Big Show: British Cinema Culture in the Great War (1914-1918)

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The Big Show looks at the role played by cinema in British cultural life during World War One.

In writing the definitive account of film exhibition and reception in Britain in the years 1914 to 1918, Michael Hammond shows how the British film industry and British audiences responded to the traumatic effects of the Great War.

The author contends that the War’s significant effect was to expedite the cultural acceptance of cinema into the fabric of British social life. As a result, by 1918, cinema had emerged as the predominant leisure form in British social life. Through a consideration of the films, the audience, the industry and the various regulating and censoring bodies, the book explores the impact of the war on the newly established cinema culture. It also studies the contribution of the new medium to the public’s perception of the war

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Meet the Author

Michael Hammond is a lecturer in Film in the Department of English at the University of Southampton. He has written extensively in the area of reception of early cinema in Britain, including a contribution to Young and Innocent? The Cinema in Britain, 1896-1930, edited by Andrew Higson (UEP, 2002).

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The Big Show

British Cinema Culture in the Great War 1914â"1918

By Michael Hammond

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2006 Michael Hammond
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-758-7


Local Tracks

Exhibition Culture in Southampton

When war in Europe broke out in August 1914, Southampton had fourteen cinemas and by the end of the year a further two had opened for business. Apart from one, all of these cinemas were still operating at the end of the war in November 1918. The relatively new form had made significant inroads into the established entertainment culture of the town from the first screenings at the Philharmonic Hall on the High Street in 1897. In line with a nationwide trend there was considerable investment in cinemas in the years 1912–14. These speculative enterprises were undertaken by local businessmen like Percy Vincent Bowyer, whose main interest was in property speculation, and William Dalton Buck, a local builder in the adjacent township of Shirley. William Buck constructed the Atherley, the first purpose-built cinema in the Southampton area in 1912. He managed the cinema himself with his wife leading the orchestra. By contrast, Percy Bowyer was typical of the kind of investment interest that fuelled the national boom in cinema-building. His family were well known in political and business circles: his brother Henry had until recently been Mayor of Southampton and Bowyer himself was an alderman on the town council. He had a number of business interests and property investments, including four cinemas by the autumn of 1914. The first of these was the Carlton, which opened in January 1914 at the northern edge of the retail district in the town. In March 1914 Bowyer bought the Shirley Electric from the Jury Imperial Pictures Company who were divesting their exhibition holdings and in the same month applied for a cinema licence for the newly built Scala on Cobden Bridge in Bitterne. In June he applied for a licence for another new cinema, the Northam Picturedrome, which opened in September 1914.

While William Buck owned and operated his concern, Bowyer, in his role as managing director, brought in showmen, like George Elliot, from outside the town to run his businesses. To attract audiences cinema managers drew upon existing traditions of showmanship that were tailored to specific markets, depending on the cinema's location. Southampton's status as a commercial port meant a considerable turnover of travellers and businessmen, consequently cinemas, like the Alexandra and the Gaiety, located on or near the High Street in the centre of the city depended on passing trade. The cinemas outside the centre, such as the Atherley in Shirley, the Palladium in the middle-class suburb of Portswood and the Picturedrome in the working-class area of Northam, worked to appeal to their local area through programming and house management strategies designed to maintain audiences and encourage the 'cinema habit'.

Between August and December 1914 business practices in both cases shifted dramatically as Southampton changed from a commercial to a military port and became the primary embarkation point for the British forces. Managers and owners also engaged with the complexities of official and unofficial regulation, national and international pressures within the changing production and distribution sectors, and the unpredictability of the changes brought about by the first few months of the Great War. These included temporary but significant local unemployment resulting from the August 1914 closure of the port's commercial activities, the town's main form of industry. This situation was soon alleviated, however, by the influx of troops and related industries. Nevertheless, just as the confidence in cinema as an investment was at its height, the situation of the first months of the war cast an air of uncertainty that did not bode well for entertainment of any kind.

