The history

3: Sound and decline

They hadn’t heard nothing yet
Cinema was never silent, of course. From the earliest days the films were accompanied by music—at least a piano, sometimes a trio or, in the most up-market theatres, an orchestra (which, it has to said, could mean no more than a trio). Attempts to synchronise sound with the picture had been under way since the 1890s. Indeed, Thomas Edison was interested in moving pictures to add to the sound from the phonograph. An Edison Kinetophone system, linking film with a cylinder record player, was installed at the Academy Cinema in Brighton in 1914.

A sign of transition: the Scala in Western Road, Brighton in 1930 had only just converted to sound but was still advertising silent films with full orchestral accompaniment

      Even when sound did arrive its take-up by exhibitors was hesitant because of the competing technologies. At first the biggest impact was created by Warner Bros and its Vitaphone system. Most people, if asked to name the first talkie, would answer The Jazz Singer. That was a Vitaphone film. Warners made some headway in the market with that system, developed by Western Electric, that played back sound from a gramophone-type disc, mechanically synchronised (more or less) with the picture, but the ‘big five’ Hollywood studios—First National, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky, United Artists and Universal (known as the 'majors')—reached a ‘non-action agreement’ in May 1927 not to install any sound film equipment for one year to allow the technology to settle down.
      A year later they adopted so-called ‘sound-on-film’, the sound being recorded as an optical track, read by a lamp and positioned on the film between the perforations and the pictures. This technology was also developed by General Electric and quickly superseded the disc format.
      Once the way ahead was clear, studios committed to sound production. In 1928 three-quarters of all US productions were silent, in 1929 the proportion fell to 13 per cent.
      Cinemas now had to be wired for sound. The first cinemas to convert in Brighton were the Palladium and the Regent. Both went with the Western Electric system, both reopening for talkies on 1 July 1929. Nonetheless, out of the nine cinemas that adopted sound in the second half of 1929, four installed sound-on-disc equipment and one, the Academy, hedged its bets by installing both disc and film systems. The complete changeover to sound was rapid, the laggardly Coronation Cinema in North Road in 1932 being the last to convert.

For whatever reason this sea-change in technology presaged the building of a new generation of cinemas. And not just any cinemas—these were ‘super-cinemas’. They were the dream palaces of opulent splendour, offering sophistication to the masses, to which they were entitled, usually in a vaguely art deco style, which nowadays seems to be a style associated more with the cinema than with anything else.
      Brighton had already been the location for one of the earliest grand cinemas: the Regent [right}, next to the Clock Tower, right in the centre of town, which Provincial Cinematograph Theatres opened in 1921 as the flagship venue in its fast-growing circuit.

As already indicated, the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act did not have the intended effect on British film production and its screening in cinemas. True, British film production soared from 75 feature-length films (60 minutes or more) in 1930 to 192 in 1936. The problem, however, was the quota. Because a proportion of screen time had to be reserved for British films, quality was only a secondary consideration. The outcome was the ‘quota quickie’—a film made, as the name implies, in a short time and for as little money as possible. Shoddy is probably the best word for much of the product. Hardly the way to attract the public past the box office. And cinema admissions did fall, from 1,310 million in 1928 to a pre-war low of 912 million in 1935.
      A committee was established under the chairmanship of Lord Moyne to ‘consider the position of British films. When it reported in November 1936, it condemned quota quickies but supported the idea of the quota itself. The report diagnosed the core issue thus:

The British film producing industry has an insufficient supply of capital for its needs and ... the cost of production of British films has been increased by the necessary money being obtainable only at a high rate of interest. ... Lack of finance is a powerful factor in enabling foreign interests to obtain control and is certainly an impediment to the industry’s continued and satisfactory expansion. ... The Government should, as soon as may be, take such steps as may be practicable to encourage financial interests to constitute one or more organizations to finance British film production, in approved cases, on reasonable terms.

However, in one sentence Moyne summarised the condition of film and cinema in Britain in terms that could apply at almost any time over the past century:

We have received evidence which suggests that, owing to the increasing strength of the home industry, foreign interests are adopting means which are tending to prevent a further expansion of the output of British films and are, moreover, endeavouring to obtain a further measure of control of the producing and exhibiting as well as of the distributing sides of the industry.

A golden age of films as cinema-going falls
Another Cinematograph Films Act was passed in 1938 to implement Moyne’s recommendations, reducing the exhibitors’ quota in the hope that this would lead to bigger budget, higher quality films that could compete better internationally, although producers were concerned that it would lead to more American production in the UK—a policy approved by the Board of Trade.
      The volume of production fell sharply, a reduction of two-thirds by 1941 and down to alow of 35 features in 1944. However, the quality did improve and by the end of the Second World War was reaching a level that is looked back on now as a golden age of British production, the era of Ealing comedies (and dramas), British Lion, of producer/directors like Powell and Pressburger, the Boulting Brothers, Carol Reed, of a new generation of actors like Ian Carmichael, Alastair Sim, Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Margaret Rutherford, Margaret Leighton, Kenneth Moore, Peter Sellers, Bryan Forbes and, of course, Richard Attenborough. (These last two also qualify under the producer/director heading.) Other actors who survived from pre-war cinema became bigger stars for a time: Robert Donat, Stanley Holloway, David Niven, Jack Hawkins, Leslie Banks and more.

