone’s birthday they would go up on stage ... and people would sing and so on and so forth.
The importance of cinema as a social activity, as well as a cultural experience, for children at this time cannot be over-emphasised. This was an age before television, which wasn’t available in the Midlands until 1949 and was only really a minority middle-class interest until ITV started transmitting in the mid 1950s (from February 1956 in the Midlands). Cinema-going was a habitual activity from the 1930s to the 1950s and the children’s clubs were designed to nurture the habit from an early age. The affection with which the clubs and the Saturday screenings are remembered, by people born before television began to erode cinema’s mass audience, is testimony to their importance in the cultural history of cinema-going.
Tina Knight (born Hanley, 1937) also grew up with cinema as the main form of entertainment in the 1940s and 1950s. She recollects how going to the cinema on a Saturday was part of a shared social and cultural experience among the children in her street:
I know in the gang that we went the boy who was in charge of the gang, you know the gang leader, he would have been 12 or 13 I suppose when we all used to troop off ... It would be a group from the same street and you’d all play together and then Saturday morning you’d all troop off together to the Saturday morning club, but when you think about it it’s marvellous, it shows the difference ... I mean you’d never dream of letting children go off on their own ... and inside the usherettes kept charge and the manager would come on and if there was anybody naughty shout at them and the lights would go up if they were getting too disruptive: ‘If you don't shut up the film will go off’ and then the lights would go down - so they kept us in control.
Cinemas on a Saturday morning were communal spaces in which children and teenagers were free from the constraints of the home and parental control, spaces in which they could enjoy a cultural experience unavailable to them in the world outside and which would often be the highlight of their week, impressing itself upon them so strongly as a formative experience that it could be replayed as a warm and cherished memory fifty, sixty or even seventy years later.
CINEMA-GOING AS A HABITUAL ACTIVITY
Going to the cinema two or three times a week was a common experience for most of the people I talked to, but for some it played an even greater role in their lives and the number of cinemas in each town meant that it was possible to go and see a different film every day of the week, because at this time the cinemas changed their programmes twice a week. With six cinemas within walking distance of his home in Hanley, Reg Colclough was spoilt for choice and, when Sunday screenings were introduced from 1943, he was able to go to the cinema every day of the week:
I used to go to the Roxy on a Monday, the Empire on a Tuesday, the Regent on a Wednesday, the Odeon on a Thursday, the Capitol on a Friday, and then I could go back to the Empire because it had changed, and then go back to the Roxy, which had changed. So I'd got seven nights of cinema ... seven nights a week. I used to chop sticks to pieces of wood and put them in a bucket and go round door to door selling them so I could get the money to go to the cinema.
Although times were hard for working-class families during wartime and in the post-war years of austerity and rationing it was usually possible to find a way to raise the money for the cheapest cinema seats and there were always other ways of getting into the cinemas, as Reg Colclough explains:
It used to be between tuppence and sevenpence, sevenpence was the best - this was old money of course - and sometimes during the rationing, maybe I shouldn’t be saying this but there used to be a lady who used to work at the Roxy and she used to let you in if you gave her a quarter sweet coupon, so you can go in for nothing but you gave her a quarter sweet coupon and that was the entrance, and I didn’t eat a lot of sweets then so I used to give her all my sweet rations to get into the Roxy.
The cinemas brought the outside world to Stoke-on-Trent, enabling cinemagoers to indulge in fantasies of a world outside the city, in other parts of Britain and abroad, for those who may never have left the confines of their home town. During the war the cinema newsreels were an important source of information about what was happening and at the end of the war the revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps had a profound effect upon impressionable young minds. As one of my (unsigned) questionnaire respondents wrote: ‘When I was about nine I saw newsreels of Belsen and I was so shocked and frightened I had nightmares for ages.’
Tina Knight also recollects going to the cinema when these newsreels were shown: ‘It was just as the war ended, ‘cos on the newsreel there was all the atrocities that were uncovered. I remember my mother putting her hand over my eyes so I couldn’t see what they were showing, which was the Jewish prisoners being released ...’