This dramatic shift in economic infrastructure makes Southampton somewhat atypical as few towns and cities experienced the impact of economic and social change on the scale that Southampton did during the first few months of the war. Yet the impact of these changes was, to a greater or lesser degree, eventually felt by every major town and city in the United Kingdom. Southampton's position as the point of primary embarkation and return for troops and the wounded was unique, but in other ways it had similarities with other British cities. For example, the significant number of local men serving at the front was on a par with that of other areas of the country. While Southampton did not share the concentrated loss of local men in the same way that, say, Accrington did in 1916, the overall percentage of dead and wounded local men paralleled most towns in Britain. The position of Southampton as a provincial town makes it comparable with most of the cities and towns outside the larger urban centres of London, Birmingham or Glasgow. Southampton's position for this study then operates as an indicative area of inquiry. The purpose of this chapter is to map out Southampton cinema culture, to bring to life the nature of the challenges faced by cinema owners and managers, highlight the strategies they used to meet those challenges and in the process trace the means by which they understood audience behaviour. This microcosm of Southampton will provide a basis from which to consider cinema exhibition and reception at this time in Britain generally.

'Packed Houses' and 'Beaming Managers': The Local Entertainment Scene

On Easter Monday, 13 April 1914, 'our young man', a journalist for the Southampton amusements paper What's On in Southampton, took a trip around the amusements of Southampton in order to see 'thoroughly for himself how Southamptonites disported themselves' on this Bank Holiday. He began in the early morning with a visit to the 'various boat excursions' by the docks, which were 'well patronised'. He fought off the temptation to take one himself and 'miss seeing anything else' and instead stopped off at the office for petty cash to finance his day of leisure reporting. He noticed that the pubs were 'quieter than on an ordinary day, but all the bosses seemed cheerful knowing they would make up for the morning slackness when the boys and girls returned from their various outings'. Still, there was activity in 'two little rendezvous where the little room with the piano going' was doing 'packed business'. These were the Baker's Arms and the Evening Star, both owned by the same host, 'Walter', who 'wore a beaming smile'. The pianos were played by local musicians, featuring a repertoire of traditional tunes as well as popular songs that could be heard at the two large music halls, the Palace or the Hippodrome, or available at one of a number of music shops on or near the High Street, like H.P. Hodges, (where it was also possible to book seats for the Grand Theatre or for some of the High Street cinemas).

The journalist took his lunch at Scullard's, a restaurant and hotel on the top part of the High Street above the old city wall 'bar gate' called 'Above Bar', and then made his way to the Common, a mile north of Southampton city centre. The Common had been a public park since 1844 and at 365 acres was the largest park within the city boundaries at that time. Its centrality for residents of Southampton and adjacent villages and towns made it a popular place for travelling shows and public gatherings. 'Our man' found it to be 'the point of attraction for the afternoon' and 'simply one seething mass of humanity and all the "fun of the fair" ...' He noted that the most popular entertainment was 'the Brothers Beckett's boxing booth', where patrons could watch their friends go a couple of rounds with a professional. Here the phrase 'all tastes were catered for' was used, a standard euphemism for popular entertainment at the time, as distinct from educational or 'cultural' events.

Moving back to the city he found that the parks in the centre were filled with children and their parents, and games of cricket and rounders were the order of the day. After a refreshing cup of tea 'our man' stopped in at the 'various halls and palaces'. The two music halls, the Palace and the Hippodrome, were located on or near the High Street while the Grand Theatre, which brought the latest plays from the West End and Drury Lane, was nearby, just off Above Bar Street. This particular week the Grand was featuring a return visit of The Whip (Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton), which had first appeared at Drury Lane on 9 September 1909.

