Early Cinema in Scotland

Ayr Picture Palace
1.   Ayr Picture Palace opened in 1909.  magbify   ©Unknown
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Irvine
2,  Green's Picturedrome in Bank Street, Irvine, in the 1930s       magbify   ©Cinema Theatre Association Archive (Tony Moss Collection)
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Biddall
3.   Biddall's Ghost illusion exhibit from 1880.   magbify   ©National Fairground Archives of The University of Sheffield.
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Early Cinema in Scotland

The earliest film shows in Scotland were mounted in venues established for other purposes such as the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh; the Real Ice Skating Palace on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street; the Music Hall in Aberdeen.   In the smaller burghs, existing halls or abandoned churches were pressed into use for this increasingly popukar entertainment,.  Typical of these venues were places such as the Wilson Hall in Catrine.

In the west of Scotland cinematograph provision in the earliest years of the 20th century was through itinerant fairground shows; in Irvine, there were numerous booths offering cinematic presentations during the Marymass festivities. The Green family had a booth at the 1911 festival but by the following year they had opened their permanent house, the Picturedrome, in Bank Street. Thereafter, touring booths becames less common although in that year it was reported that Biddall's Ghost Illusion, Manda's American Coliseum and Paulo's Varieties. The following year, the last Marymass Festival before the war brought Dawson's Cinema De Luxe to the town.

Over time, film  became the main attraction rather than one part of a varied entertainment bill, encouraging the adaptaion of buildings that suited the demands of the exhibitors. The emergence of dedicated, purpose-built cinemas did not occur until the immediate pre-war years when ventures such as the Ayr Picture Palace, built in 1909, appeared

From that point to the outbreak of war in 1914, the number of picture houses proliferated, persuading even those who had previously concentrated largely on travelling shows, such as George Green in Glasgow, ‘President’ Kemp in Johnstone and Saltcoats, and the Biddall family in New Cumnock and Annan to invest in fixed sites.

Across Britain the number of cinemas increased from 103 in 1909 to 464 in 1912 and Scotland shared fully in this boom, with a dozen or more opering in various parts of Ayrshire.

Griffiths writes, 'cinemas constructed in the building booms either side of the Great War were often private ventures, reflecting the limited capital needed to sustain the business. The largest outlay involved the acquisition of the site, the cost of which in prime city-centre locations could be high. .  .  In 1910, the Scottish Electric Picture Palaces Ltd. was floated with the intention of constructing eight halls across west-central Scotland. .   .   .The company’s board of directors comprised a solicitor, a staple presence in most boardrooms given the property transactions involved, a wholesale stationer from Glasgow, a jeweller from Ayr, and a theatrical manager from London.   .   .    .

Ownership was and remained intensely local. This was sustained in a period of rising costs as the films and the people employed to show them became more expensive, by the sharing of booking arrangements, so that films were secured on the most advantageous terms. An estimated one-third of all Scottish cinemas were said to be part of booking circuits by 1924, giving rise to figures such as Thomas Ormiston and Alexander B. King, who would exercise a profound influence on the development of the Scottish cinema trade through and beyond the period. Towards the end of the silent era, challenges to local control were envisaged through the advent of sound technology, the cost of which threatened the viability of many small exhibitors, and the growing influence of London-based combines which integrated all aspects of the business from production through to exhibition. That one of these combines, the Association British Picture Corporation was headed by a Scot, John Maxwell, offered little comfort to many.   .   .  .'


[This text is draws on research published by Dr. Trevor Griffiths of the University of Edinburgh.  It is part of 'Early Cinema in Scotland, 1896-1927'. a three-year research project (2012-2015) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  For further information please follow this Link]

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Greens
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Radio City
4.   Two architect designed cinemas of the 1930s: Radio City, Kilbirnie and Greens Playhouse, Ayr. ©MBailey


The impact of ‘the Talkies’

The arrival of talking pictures in the late 1920s heralded the end for the some of the smaller ‘bug huts’ as the expensive technology for sound reproduction and the alteration necessary to the building pushed the smaller operators out of business.

The era of the super cinema had arrived, and with it the growth of the big cinema circuits. The Green family were the pioneers in Scotland, building Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow, Ayr and Dundee, three of the largest cinemas in the country in their day. The ABC cinema chain had its origins in Glasgow with John Maxwell’s company Scottish Cine and Variety Theatres, and in the north the Inverness based Caledonian Associated Cinemas held sway.

Post-war cinema 

Cinema attendances boomed in the war years, the last great era of the big screen. Competition from television in the 50’s and 60’s and a dearth of good family entertainment for the big screen led to a steep decline in cinema attendances. Many cinemas closed or converted to bingo halls. Those that survived into the seventies and eighties saw the era of the multi screen site - large auditoriums architect designed - being twinned or tripled, followed by the inexorable rise of the multiplex of the 90’s and today, in their turn putting these older sites out of business. Few cinema buildings survive today in their original architectural splendour.

[This text is draws on research published by Dr. Trevor Griffiths of the University of Edinburgh.  It is part of 'Early Cinema in Scotland, 1896-1927'. a three-year research project (2012-2015) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. ]

The project website offers a comprehensive survey of early cinema in Scotland with many supporting articles. For further information please follow this Link



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