09 September 2014
Historian Trevor Griffiths charts the growth of cinema going in Scotland, from the earliest days of the Victorian moving pictures venues, through to the golden age of film in the Fifties, when Glaswegians visited their local cinema an average of once a week. ...
Nowhere was cinema’s place as the leading commercial leisure pursuit of the early twentieth century more obvious than in Scotland. Not only did it have more cinemas and cinema seats per head of population than anywhere else within the United Kingdom, but around mid century, when the British were the most enthusiastic cinema-goers in the world, Scots attended picture shows with a fervour eclipsing all others.
While across Britain, an average of 28 visits per person per year were recorded in 1950-1, the figure for Scotland was 36, rising to almost once a week in Glasgow and medium-sized towns.
EARLY PICTURE PALACES
This popularity can be traced to the earliest shows, mounted in established entertainment venues, from variety theatres (the first public show of moving pictures in Scotland took place at the Empire Palace on Edinburgh’s Nicolson Street, now the Festival Theatre, in April 1896) to travelling fairs, which brought the movies to areas of small and scattered populations. Here, film featured within a varied programme, often alongside live entertainers, contributing to that variety through short subjects that ranged from the fantastically fictional to the soberly factual, often comprising local scenes juxtaposed against footage of exotic locations across the Empire and the wider world.
The cinema offered escape set alongside the comfort of the familiar.
From 1910, this combination was being offered in venues specifically designed for moving picture shows. As film developed longer, more complex narratives, so the buildings used to exhibit them became larger and were elaborately and luxuriously furnished. The largest of these picture palaces in Scotland was Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow, capable of holding 4,200 at a single sitting and at the time of its construction (1927) the largest cinema in Europe.
The rise of the movies was not welcomed by all. Concern was regularly voiced at the moral impact of film on its prime audience, the young and the impressionable. Others saw in an industry whose products were fashioned outwith Scotland a threat to the nation’s integrity. To these, the cinema appeared an agent of secularisation, undermining the central pillars on which Scottish culture rested, such as the Sabbath. A growing readiness to use Sundays to exhibit pictures, heightened in wartime by the need to provide entertainment for troops stationed in Scotland, gave renewed force to such concerns.
Debate also centred on the films filling Scottish screens during the remainder of the week. Treatments of Scottish themes fabricated in Los Angeles or London drew criticism for their seemingly wilful misrepresentation of the nation’s history and culture. John Ford’s 1936 production of Mary of Scotland, with Katharine Hepburn an unlikely Queen of Scots, attracted critical derision and indifference among local audiences.
The increasing production of British films in the 1930s offered no real relief. In an attempt to shore up a native film producing capability, the British government had from 1927 obliged all cinemas to show a minimum proportion of films that were ‘British’ in origin.
For many, the effect of this quota was to foist upon audiences the products of English studios whose points of reference were more alien to Scots than were the creations of Hollywood.
The evidence of the box office presents a rather different story and suggests that audiences were more tolerant of British efforts, with large budget pictures and more modestly mounted musicals scoring well from the 1930s. Scotland’s attempt to shape her own cinematic heritage enjoyed only fitful success. Although Scots produced the longest film then released in Britain, the United Film’s version of Rob Roy in 1911, attempts at feature production rarely excited other than critical contempt.
More promising openings were offered by documentary subjects, a genre shaped by figures such as John Grierson, who was also behind the slate of seven films depicting aspects of Scottish life prepared for the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow and which the film-maker Paul Rotha welcomed as the first real attempt to use film ‘to present a complete picture of a country to the world’. Although suspended at the outbreak of war in 1939, this model of modestly budgeted documentary production would provide the basis for Scotland’s cinematic efforts over subsequent decades.
Trevor Griffiths is the author of 'The Cinema and Cinema-Going in Scotland 1896-1950' from Edinburgh University Press. The author draws extensively on archival resources concerning the cinema as a business, on documentation kept by cinema managers, and on the diaries and recollections of cinema-goers.