The first stop for 'our man', however, was a cinema, the Alexandra, on Above Bar Street. The 'Alex' had been converted from a concert hall, the Philharmonic Hall, in 1911. The Walturdaw Ltd Co., a London-based film distribution company, had bought the Philharmonic in 1909. They did not undertake the conversion, however, but sold it to the Southampton Picture Palace Ltd, a local firm that renovated and renamed it the Alexandra Picture Theatre. This was the most prestigious addition to their cinema-building enterprise. The already successful Southampton Picture Palace (just off the High Street on East Street) had been converted from a Baptist chapel and opened in May of that same year. At the time of its conversion the Alexandra was the most 'modern and luxurious' in the city, offering roomy plush 'tip-up seats' and conveniently located next to the popular Scullard's Hotel.

As with much of the journalism of What's On the description of the conditions at the Alexandra is glowing as the reporter notes that the crowds were waiting to get in all evening. He then found the same standing-room conditions at the Hippodrome and the Palace. He moved north up the High Street, past the newly unveiled monument to the engineers of the Titanic in East Park, to the Carlton. The Carlton was located in the upmarket shopping district of London Road and adjacent to Regency-period Carlton Crescent, a well-to-do residential area. The Carlton cinema was 'packed to suffocation' this particular day and the feature of the programme was In Mid Atlantic: 'a drama of the sea'.

The journalist was then faced with a choice as to which direction to take in order to cover fully the possibilities for amusement. The two most significant communities for this were Portswood and Shirley. They lay on either side of the Common, directly north of the High Street. On the western side was Shirley, with a population of 8,651 people, most of whom were clerks or worked as stewards in the liner trade. There were three cinemas there: the Atherley, owned and operated by William Buck, Percy Bowyer's Shirley Electric and the Regent, proprietor William Foster Christmas. On the eastern side was the distinctly middle-class ward of Portswood, population 8,298, bordered to the north by the village of Highfield, where the new building for the university was being built. Located on Portswood Road, the main shopping district for this affluent area, was the Palladium, on its opening in 1913 deemed 'the prettiest picture palace south of London'. Rather than visit either of these districts 'our man' decided to phone the Palladium in Portswood and the 'various houses in Shirley' to hear that they were all 'packed out, thanks for enquiring'.

Covering his assignment by phone in this way allowed the reporter to turn back towards the city centre, where he stopped by the Grand and saw for himself that they were doing a brisk business with the staged production of The Whip and its ever-popular rendition of the spectacular train wreck. He then moved on to the cinema houses towards the bottom of the High Street to report that the Kingsland's manager had 'a smile as broad as his shirt front' due to the full house. At the Southampton Picture Palace—just far enough from its new sister cinema the Alexandra, it was hoped, to maximise its share of audiences without directly competing—he caught the eye of Percy Lambert the manager 'over the heads of the struggling crowd' and noted his satisfaction with the day's business.

Finally, his day came to an end with a visit to the Queen's Restaurant at the Royal Pier, which he found 'full of patrons enjoying the excellent music' and particularly enjoyed the addition of the 'cello to the 'little orchestra'. Also on the pier itself was one of the concerts regularly given by the Band of the 11th Hussars, accompanying the famous tenor Frederic Lake. The refreshment room on the pier had recently been refurbished and 'our man' predicted a record summer season for the venue. He ended his report:

Now in conclusion, re Southampton generally, why don't the council boom the town as a holiday centre (not of course seaside resort). Knowing thoroughly as we do the kingdom inside out, we cannot call to mind any place with such facilities for interesting excursions, both marine and inland, and apart from these, the unsurpassed historical associations.

Biased as his excursion across Southampton is, the journey nevertheless gives a remarkably clear indication of the accessibility of amusements in the city on the eve of the Great War. The confidence of the local entrepreneurs in the new industry was exemplified by the number of cinemas and the increasing investment in picture palaces with five new fixed-site cinemas opening in 1914, three of them prior to the onset of the war in August. Nevertheless, much of this confidence was based on the value of the building and the property itself that offset the risk of the cinema venture. An example of such risk-spreading is evident in the case of the Shirley Cinema, the sale of which was reported in the regular column on regional cinemas in The Bioscope on 2 July 1914:

An important local business deal has been completed during the past week, Mr. John Lewis having disposed of his interest in the Shirley Cinema together with the Shirley Hotel and the Shirley Bowling Green, Mr. William Foster Christmas, representing the Christmas Bros., of the Edinburgh Hotel. The cinema was originally the assembly rooms attached to the hotel, and was converted about eight months ago. The venture was very successful and the hall can boast of a regular set of patrons. Mr. Lewis intends taking a six month's [sic] rest, and will be heard of in the picture world again.