In some cinemas, apparently, children were not allowed to view the newsreels, as Reg Colclough remembers:
There used to be an interval just before the news came on and all children under a certain age, under the age of, I would say, fifteen, maybe eighteen, were asked to leave, and we used to stand in the foyer, under supervision by one of the usherettes, and you couldn’t get anywhere near the doors, you couldn’t listen or anything and you were asked to leave until the news had been on.
Experiences like these were very vivid for the people I talked to, even after more than fifty years, and the memories may be so vivid because of the ‘specialness’ of going to the cinema - the shared experience, the vast auditoriums, the huge images on the screen - which differentiates the experience from the ‘ordinariness’ of watching television today.
POSTWAR DECLINE: CHANGING AUDIENCES, CHANGING FILMS
1946 was the peak year for cinema attendance in Britain. In that year there were 39 cinemas in the Potteries and Newcastle-under-Lyme. Twenty years later the number had been reduced by two thirds, with only 13 cinemas operating at the end of 1966. The reduction in the number of cinemas, and the decline in cinema-going, was the result of a number of factors, of which the rise of television was just one, albeit an important one as television provided a reason for staying at home for the older generation of cinemagoers, who by this time had other preoccupations, such as families to raise. Meanwhile their children were beginning to form a new generation of cinemagoers in the 1950s and 1960s and new kinds of film began to be made to cater for the new teenage audience.
On the one hand Hollywood started producing ‘teenage rebellion’ movies, such as The Wild One (1954) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955), while in Britain a ‘new wave’ of youth-oriented films, such as Room At The Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), appeared at the end of the decade. At the same time a new cycle of horror films, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), emerged from Hammer Studios, with the new youth audience very much in mind, although the X-certificate rating which most of these films were given was supposed to restrict entry to those age 18-plus. At the end of the 1950s and on into the 1960s the Carry On and James Bond films were also largely targeting this new generation of cinemagoers, as were the ‘swinging London’ films of the mid 1960s, by which time the new youth culture was widespread and the older generation of cinemagoers was in sharp decline, as evidenced by the overall decline in cinema-going from 1,182 million attendances in 1955 to 193 million by 1970.
Tony Boyle was among this new generation of cinemagoers. Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1962, he remembers being taken by his older brother and sister to see family-oriented 1960s films such as Mary Poppins, Oliver!, Swiss Family Robinson and 101 Dalmations at the local Rex and Rio cinemas:
Other times I’d go with my childhood friends and seem to remember the whole experience, a jubbly on the way, admittance to the cinema and an ice lolly from the usherette, cost about two shillings! Sometimes we’d ‘sneak in’ through the exit doors when other cinemagoers opened them on their way out, something we had to wait outside for, and achieve surreptitiously. Once, a friend and I did this, disappearing to the back row to try and remain anonymous as it was an ‘X’ (or ‘AA’) film, Kes (1969) and we’d have been only seven or eight years old. However, my cover was blown when I heard the words ‘what are you doing here?’ and turned to see my nineteen year old sister sitting in the next seat, halfway through a clinch with her latest boyfriend.
I see it now as an integral part of my childhood, the Rex and Rio, coming out of this fantasy world into the bright sunlight of Newcastle 30 years ago, back to reality, but with the memories of these wonderful films in our young heads. I seem to remember the Rex and Rio didn’t last long into the seventies, although I did see such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid there, along with Diamonds Are Forever (1972), That’ll Be The Day (1973), and Spring and Port Wine (1970). It was a great shame when the old cinema closed its doors forever.
While the audience may have been changing, the experience described here, of cinema-going in the 1960s and 1970s, is not that far removed from the experience, as recalled by Reg Colclough, Doreen Roberts and others, in the 1940s. Even the ‘sneaking in’ to a forbidden space recalls Madge Foulkes’ story of how she would sneak in to the Longton Empire in the 1920s through the back entrance and make her way with friends up to ‘the gods’.
