The Masters  
The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

A lot of the documents have been sent to me or have come from other web sites. The name of the web site is given where known. If I have unintentionally included an image or document that is copyrighted or that I shouldn't have done then please email me and I'll remove it.

I make no money from this site, it's purely for the love of the films.

[Any comments are by me (Steve Crook) and other members of the email list]

  Steve's Logo

Article submitted by Roger Mellor

British movie theatres

This is not entirely unrelated to PnP, as these were the buildings where their films were first shown ....

There is a magic about these old cinemas (viz Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA), which is completely lacking in the multiplexes of today, which to my mind look more like branches of Safeways or Tescos ....... And I do miss the Cinema organists (like Dennis Price in ACT) of yesteryear, who used to rise up on an elevator, as they were playing, in the intermission between the B film and the A film .....

Those were the days!

I hope these articles are of interest to at least some members of the list .....

Roger Mellor

From: History Today March, 2000

Efforts to save historic British movie theatres
Author: Allen Eyles

English Heritage's Generic Survey of surviving cinema buildings last year resulted in a proposal to list thirty more examples as being of special architectural or historic interest and to invite the public to submit further cases for consideration. Now the selection goes to Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to make the final decision on whether they should be added to the 124 cinema buildings already listed.

Yet is the whole exercise happening far too late? Of the thirty, buildings chosen, only seven are still operating as cinemas. They range in style from the Gate, Notting Hill, with its auditorium of fruity Edwardian plasterwork, to the streamlined, colourful Art Deco of the Regent in Lyme Regis (1937). There is also the Phoenix in East Finchley which opened in 1910 but was extensively rebuilt in 1938. The Tyneside in Newcastle (1937) was the News Theatre when it opened, and showed newsreels and shorts only.

In addition to the new listing, it is proposed to upgrade eight of the cinema buildings already listed. Only two of them still show films: the Electric Palace in Harwich (1911), and the ABC (formerly Granada) in Walthamstow (1930). The Granada, Tooting (1931), now a Gala bingo hall, and generally recognised as the most spectacular cinema built in Britain, is being put forward for the highest status of all, Grade I.

Where listed cinemas still show films, it is possible to gain some sense of the traditional experience of "going to the pictures" in which the surroundings were part of the attraction. Of course, much has changed in recent decades. No longer are we guided to seats by usherettes, entering at any time during continuous performances. No longer do shows last three hours or more with two features and a newsreel. The projection beam cutting through the cigarette smoke of a crowded cinema is also a memory.

In addition, it is now almost impossible to see a film in a really large auditorium. With the advent of extended runs and the wide choice at the modern multiplex, the large single screen cinema is an anomaly. The unlisted Odeon Leicester Square with its 1,974 seats, now partially restored to its 1937 glory, is the exception, but its viability is helped by the addition of five mini-cinemas alongside. Yet in the heyday of picture-going there were more than 200 cinemas in Britain that seated over 2,000 people. The large cinema buildings that survive are now mostly bingo halls -- including the biggest picture palace built in England, the 4,004-seat Gaumont State in Kilburn (1937), now a Mecca bingo club. Some are live theatres, like the Gaumont Palace, Hammersmith (1932) and, London's New Victoria (1930), both of which are Apollo theatres. Many cinemas had already been adapted for bingo or other uses when they were listed, but often consent has been given for extensive "reversible" alterations. In bingo halls, the stalls floor has usually been levelled or stepped, the orchestra pit floored over, the stage opened up as an extension of the main floor, the walls redecorated in bright colours and the level of lighting raised.

It is the smaller cinemas seating under 1,000 that have survived in greater numbers. Three of those proposed for listing -- the Gate, Phoenix and Tyneside cinemas -- are run as "art houses" where the period features are appreciated by their more sophisticated audiences.

