From the modern perspective, received wisdom lets us believe that the second world war had a disastrous on the British cinema industry. It is certainly hardly surprising that war in general, with all its many effects on civilian life should disrupt an ephemeral part of the entertainment industry. Indeed, many of Nottingham’s citizens had already experienced the austerity measures of world war before.
In terms of production, Britain’s film industry had been sidelined by Hollywood long before even the first world war. David Cook’s History of Narrative Cinema notes that although Britain made excellent contributions in the field of documentary filmmaking, with the few exceptions of the films of Hitchcock, Alexander Korda, and Anthony Asquith’s adaptations from the stage, “Britain had produced little significant narrative cinema […] since the innovations of the Brighton School at the turn of the century.” ((David Cook, A history of narrative film, 3rd Edition (New York, W A Norton & Company Inc: 1996) p568-9)) American film companies had opened offices in Europe only ten years into the boom of the new industry: Vitagraph had branches in London and Paris as early as 1906. From these offices, they were able to resell American films to European audiences, and by 1911 a large majority of imported films came from the states. When the first world war broke out, funds, factories and personnel previously involved in film production all over Europe were diverted to the war effort. Bordwell and Thompson cite Pathé as an example of the
near cessation of French filmmaking. Many industry personnel were immediately sent to the front. Pathé’s raw-stock factory switched to manufacturing munitions, and studios were converted into barracks. (p54)
Bordwell and Thompson then explain how the presence of London offices allowed British firms to take a profit from redistributing American films, although to the obvious detriment to the few firms involved in producing film in Britain. ((Bordwell & Thompson, Film History an introduction, (New York, Ruttle Shall and Weatherill, Inc: 1994) p54)) Nottingham does not, and never has had a significant film production industry ((Although Nottingham is host to a number of media and television production companies, in part through the auspices of the British Film Institute-funded Broadway Cinema and Media Centre, Broad Street, Hockley.)) , so the larger part of this essay must perforce concentrate on how the war affected cinema in terms of projection.
The inter-war years saw unnumbered radical changes in the global cinema industry, not least of which was the coming of talking pictures, celebrated in Nottingham as everywhere else with gala showings of Al Jonson’s The Jazz Singer. Nottingham’s first ever exhibition of a talkie took place at midnight, when the courier, arriving late at night, could not wake any of the staff at the intended destination, and delivered the reels and gramophone records to the wrong picture house. The projectionist, realising what he had received, and having recently had his own cinema converted for sound, quickly sent boys around to knock up the neighbourhood. They then proceeded to show the film for free to a full house, before returning the reels to the cinema for which they were originally destined. ((Anecdote relayed by interviewee in Nottingham at the Cinema (Viewpoint Television))) At the same time, the development of colour film techniques was also in progress, but strangely none of the sources I have consulted record the reaction of Nottingham citizens to the advent of this new technology. Neither is it recorded in any of the sources which describe the technical progression of Nottingham’s picture houses, but I believe no substantial alteration was necessary to show the pictures in colour, unlike the innovations of Cinemascope (in the 1950s) and sound (improvements to which resulted in multiple disruptions to the cinema-going public) which required new projectors and changes made to speakers and screens front of house.
The most immediate effect of the declaration of war on Germany on the 3rd September 1939 was that cinemas across the country were forced to close. One of the results of the myriad emergency regulations brought into immediate force was to suspend all public entertainment, so music halls, theatres and cinemas closed their doors to the public, and went dark. At the same time, evacuation began for children and mothers of toddlers within the city limits, and schools closed. It was thought that large halls filled with people would be at extreme risk from enemy action. At the same time, evacuation began for children and mothers of toddlers within the city limits, and schools closed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the general public thought this step unnecessary. Against the background of the ‘phoney war’, the period of time between the declaration of hostilities and Germany actually beginning to bomb mainland Britain, many of the precautions taken at the outset of the war (including blackout measures, and the establishment of the ARP units) seemed over-cautious. H Bosworth, in a letter to the Editor of the Nottingham Post on 7th September 1939, reflected the general public’s frustration at the closure:
Closing of Theatres
As an old theatre and music hall patron, I would say that the value of an hour’s entertainment cannot be gainsaid. At a time like the present, when relaxation from tension is needed, something can be said in favour of opening on a limited scale in order to give a little pleasure to the people. The blackout looks like turning many assets into liabilities if persisted unduly. During the last war on two occasions I was in Nottingham music halls when the warning was given and the people remained calm. ((Nottingham Evening Post, 7th September 1939, p3))
Evidently, those in authority felt such viewpoints were not without merit, because two days later, some cinemas began to re-open. A splash headline (“Re-opened cinemas: public unaware”) on the front page referred readers to the fuller story later in the paper:
Local effect of the new entertainment order
Nottingham cinemas still closed
But several reopened in the district: Bridgford, Lenton Abbey and Mansfield
The Chief Constable of Notts (Lt. Col F Lemon) stated to-day that preparations are being made in the county for the reopening of cinemas and other places of entertainment, subject to certain regulations of which the managements and owners were being notified. […] Places of entertainment will not be opened within the city of Nottingham until further notice […] Although Nottingham is excluded from the Government cinema reopening order, there are districts within easy reach of the city which do not come under the restriction, and in many of these areas, preparations were at once made to reopen this afternoon, in most cases by 2 o’clock. The houses must close by 10pm.