      By 1949 Brighton Film Studios [above] was up and running. With only two small-ish sound stages it could not compete with the likes of Elstree, Borehamwood and Pinewood but it did begin to attract B-features, hour-long films that went out on release as the support for the main picture. Some of these films, notably Penny Points to Paradise and The Gelignite Gang, have left us tantalising glimpses of the streets of Brighton as they were 60 years ago.

The end was in sight
By now cinema-going was losing its appeal. Television was finding its way into living rooms and the courting couples from the back row were now married and creating the baby boom. Cinema admissions had reached their all-time peak in 1946—a staggering 1.64 billion. To begin with the attrition was slow. There were still ticket sales of 1.1 billion in 1956 but over the next 10 years they dropped by more than 70 per cent until in 1984 thelowest ever total of 53.5 million was recorded—a decline of 97 per cent in less than 40 years.
      Most cinemas managed to keep going as admissions fell and there were roughly the same number open in in 1955 as in 1941. Between 1957 and 1964 the number of cinemas nationally was cut by half. No town centre in the country lacked its boarded-up cinema, sometimes standing empty for years. As a seaside town Brighton may have been luckier than most as the closures came later and more slowly. It was not until 1973-74 that the number fell most heavily.
      Was this the end? Could the cinema fade to utter insignificance, if not disappear altogether? For once, the cinema industry was mildly forward-looking in response. In 1965 the Rank Organisation divided the Nottingham Odeon to create a ‘twin cinema’ with two screens. More cinemas were split into multiscreen sites. In 1973 Rank put three screens into its Top Rank Suite building and renamed it Kingswest. To compensate, it closed the three cinemas it owned in Brighton: the Academy in January, the Odeon West Street and the Regent just as the Kingswest opened in April.
      The ABC in East Street, Brighton was divided into four in 1976 [right]. Cinema exhibition was then being called a ‘duopoly’ of Rank (Odeons) and EMI (ABCs), heavily criticised for not only limiting viewing choice but for restricting the accessibility to screen time for British films.

The first multiplex cinema in the UK opened at Milton Keynes in 1985, offering 10 choices under one roof. Brighton got the eight-screen MGM (now Cineworld) at the Marina in 1991. The average number of screens per site across the UK is now five. Single-screen cinemas are rare but by no means a thing of the past. As with the Duke of York’s in Brighton, they are often the only ones that bother to venture away from the standard, mostly American fare of the major distributors. In towns that have more than one multiplex, they usually show the same films at the same time.
      The Duke’s expanded with two new screens, not at its Preston Circus site but in the town centre above Komedia in Gardner Street. That brought the total number of sites andscreens back to the level of the early 1990s, which in turn was the highest number of screens since the mid 1950s.
      Videocassettes, DVD and Blu-ray Discs, online services and all the movie channels on cable and satellite television have stimulated the public’s appetite for films. Cinemas have benefitted, the level of cinema-going increasing more than three-fold between 1985 and the end of the century. Over the first decade of this century the number of admissions was steady around the 170 million level. For comparison, attendances at London West End theatres have risen by 38 per cent since 1986.

An unfinished, unending story
UK film output has risen dramatically since the paucity of production in the 1980s. The 22 feature films made in 1981 was the lowest number since 1914. In 2011 the provisional total, according to the British Film Institute, was 169—a substantial drop from the 225 in 2009 and all-time record 262 in 2010. Nonetheless, this is the healthiest British film has been for a century.
      Even so, much of the surge in independent film-making that has occurred in the early years of the twenty-first century and in which Brighton has played a leading part, has been ignored by cinemas and, even more shamefully in view of its enormous appetite for programmes, by television. Having a vibrant production scene is only the beginning. The films must be given a chance to attract audiences. There is no reason why mainstream multiplexes could not support local industry. It’s good for business, good for the economy. After all, before it was abolished, the UK Film Council reckoned that the impact of UK film on tourism was worth £400 million in 1995, rising to £1.6 billion in 2005.

Although British films have been exerting more of a presence on the world’s screens in recent years, without having to hide their Britishness, they are still the poor cousins to Hollywood. The Oscars matter more than the BAFTAs.
      Right from the start the BBC and then ITV were heavily committed to programming that reflected British life—not because of laws requiring them to do so but because broadcasters naturally saw themselves as part of national life. Within the complex relationship between the rise of television and the decline of cinema was a key factor that cinema either couldn’t or didn’t want to recognise: that audiences generally prefer their own cultural traditions. Imported programmes (I Love Lucy, Sergeant Bilko, Dragnet and the rest), however popular, were never as well loved as the indigenous stuff. It is a lesson the cinema still struggles with, 70 or more years later.
Go to Part 1: off to a good start
Go to Part 2: The troubles begin
Go to the TERRA MEDIA world media history website
©David Fisher 2010-2022