Many larger cinemas have not escaped from the dire reputation they gained during the decline of the cinema in the 1960s and 1970s when brash modernisation schemes and awkward conversions to multi-screen operation resulted in high prices, botched decor and often poor sightlines. It took the launch of the multiplex from 1985 onwards to give cinema-going a fresh start, to appeal to the 15-35-year-olds that form the core audience. A new multiplex is usually the kiss of death to an old cinema in the same area, no matter how well maintained, and recent planning guidelines have made matters worse by forcing most new multiplex schemes into city centres near existing cinemas rather than siting them in out-of-town retail parks. This problem affects two of the cinemas proposed for recent listing: a scheme has already been agreed to replace the Odeon Newcastle with a multiplex a short distance away, and two rival multiplexes due to open this spring in Wood Green, north London, threaten the profitability, of the nearby three-screen Odeon Muswell Hill, the most spectacular Art Deco cinema in London, on which any further investment has been halted until the extent of the damage has been established.

Odeon has failed to consider whether its Muswell Hill outlet, and others like it, would fare better if restored to their original glory and marketed as an alternative to the multiplex. Independent exhibitors have found that audiences enjoy old-fashioned cinemas -- at the beautifully restored 1911 Ritzy in Brixton, managing director Claire Binns reports that there are exclamations of delight when people first walk into the auditorium.

Does cinema listing work? It certainly helps to keep many functioning cinemas open. Where buildings are in other uses, it preserves the essential decorative features of an interior as they were at the time of listing, but it has not usually been able to protect the cinema ambience, dependent on subtle lighting schemes and subdued colours. What seems most regrettable is that listing has often failed to prevent the removal of the cinema screen and projection equipment. Few if any listed cinemas are likely to return to showing films as their principal activity, but many large US movie palaces, including the Fox, Atlanta, and Paramount, Oakland, have been painstakingly restored for varied arts and community use and have found occasional special film presentations to be well attended.

It may happen in Britain if current plans to restore the large Plaza Stockport are successful. And there are signs that the National Trust might be prepared to add an outstanding cinema or two to its list of historic properties. Last summer, a Sunday afternoon bingo session at the former Gaumont State, Kilburn, was replaced by a film show as part of the Camden Arts Festival with the Wurlitzer organ accompanying a silent feature, and over 1,000 people attended. The Cinema Theatre Association, the national society for devotees of the cinema building, is exploring ways of re-introducing films at other venues where they have not been seen for decades.

History Today Feb, 1998

Return of the super cinema in the United Kingdom
Author: Barry Doyle

The revival of the cinema-going habit in Britain continues to gather momentum. Despite a minor blip in 1995, audience figures have been on a steady upward curve since their 1984 record low of 54 million and all indicators suggest 1997 could register the highest number of admissions since the early 1970s. Though this recovery is the result of a number of inter-related factors -- pricing, product, the impact of video -- most commentators are agreed that much of the credit must go to the importation of American multiplex cinemas, purpose built cinemas with five or more screens, the first of which -- the ten-screen Point in Milton Keynes -- opened its doors in 1985. Britain now has around a hundred multiplexes -- usually situated in out-of-town sites, surrounded by shops and other leisure facilities -- commanding over half of all admissions. The overall improvement in the cinema infrastructure which has accompanied their appearance bears fruitful comparison with the 1930s, a similar era in cinema building and expanding attendance. In the late 1920s two factors -- the arrival of sound and the imposition, following the collapse of the British film industry in the face of US competition, of a state-regulated minimum quota for the screening of British-made films -- set in train a massive upgrading of the cinema stock, heralding the age of the "super cinema".

