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Silent Cinema in Norfolk

1920s: Silent Cinema in Norfolk

Ahead of our special silent film screening of Nosferatu (1922) with live accompaniment from Minima. We look back to what cinema-going was like in Norfolk in the 1920’s.

The 1920’s were a boom time for cinema-going and development. Many more films were being made in America and cinemagoers were eager for the latest releases.

Cinemagoers in Norwich in 1922, would have been able to see the building of the new Regent cinema on Prince of Wales Road. Like many venues built around this time, it was equipped for variety acts as well as film screenings, with a stage, dressing rooms and orchestra pit. The venue seated 1800 people and visitors could marvel at the winter gardens and fountain before attending a show. The cinema was developed by local cinema magnate F.H.Cooper ‘The king of the local cinema world’. Cooper also owned Brundall Gardens, which he later developed into a resort with thousands of people visiting every year including film stars and directors.

majOne of East Anglia’s finest cinemas The Majestic was also opened in 1928 in Kings Lynn. The complex included a cinema, ballroom and café. The exterior also had a clock tower with a copper roof.

In 1921 the Picture House in Norwich was also redeveloped and re-opened as the Haymarket to seat more people (1700). The building was deemed so impressive, that it was opened by the Mayor. The Haymarket had a small house orchestra led by musical director Sidney Skedge. A gifted musician, he would have to watch a new film on the Monday morning and have a score ready for the evening performance. In the silent era films also sometimes came with a special score so musicians sometimes had a chance to rehearse. Musical directors or conductors sometimes had a foot switch with a cue light to tell the musicians when they should change to a different piece of music or section.

Initially in the silent era a lone pianist would bash out classic songs from the day that related to the film as much as possible. As the art form grew, small groups of musicians would work together. John Essling a local cellist recalled:

a1136‘(Silent films) were usually accompanied by special musical arrangements; sometimes these were compiled from extracts from well known classical works. Sometimes they were all in manuscript with cues written in to indicate a change…I remember The Four Horsemen, The Ten Commandments and The Hunchback of Notre Dame…We never had a rehearsal before the first showing but sometimes the music did arrive in time for us to try it over at home. More often it was a case of sight-reading…For some films we had the support of a drummer who also produced some sound effects, wind, rain etc’.

Norwich audiences were also entertained by musician Simon Wood. His Scottish born mother was claimed to have ‘second sight’ while his father’s grandmother was the sister of Gipsy Queen Gray. He claimed therefore, that he had inherited the gift of clairvoyance. Simon Wood played at several Norwich cinemas, but his favorite was the Regent

‘ I played to the silent films in the afternoon and naturally found Charlie Chaplin the most difficult to follow as his films were very quick…’

Silent film-goers queuing outside in the cold, were often entertained by buskers and could buy refreshments (such as hot chestnuts) from street traders.

Mobile cinemas still existed and provided film shows in the smaller towns and villages. In the 20’s, however, the showmen would arrive in lorries with generators and rig up town halls with electric light, attracting audiences more used to paraffin lamps. Electric motors had gradually replaced hand-cranked projection in the 1920’s. These had variable speeds and cinema operators took advantage and would often slow down or speed up the films to fill their time slot.

George Jefferson recalls:

“We used to make the film last for the time available, it wasn’t very noticeable. You could go down to 16 pictures per second and I have been up to forty eight…’

Extracts taken from The Picture House in East Anglia Stephen Peart

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