Mr Herbert Elton, head of Midland Empire Theatres, Ltd., reopened the Tudor, West Bridgford, with “Kathleen Mavourneen” ((According to http://www.imdb.com, “The Sweetest Irish Love Story Ever Told”, was told rather often. Films with this title were made in 1906, 1913, 1919 and 1930. The version shown at the Tudor was probably the sound remake of 1937, directed Norman Lee I.)) and the Astoria, Lenton Abbey with “Spy of Napoleon.” ((Spy of Napoleon, directed Maurice Elvey, 1936)) These attractions are for to-day only. On Monday the houses will present the programmes that would in ordinary circumstances have been current during this week. ((Nottingham Evening Post, 9th September 1939, p7))
Cinemas in the centre of Nottingham were unable to reopen as quickly as the more provincial locations of West Bridgford and Lenton Abbey (although neither of these cinemas was particularly far from central Nottingham) because the City of Nottingham had been classified an Evacuation Zone, whilst surrounding towns such as Beeston and Bridgford were ‘neutral’. Different regulations were in force for the two different classifications. Clearly, however, the distinction was a little artificial, since cinemas quite close to each other were governed by different regulations. Established war veteran H. Bosworth felt moved to write to the Editor once more:
Regarding the closing of cinemas and theatres in the city, could not a limited scale of opening be carried out during the day? Theatres could be opened, say, on certain days, and cinemas on others for a few hours daily. It is fair to assume that if facilities for refreshment as provided by licensed premises ((It is somewhat ironic that whilst cinemas regained some semblance of normal opening hours almost immediately, the wartime regulations limiting the opening hours of ‘licensed premises’ in the forms of public houses, are still in place almost 70 years later.)) are needed, a little diversion in the way of entertainment is just as necessary to ease war tension. The home front is an important factor in time of stress and trouble. “Keep the home fires burning.” ((Nottingham Evening Post, 12th September 1939, p3, Letters to the Editor.))
Over the following days, the correspondence page received more letters on the subject. Eric Rushton suggested that cinemas should be restricted to daylight hours to limit the numbers of pedestrians on blacked out roads. (A number of people were killed in wartime because without streetlamps or any light from houses, they could simply not be seen by vehicles which did not have headlamps.) Rushton also remarks that cinemas closing at 10pm, coinciding with the last buses home only made additional work for bus conductors ((Nottingham Evening Post, 13th September 1939, p3, Letters to the Editor)). The following day, G S Stevenson retorted that cinemas which only opened during daylight hours would be of little use to the majority of people who would be at work. The solution of bus congestion, he argued, was to open more cinemas so that people could attend their nearest one, rather than have to catch a bus. He also reminded readers to carry their gas masks ((Nottingham Evening Post, 14th September 1939, p3, Letters to the Editor)). At the same time, the paper carried a Reuters story telling readers that the cinemas of Paris had re-opened: “Like London, Paris has decided to reopen a number of cinemas. As from tomorrow they may remain open until 10pm, the audience limited to shelter capacity” ((Nottingham Evening Post, 14th September 1939 p3)). Finally, on the 15th September 1939, the Evening Post lead with the headline “Cheerful news: cinemas and theatres reopen tomorrow”. Unfortunately for the local juvenile population, the schools also reopened on the 16th September. On the 19th, the first Tuesday after the cinemas resumed performances as normal, the Evening Post resumed its regular Tuesday listings of the showings of all of Greater Nottingham’s 52 picture houses, and this listing continued right through the war and beyond. Even when the Post dropped from six or eight pages per edition down to four, and regular columns such as “Women and their ways” (cookery and sewing) and the “The Wendy Hut” gave way to “Today in your garden” (representing the highly successful “Dig for Victory” campaign), the cinema listings remained, even though reduced to only one column and a painfully small typeface.