Epitomised by the Odeons of Oscar Deutsch (a Birmingham scrap metal dealer and entrepreneur who hit on the idea of branding his cinemas by building each one in a similar recognisable style), [It was often said that "Odeon" stood for "Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation] hundreds of new cinemas were built between 1930 and 1940, either upgrading existing facilities or as wholly new ventures. Some of these new buildings, like the Astorias in various parts of working-class London, were exotic extravaganzas reflecting the dream world projected on the screens, whilst others, especially the Odeons with their Art Deco styling, celebrated the modernity of film. The super cinemas, with their greatly enhanced seating capacity, facilitated rapid growth in the audience for film, with admissions rising from 900 million in 1934 -- the first year of reliable statistics -- to an all-time peak of 1,635 million in 1946, making the British, on average, the most avid cinema-goers ever. But then decline set in, with audience figures plummeting to 501 million in 1960, 200 million in 1970 and 100 million by 1980. As admissions fell, so did the number of cinemas, from around 4,500 in 1955 to 1,500 in 1970 when many of the remaining city-centre super cinemas were either closed down or split up into two-, three- or four-screen venues. By the time the nadir of cinema attendance was reached in 1984, Britain could boast only 1,200 screens in 660 sites -- a quarter of the early 1950s' peak. Historians of film have identified a number of factors germane to this decline.

Central to the phenomenon was the availability of alternative leisure pursuits, especially television from the mid-1950s. Slum clearance and the suburbanisation of the post-war population aggravated the effects of television and encouraged site closures, while the decline in public transport, fear of crime and the problems of taking a car into town at night all served to discourage use of the remaining city-centre cinemas. The fall in demand led producers, distributors and exhibitors to concentrate on maximising profits by focusing on the adult (especially male), lower middle-class market. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, seat prices rose faster than inflation and became more uniform, while the number of films available for children and families decreased substantially. It was thus in a very depressed climate that the American company AMC (now UCI) launched its bid to revolutionise the UK cinema exhibition market with the opening of the Milton Keynes multiplex.

But what are the similarities and differences between the 1990s multiplex and the 1930s super cinema? There certainly are considerable similarities. Both resulted in extensive new investment in the exhibition industry, designed to attract new audiences by relocating cinemas to areas which would command the largest possible attendance. Deutsch's Odeons were constructed on main roads close to bus and tram stops, or in the new middle-class suburbs and were aimed at a more affluent and respectable audience who would not consider patronising the "fleapits" which served working-class neighbourhoods.

The modern multiplex had a similar goal of opening up the post-war suburban hinterland by providing extensive, safe car-parking and ease of access to the mobile middle classes who had stopped using the traditional cinema. Both the super cinema and the multiplex aimed to improve the film-going experience by providing a cleaner, more comfortable environment, improved levels of service and a range of ancillary products. In the latter case, the 1930s cinemas offered smart cafes where film-goers could meet before or after the performance, as well as concessions to provide ice-cream, sweets and cigarettes which not only improved the service, but were also highly lucrative to the exhibitor.

The multiplex has revived many of these facilities, with fast food outlets, cafes and bars, whilst the Virgin cinema chain has added film shops where movie goers can purchase a variety of film-related products. The revolution in exhibition infrastructure was in part stimulated by a change in the product. The 1930s saw both the triumph of the talkies and a revival in British film production under the auspices of the quota and the entrepreneurship of men like the émigré film producer Alexander Korda; whose successes included the Oscar winning Private Life of Henry VIII. Meanwhile, the last fifteen years have seen the re-emergence of the "family" film and a more vigorous courting of the teenage market. Sex and violence have been toned down -- even action and adventure films aimed at the over fifteens carrying PG or 12 certificates -- whilst the return of the "family" film has allowed the multiplexes to copy another innovation of the super cinemas -- audience building through special programmes for children.

The rapid success of both the multiplex and the super cinema gave them a privileged position with the key distributors and allowed both to dominate the "first run". circuit. Yet they also provided a new outlet for films marginalised by the existing exhibitors. Though Hollywood has always dominated the British market, with wordy, middle-brow British films rarely appealing to the mass audience, the audience profile of the super cinemas and the flexibility of the multiplex encouraged both to show British films. Films such as Victoria the Great in the 1930s and Much Ado about Nothing in the 1990s certainly would not have reached such a wide audience in the fleapits of the 1920s or the mainstream cinemas of the 1970s and 1980s. in part, this reflects the ability of both venues to attract anew film audience -- older, middle class, better educated and with a more equal gender balance -- though in the case of the multiplex this has proved an unexpected bonus. Another common link between the two forms of cinema is that both created largely unfounded fears of redundancy for the traditional cinema sector.