Although the experience may have changed little, the decline in cinema-going as a mass audience activity was unremitting and irrevocable. By 1984, when Evelyn Fryer’s granddaughter, Melita Loaring, started going to the Palace in Tunstall, at the age of ten, nearly seventy years after her grandmother first went there when it was Barber’s Picture Palace, the cinema was one of only four left in the Six Towns, one of which was the newish Regional Film Theatre in Stoke. In fact the Palace, like many cinemas in the area, had closed in the 1960s, re-opening under new ownership as a two-screen cinema in the late 1970s, with each screen seating only 100 people.
Of the other remaining cinemas, the Regent, which had been renamed the Gaumont in 1950, was converted to a three-screen cinema in 1974 and renamed once more, becoming the Odeon following the closure of the old Hanley Odeon in 1975. The ABC cinema in Hanley, which had opened as a cinema and bowling alley in 1963, was also tripled, in 1977. The twinning and tripling of cinema auditoria was undertaken for financial reasons, in recognition of the fact that the days of cinema-going as a mass audience activity were past. The logical consequence of this trend was the opening of purpose-built multi-screen cinemas in the 1980s, following the American example, and in 1989 the Odeon relocated to the Festival Park site, away from Hanley city centre, to become part of a leisure complex containing eight cinema screens (two smaller screens were subsequently added). The old Regent cinema, one of the original ‘picture palaces’, was left empty for the first time since its opening sixty years before. In the same year, the Palace in Tunstall closed, eighty years after George Barber had opened the first purpose-built cinema in the Potteries on the same site.
AN ALTERNATIVE CINEMA-GOING EXPERIENCE
Given the long postwar decline in mainstream cinema-going and the cinema closures of the 1960s-80s it is remarkable that an alternative tradition of film exhibition has prospered in North Staffordshire throughout this period. In 1946 the North Staffordshire Film Society was founded ‘to provide members with an opportunity of seeing films of outstanding merit which, for one reason or another, are not likely to be exhibited locally’ (from the 1971-72 programme booklet). The following is from the Secretary’s Report for the first season of films in 1946-47:
Many people have, for a number of years, advocated the formation of a Film Society in North Staffordshire. In July 1946 such a Society was founded with fifty members. By the end of the session there were 381 members and there was a steady demand for new membership for next season. Such a total must be regarded as very satisfactory and indicative of the need of a Society such as ours.
Initially the Film Society used the Victoria Cinema in Hartshill for its screenings. Thereafter a number of different exhibition spaces were used, including the Rio Cinema in Newcastle and the Mitchell Memorial Theatre in Hanley. When the Regional Film Theatre opened on the premises of North Staffordshire Polytechnic in 1974 the Film Society moved there to screen films one evening a week, while the Film Theatre operated on three nights a week. Jean and Michael Bowers were regular cinemagoers in the 1940s and 50s and they joined the Film Society in the late 1950s:
Lez Cooke: So at the Film Society you would get a different kind of film to what you got at the other cinemas?
Jean Bowers: Oh yes, totally.
LC: Art films, or foreign language films?
Michael Bowers: Yes, Bicycle Thieves, that sort of thing you know. Ingmar Bergman ...
JB: Oh yes, we enjoyed the Ingmar Bergman films.
MB: ... and some awfully boring ones ...
JB: Yes, very strange things weren’t they ...
LC: Was that a very popular activity, the Film Society?
JB: It was at one time, it was very thriving.
MB: It was a bit trendy at the time wasn’t it!
JB: Oh it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have said that, not the people that ran it weren’t trendy.
MB: No, but most of the intelligensia of the Potteries would go to the Film Society!
LC: So it was much more of a middle class activity was it?
JB: Yes I suppose that’s accurate, yes.
The existence of an alternative film culture in Stoke-on-Trent since 1946, and perhaps earlier, suggests an appetite for a diversity of film practices among a section of the population which has continued to the present day. It is certainly a sign of a healthy film culture that there was a demand for such an organisation and that it kept going for so long. The Film Society co-existed with the Regional Film Theatre for a while in the 1970s, before winding up in 1982, at the end of its 36th season.