During the war years, cinemas had a number more functions than they do today. In the same article that declared Mansfield, Bridgford and Lenton Abbey cinemas open on the 9th September, Mr. Herbert, Elton head of Midland Empire Theatres, Ltd., generously decided to place his facilities in the hands of the council:
“We shall at our theatres,” said Mr. Elton, “arrange special children’s shows for mornings in the places where the children are not at school. So far as possible, we shall include in the programmes such educational subjects as are obtainable, and are inviting for this purpose immediate co-operation from the Education Authorities.” ((Nottingham Evening Post, 9th September 1939, p7))
Such special programmes for children were not new. Even before the war, many cinemas had given special children’s programmes on Saturday mornings. At such showings, the noise was reportedly incredible. The cleaners were employed for extra hours in an attempt to keep the peace, and keep the children quiet enough to hear the sound. They used to have to resort to banging dustbin lids together to make themselves heard. It seems the children’s performances were also rather chaotic from a behind-the-scenes perspective. They often showed films which had previously been main features, and the reels were rather worn before they even got to the cinemas. Indeed, it was not always possible to get the reels in the right order; but shot and killed cowboys riding horses right as rain only a few moments later in the next reel only added to the general hilarity and enjoyment for the children. ((As told to Nottingham at the Cinema))
In the early years of cinema in Nottingham, it was most usual for short films to be exhibited only as part of an evening’s variety entertainment. Only later did films become the main feature. During the war, a tradition of variety performances was resurrected. Members of the audience were encouraged to do turns on stage; where members of staff of the cinemas were multitalented, they played instruments or sang before and after showings of films. As in the music hall tradition, great singalongs were encouraged, and in Beeston,
the Palladium was used by a number of organisations such as the Red Cross and the St Johns Ambulance Brigade to stage concerts to help raise funds for the war effort. Christmas 1949 saw the first live stage show, since the Zeal Burlesque Show in 1927, only this time it was less risqué. The Ericsson Dramatic Society staged their annual pantomime Aladdin there, the players all being employees of Ericsson Telephones Ltd. ((L J Allsop, Full house: a history of cinemas in Beeston, pamphlet from Nottingham Local Studies Library))
A further important function of cinema at the time was provide pictures to complement the news broadcast to the populace via the Home Service on the wireless. Just as the war before had seen technical innovations such as widespread radio broadcasts keep the public informed about the course of the war, so too new media were in existence for the second world war. Although newsreels were a feature of many of the cinemas’ programme, there was also a dedicated picture house in Nottingham for documentary features, called the News House. An interviewee on Nottingham at War ((Nottingham at War (Viewpoint Television))) recalls how, following the VE Day celebrations in Market Square, she and her husband went to see the news footage from the war. The programme included the first of much footage of the liberation of concentration camps, and was a serious dampener to the jubilation of the VE Day festivities.
Perhaps one of the greatest indicators of the state of the exhibition industry in Nottingham at the time of the second world war is the progression of the construction of new cinemas. As war broke out, two more screens were still being built, and the work on both venues was continued. One of these houses was the ABC cinema on Angel Row, which ceased showing films in the late 1990s to be demolished in 2001. The opening of cinemas in pre-war times had been a great spectacle; but after September 1939, gala openings became a thing of the past. 1939 for one reason and another saw the zenith of cinemas in Nottingham in terms of sheer numbers of venues: by the end of the year, there were 52 separate cinemas within the Greater Nottingham, a number never subsequently reached again. ((Of those 52, the only theatre to remain in use as a cinema today is the Savoy, on the Derby Road. Many of the buildings remain, and have been converted to other uses, including bingo halls and supermarkets. The former Elite with its highly decorated white marble exterior, on Parliament Street, now houses the nightclub Media.)) The ABC’s opening was in part marred by the fact that the cinema had been designed with an exterior decorated with neon trimmings, which for obvious reasons could not be illuminated during the blackout. ((Nottingham at the Cinema)) The war marked a moratorium on the building of new cinemas in Nottingham which was not broken until the American supercinema the Showcase complex, comprising 14 screens, was constructed the 1980s, although existing cinemas saw renovation and rebuilding. Although the two cinemas already largely built were completed and opened, plans for more across Nottingham were shelved. Not surprisingly, during the war, materials and labour were diverted elsewhere; after the war, the priority was on rebuilding the houses and factories destroyed in the aerial bombardment of May 1941. One such project that was never completed was Beeston’s long-awaited supercinema. The cinema designed by Nottingham architect William Newman was to have been a rival to any theatre in Nottingham, and would have been greatly superior to its closest rivals in Beeston. Beeston Square was to have seen this vast development able to seat 1200. The plans, drawn up before the war began, included not only a foyer the size of the auditorium of the nearest Beeston rival, a ballroom and a restaurant, but also, under the stage, an air-raid shelter for the benefit of the staff.