When Simon Rowson, statistician and President of the British Kinematograph Society, conducted the first serious statistical study of the exhibition industry in 1934, he viewed the appearance of the super cinema as a distinct threat to the existing neighbourhood exhibitor. Yet it was almost twenty years before his fears came to fruition, the number of cinemas in operation in 1952 being greater than in 1934. Similarly, modern commentators have claimed that the multiplex would force the old city centre cinemas out of business, yet this does not appear to have happened to any great extent. Certainly some traditional cinemas have gone out of business, but at a slower rate than before 1985, and often without multiplex competition, whilst there is evidence that new city centre cinemas are opening -- though increasingly these are targeting specialised markets such as "art house" and the Asian community.

The most obvious difference between super cinema and multiplex is architectural. Whereas the Astorias and Odeons were a statement -- the physical embodiment of cinema's potential for fantasy and modernity -- most multiplexes copy the retail park "rustic" of the surrounding superstores, while inside they are more akin to an airport terminal than a Doge's Palace. Yet their unpretentious architecture provides an important link with the other cinema market of the 1930s and 1940s -- the small, cheap fleapits of the working-class neighbourhoods. For, though the super cinemas have grabbed the historical limelight, sites with over 1,000 seats accounted for only a third of the 4,500 cinemas in the country and were disproportionately concentrated in London and the south-east. By boosting the number of screens to 2,100 the highest figure since the 1960s, whilst restricting the number of seats per screen to around 250, the multiplex has recaptured the intimacy and profitability of the neighbourhood cinemas which dominated the working-class towns of mid-century Britain. They have also revived another important element of these sites by introducing a flexible pricing policy. The super cinemas traded on their respectability to increase prices, while their close links with the major circuits such as ABC and Odeon led to the standardisation of pricing policy across the day, the week and the country.

The modern multiplex has reversed this trend, setting prices which reflect local conditions -- such as age profile and levels of unemployment -- and grading prices according to time of performance and location within the cinema. Furthermore, an element of flexibility has been restored to programming. In the early 1950s, the Board of Trade statisticians H. E. Browning and A. A. Sorrell found that many of the small neighbourhood cinemas continued to show only one film per performance, but changed the programme two or even three times a week. However, one of the major contributions of the super cinema was the standardisation of the double feature, six-day programme, a system which became even more rigid in the 1960s and 1970s as distributors enforced longer runs on mainstream exhibitors. The increased number of screens in multiplexes allows them both to show more films, and move films around depending on popularity, while the competition they provide to the traditional sector has forced the Government to restrict the power of the distributors to demand long runs.

The result is more films on show at any one time -- even if these films are drawn from a fairly narrow range of Hollywood mainstream pictures. Offering a large number of films within easy reach of each other has thus helped to recreate the "habit" of cinema-going which was always more closely linked to the neighbourhood cinema than the super-cinemas which served the middle classes and "special occasion" market. The state of the market and the key players in the building boom are also markedly different now from sixty years ago. When the super cinemas began to appear in the early 1930s cinema was already established as a boom industry, selling around 70 million tickets per month: when the Point opened in 1985 the annual total was 54 million. Furthermore, the super cinemas were largely the work of British entrepreneurs like Oscar Deutsch, who raised the initial capital for each new cinema in the locality. The lion's share of the investment in multiplexes, however, has come from America. It is only in the last three years, with the take-over of MGM by Virgin and the launch of Cine-UK, that British business has entered the multiplex market with any enthusiasm.

The success of the multiplex lies in its ability to recapture the best features of the 1930s cinema experience -- combining the choice, flexibility and cheapness of the fleapit with the service, comfort and convenience of the super cinemas. Though they will not recapture the audience figures of the 1940s, or necessarily assist the revival of the British film industry, they have restored some of the sense of event which typified "the age of the dream palace".

Barry Doyle is lecturer in Modem British History at the University of Teesside and is currently writing a social history of twentieth-century Britain for Longman.

Other P&P reviews