Here are some notes on the BFI’ s release A Night at the Cinema in 1914 which is screening at Cinema City in Norwich tonight at 6:30 pm. You can still book tickets here
Cinemagoers in Norfolk around 1914 had a variety of ad-hoc and purpose built venues to choose from including; The Regent in Gt Yarmouth, The Empire in Kings Lynn and the Theatre de Luxe or The Electric (Prince of Wales road) in Norwich amongst many others. Films were shown in purpose built Picture House’s, some of which could seat over 1000 patrons, or in smaller towns and villages more make-shift wooden buildings heated by stoves and gas lamps.
Picture House’s in Norfolk like elsewhere, were influenced by the architecture of theatres, but the building of these purpose built venues was delayed during the war years. Larger cinemas were often powered by their own powerhouse – a dynamo driven by an oil or gas engine. The illuminated signs that adorned early cinemas would have been hugely attractive to the residents of the towns of Norfolk, where most homes still did not have electricity.
In 1914, the showmen who had travelled to summer and Easter fairs were no longer able to show films as they had done for nearly twenty years on Great Yarmouth seafront and in Norwich’s Tombland. Many of the showmen were now needed at the battlefront. Likewise young local silent pianists and musicians, who had honed there skills in the early years of cinema also disappeared to the front to be replaced in some cases by mechanized pianos or pianolo’s.
Cinema staff would often now have to fulfil multiple roles in the venues from selling tickets to running projectors or tending to the temperamental power supplies. Here thankfully, in this program the BFI have worked with celebrated silent film pianist Stephen Horne to provide the accompaniment.
- 1913 – the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is set up and introduces two new categories the Universal (U) and Adult (A) certifications
- Film production in the UK almost dies out due to the war effort, but increases dramatically in America in response to the increasing public demand for moving pictures. In fact this period can be seen to be the origin of America’s domination of film production to this day.
- Drinking hours in pubs are restricted in the war years and darkened cinemas offer an alternative social space for young couples and soldiers on leave.
- Feature films are still scarce at this time and shows are made up of a variety of live and screened entertainment including singers, comedians and novelty acts. The BFI programme is made up of a variety of types of film and features, comedies, dramas, travelogues and newsreels. This compilation also features scenes of Allied troops celebrating Christmas at the Front and a glimpse of early cinema’s greatest icon Charlie Chaplin.
- Norwich and East Anglia in general tended to miss out on a lot of the newly released films as it was seen to be too far for the film reps of the day to travel from London.
- Shows were taxed in a measure to assist the war effort and there were a variety of different types of comfort/seating available to the customer. Higher priced tickets in Picture Houses could be purchased. You could buy a box where you could be served refreshments including high tea with kippers, cakes and sandwiches or even alcohol. When the seats were full, cinema owners might fill up the aisles with chairs to fit more people in.
- More makeshift venues in villages and small towns would have offered benches or wooden chairs, but were still as popular as the larger more comfortable venues.
- In general cinema offered a degree of escapism and comfort away from the war and austerity outside.