Since its establishment in 1974, the Film Theatre has continued to cater for audiences looking for alternatives to the mainstream (and mainly American) films shown at the commercial cinemas. Not only does the Film Theatre show films which are unlikely to be seen elsewhere in the area, it also provides a different kind of cinema-going experience to that offered by the Odeon and the Warner Village in Newcastle. Melita Loaring, although one of the younger generation of cinemagoers, having been born in 1974, is among those who prefer the experience of watching films at the Film Theatre:
I think it’s far more intimate in the Film Theatre. Everyone seems to want to see a film in there, because usually people have either paid for a season ticket or they’ve specially come out for this film, because a lot of people drive quite a way to get there, you get such a nice atmosphere. Like when The Importance of Being Earnest was on, if you’d seen that at the Odeon you’d have got people going ‘What the bloody ‘ell’s this, this isn't funny’, but they were laughing all the way through and it was like everyone really wanted to see that film and that’s what I like about the Film Theatre, that’s why I think I go there more.
The Film Theatre offers a different social and cultural space, as well as a different cinematic experience, to that offered by the Odeon and Warner Village. The absence of marketing and merchandising privileges the film as the object of cultural exchange, whereas at the Odeon, especially, the film is just one part of an entertainments package which extends to the games and fruit machines, the bar, the refreshments area, and the other entertainments in the leisure complex.
THE MULTIPLEX EXPERIENCE
There is no doubt that the multiplex cinema at Festival Park is aimed at a different audience, and a much younger one on the whole, to that which attends the Film Theatre. Despite being part of large cinema circuits catering for family audiences multiplex cinemas are actually quite specialised (some might say limited) in their programming, screening mainly Hollywood films. During holiday periods when the latest Hollywood blockbusters are released the multiplexes might be showing only five or six films, despite having 8-10 screens, as a result of showing the same film in two or three screens. The cinema-going experience in multiplexes has also become more fragmented and anonymous. Whereas in the 1930s and 40s a thousand or more people might sit down together to watch the same film, today seven of the ten Odeon screens seat fewer than 200 people. Cinema-going is no longer the mass, communal experience that it was in its heyday.
For the older generation of cinemagoers, born before 1940, the 1940s and 50s were the ‘golden age’ of cinema-going. It was this generation that stopped going to the cinema in the 1960s and 70s, because of family commitments, because of television, or because the films were increasingly targeting a younger audience. Freda Hurley is fairly typical. Born in 1938, she grew up next door to the Rex and Rio cinemas in Newcastle-under-Lyme and remembers the long queues for the cinemas when she was a child. Like many cinema-goers of her generation she has reservations about going to the cinema today:
I think it was in the 70s when I more or less stopped going to the cinema on a regular basis. Now I only go occasionally for exceptional films like Titanic. I find the soundtrack of modern films far too loud, especially the background music, and the diction of many of the modern actors seems very poor. When Alien came out some years ago I could hardly tell a word of what was said then! However the special effects achieved in the big blockbusters are fantastic and certainly worth seeing.
It is not only the 1940s/50s cinemagoers, however, who have reservations about the multiplex experience today. Anna Mawson was born in 1966 and used to go to the Odeon in Hanley before it relocated to Festival Park. Now one of the many volunteers who support the Film Theatre she is not so keen on the multiplex experience:
Now I won't go to the Odeon at all, ‘cos I hate it. It’s not to do with the films so much. I just boycott the Odeon now completely. I hate everything about the experience of going there. I hate parking there, because it takes ages to get off after the film, which just really annoys me. I remember going to see Pulp Fiction and having to wait for about 40 minutes after it had finished to get out of the car park and I felt like I’d had a really bad time after that, you know I’d enjoyed the film and waiting to get off the car park was such a nightmare that I’d just wished I’d never gone. I found that really irritating, I’ve got a really low threshold when it comes to queuing!
I hate going because it’s just full of teenagers, teeming around, and I just can’t stand to be in there now. And I hate it because of all the consumption there as well, because everything’s so, you know, popcorn comes in like huge buckets. And I think that after being at the Film Theatre, the experience of going and having all the advertising, people are much noisier there aren’t they, at the Odeon, there’s all that rustling and people talking through it and getting up and going out and then coming back again and stuff, which I think you just get used to not getting at the Film Theatre because people are kind of respecting the film a bit more, that I just find it really irritating.
