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High Street History: Cinemas

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

Once, these screens were windows into the wider world as much as doorways to imagination.

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The Ultimate Picture Palace. Oxford Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: red betty black under CC-BY-NC-ND licence
The Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford


Film-going rapidly increased in Britain after the First World War. In that period, there was much cinema construction. They often had very elaborate or sumptuous features: not for nothing were cinemas habitually known as picture palaces.

Cinema companies wanted to project an image of luxury and modernity to their customers, and to provide a touch of opulence for a clientele that might otherwise experience little of such things. Remember that cinemas were commercial ventures. So their frequently expensive architecture might indicate that their owners assumed they would be profitable.

When cinema started to decline as television spread, many old picture houses were sold off for other uses. Old cinemas, which were usually far smaller affairs than today’s multiplexes, are nowadays often pubs, bingo halls, or churches - but they can still give themselves away by their facades. Don’t forget that buildings that change their purpose can give us an idea of how society was changing in the past. So, for instance, as cinema waned, what else was becoming a mass leisure activity?

Art deco cinema Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

Art Deco Cinema

Art deco was a common inter-war architectural style, which was considered to be peculiarly modern and forward looking: exactly the look that the cinema owners wanted to portray. To be exact, this cinema was completed in 1930. The ‘Egyptian’ motif was frequent in art deco. It is closed now, which may suggest the long-term decline of cinema in the area.

Screen Cinema London Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Pre-World War I Cinema

On the other hand, this small cinema seems to be thriving. It first opened before World War I, though its façade was changed slightly in time, particularly the addition of the lamps, which were probably designed to look very modern. It’s always worth looking for alterations to building façades, since they can indicate what people in later times thought worth updating and preserving.

George former cinema Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Stuart Mitchell

George: former cinema

It may not look much now, but this was a premier cinema in Scotland when it opened in 1939. It was, like so many that era, constructed in an art deco style and originally had an illuminated glass tower that projected at its front - if you look closely, you might be able to see the platform on which it rested. Although the building is grade B listed, that didn’t stop the tower being removed in the 1970s.The cinema has latterly been overwhelmed by the tide of bingo.

Taking it further

The history of film is dealt with in OU course Film and television history (AA310). The growth of cinema in the first half of the twentieth century is covered in Total war and social change: Europe 1914-1955 (AA312). If you are interested in Art Deco, you may like to investigate Art of the twentieth century (AA318).





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