Here is a case of local hoteliers investing in a cinema yet the multipurpose use of the building as part of the hotel gave a sense of security should the cinema craze prove to be temporary.

The size of the cinemas in Southampton at this time ranged between 600 and 1,200 seats and in order to maximise audiences and revenue most house management strategies encouraged multiple use. Consequently managers used words such as 'intimate' or 'cosy elegance' in their advertising. The Carlton, located as it was in the affluent shopping district, provided a tea room, as did the Winchester Picture Theatre to the north of Southampton. These were places that stressed the social utility of the space as part of the cinema-going experience. The Kingsland Picture Theatre was located in the town's busiest market square where much of the overseas produce reached the local populace. This was a central meeting point in the town and this cinema was characterised as a 'popular rendezvous', a stopping-off point for rest and refreshment in the same manner as a hotel or public house. The Northam Picturedrome, recognising its main clientele as working class, encouraged the benefits of the cinema experience at Christmas when it was time for the 'jaded and worn out worker to visit the warm and cosy Picturedrome ... where there is a special extra holiday programme that at once cheers one up and makes them forget their worries and their troubles for a few hours'.

This kind of product differentiation and target marketing was the result of the considerable competition that existed between local exhibitors in Britain generally. Southampton provides a clear example of the results of the expansion and increase in venues where there was fierce competition at every level for the exhibitor, from securing the most desirable films to providing the kind of environment that would encourage the cinema habit. At the close of 1914, with sixteen cinemas open and each playing three programmes a week, the town was 'well catered for'. This also meant that in order to fulfil the image of 'packed houses' managers had to fill 7,000 seats per day. With the population at 119,000 this meant that potentially fifty per cent of the town's population would have to attend at least once a week in order to keep the cinemas running at a profit. The picture painted of a bustling Easter Monday by the What's On reporter was anomalous. A comment a month earlier on the national craze for cinema-building in the fan magazine Pictures and the Picturegoer tells a different story:

Every week we hear of new picture theatres just opening or building or about to be built, and unless there be a builder's strike or some sort of stoppage we shall have more tip-up seats than people to sit on them even if we all become picture-goers. Surely in some districts at least a reasonable limit is being exceeded in this mania for 'running up.' We want enough houses to go round, of course, but in some of these newest palaces (each one is better than the last) nothing is wanted except an audience—apparently a secondary matter at the time of building ...


Excerpted from The Big Show by Michael Hammond. Copyright © 2006 Michael Hammond. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Part I Local Tracks: Exhibition Culture 
Chapter 1: The Local Entertainment Scene 
Chapter 2: The Crisis of Total War and New Audiences 

Part II The Front at Home: Cinema and the Homefront Imagination
Chapter 5: Anonymity and Recognition: The Roll of Honour Films 1914-1917 
Chapter 6: Education or Entertainment?: Public and Private Interpretations of Battle of the Somme (1916) 

Part III. Artful and Instructive: Respectability and the 'Superfilms' 
Chapter 7: "A Soul Stirring Appeal to Every Briton": The Reception of The Birth of a Nation (1915-16) 
Chapter 8: "A Spectacle That Thrills and Appalls": Thomas Ince's Civilization 
Part IV: Chaplin and the Transformative Properties of Comedy 
Chapter 9: Chaplin: "A Transatlantic Vernacular" 
Chapter 10: "Imagine Charlie At the Front" Shoulder Arms (1918) 


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