While for some people the multiplex experience may be irritating, for the majority of today’s teenage cinemagoers it is the equivalent to the experience enjoyed by Bill Cawley, Reg Colclough, Tina Knight and thousands of others in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. For the older cinemagoer the multiplex experience may seem too impersonal and too much like a cultural conveyor belt, but the Odeon at Festival Park is a social and cultural space just as much as Barber’s Picture Palace was for Evelyn Fryer in the 1920s and 30s (‘I spent my lovelife in there!’) and the Prince’s Hall Cinema was for Bill Cawley in the 1930s and 40s.
But it is not the same social and cultural space. The cinema-going experience today is more fragmented, with smaller auditoriums catering for different sections of the audience and with an emphasis upon greater turnover, with several screenings of the same film each day, sometimes in more than one screen, rather than the longer programme of entertainments, with supporting feature, etc., which was commonplace in the 1930s and 40s. Most noticeably, the multiplex experience is more commercialised, with an increased emphasis on marketing and consumption, and the spacious foyers, amusement arcades, games machines, bar and refreshments area, are all designed to capitalise on this potential for generating extra revenue.
The rituals of consumption, of popcorn and coca cola, the talking and wandering in and out, are how the young cinemagoers of today appropriate the space for their own social purpose. The atmosphere which Anna Mawson describes, rather than being the more ‘respectful’ one found at the Film Theatre, suggests a ‘carnivalesque’ pleasure, involving eating, drinking and talking, as well as coming and going as you please. It may not be for the film purist, but it is an essential part of the social experience for today’s young cinemagoers and demonstrates how audiences appropriate cultural spaces and make them their own, often subverting them in the process.
The siting of several cinema screens in one building may be the result of the big cinema chains, now part of larger corporations, wanting to increase turnover and maximise profits, but once a ticket has been purchased, today’s young cinemagoer can cheat the system by sneaking from one screen to another, from a ‘12’ certificate film to an ‘18’ certificate film, much in the same way that Madge Foulkes would sneak in to the Empire in Longton in the 1920s and clatter down the flights of steps as she and her friends made their way to a secluded space in ‘the gods’, and how, in the 1960s and 70s, Tony Boyle would surreptitiously sneak in through the back doors at the Rex and Rio as other cinemagoers left, to watch an ‘X’ or ‘AA’ film when he was underage.
The history of cinema-going in Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme is not a history of buildings but a history of how people make use of these places of popular culture, whether they be glamorous ‘picture palaces’ like the Regent, ‘bug huts’ like the Roxy, or new temples of consumerism like the Odeon Festival Park, so that the experience of cinema-going becomes a rich part of their lived experience. It is a history of how people appropriate cinemas for their own purpose, as spaces for social intercourse, as well as places of cultural exchange, where ordinary life can be traded for the extraordinary fantasies of the cinema screen.
The oral and written histories that this article has drawn on illustrate how important going to the cinema was, and is, as a social and cultural activity in the lives of ordinary people in Stoke-on-Trent. While cinema-going may have become less central to the lives of people today, being only one of a wide range of leisure activities on offer, it still forms an important part of their lives. While it may no longer be the mass entertainment activity that it was from the 1920s to the 1950s, it still offers a distinctive social and cultural experience, whether it is the more middle-class, ‘respectful’ one of the Film Theatre, or the more ebullient atmosphere of the multiplex.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the establishment of George Barber’s first Picture Palace in Tunstall in 1909, cinema-going in Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme is now polarised between the multiplex experience (the opening of the 8-screen Warner Village in Newcastle in September 2000 being the final nail in the coffin for the 3-screen ABC in Hanley, which closed in December 2000) and the independent Film Theatre which, having been in operation for thirty years, is now the oldest cinema in the Potteries.
Blaize, Barry, The Lost Empire: The Picture Houses of the Potteries and Newcastle-under-Lyme (Brampton Publications, 1990)
Blaize, Barry, Give My Regards To Broadway: Lost Empire 2 – More on the Picture Houses of the Potteries (Churnet Valley Books, 2000)
Hornsey, Brian, Ninety Years of Cinema in the Potteries (Hornsey, 1992)