An unexpected benefit of the war was the right for cinemas to open on Sundays. Emergency regulations permitting such opening were passed partway through the war, and continued long after the end of the war. The report of a debate in Nottingham City Council to decide whether Sunday opening should be allowed to continue in peacetime makes fascinating reading as it showcases postwar attitudes to family and religion. Many of the arguments against Sunday opening were the same as those that have been brought to fore whenever the issue is debated, whether concerning the change in licensing laws to allow public houses to remain open through Sunday afternoon, or whenever supermarkets press for rights to open on Sundays as they do every other day of the week. The fourth commandment—to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy—is cited frequently and much is made of the idea that some workers may be forced to work a seven day week. More moderate religious views were also expressed: a councillor wondered whether it were possible to have community hymn singing in cinemas, and to show special Sunday programmes that did not include “Rubbish from the US” (a perennial concern regarding popular culture) or murder mystery films, but that did include informative, educational reels, and travel documentaries. The contrary argument in favour of Sunday opening also uses some tried and tested debating points. Councillors point out the churches hadn’t objected to people working on Sundays when it came to tram and train drivers who enabled the faithful to get to worship; they note that seeing films on Sundays is demonstrably immensely popular, whereas there are very rarely queues outside churches. More specifically postwar concerns include the fact that there was a chronic shortage of housing at the time, and many people were living in extremely cramped living conditions. Cinemas allowed people—particularly younger people, and those ‘walking out’—some privacy away from the bosom of their family. The cinema has long been a venue for romantics, after all. ((Nottingham Evening Post, 3rd December 1946, p3))
In all, the war had remarkably little effect on the projection industry of Nottingham. The period of a fortnight after the outbreak of war was a small anomaly that did not significantly harm the industry. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that war actually encouraged people to go and see newsreels. The contribution that the bombing of Nottingham made to the housing crisis of the immediately postwar years meant that younger people needed to get away from their families more often. The war did finally see the end of the massive expansion of the industry, and the number of cinemas in Nottingham (but not necessarily the number of screens) has been in decline since 1939. That is not to say that no new cinemas have been built since that time, and indeed, Nottingham has witnessed many innovations in the projection industry since the war. Two such innovations: the Odeon in Angel Row was, in 1965 the first cinema in Britain to be converted from a single screen cinema to one with two screens under one roof ((Cinema of the 70s, short, filmed by Bill Freeman and John Walker on Super8 in 1965, showcasing the equipment and then staff of the Odeon, Nottingham, reissued on video in the 1990s. According to Gordon Roebuck, the manager of the Odeon when it closed in 2000, whom I taught IT at an adult education centre following his redundancy, this short film was the last ever to be shown there.)); and in the early 1980s, Nottingham saw the first warehouse-style automatic-projection American multiplex in Britain, as the Showcase cinema opened on Redfield Way, Lenton ((Nottingham at the Cinema)).
L J Allsop, Full house: a history of cinemas in Beeston,
Undated pamphlet from Nottingham Local Studies Library
David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film History an introduction
(New York, McGraw-Hill: 1994)
David Cook, A history of narrative film, 3rd Edition
(New York, W A Norton & Company Inc: 1996)
David Roddis, The thrill of it all, the story of cinema in Ilkeston and Erewash valley
(Derby, Pinnacle Printing: 1993)
Leslie Orton, Seats in all parts… Mansfield’s Stage and Screen History
(Mansfield, Old Mansfield Soc.: 1998)
Nottingham Evening Post, archive copies on microfilm from 1938 to 1948.
Bill Freeman & John Walker, Cinema of the 70s
(filmed 1965, released on VT by Nottingham Audio Visual)
Nottingham at the Cinema
(Viewpoint Television, Nottingham—undated video recording)
Nottingham at War
(Viewpoint Television, Nottingham—undated video recording)