I am a bit of a film fan; I subscribe to a monthly film magazine and have two loyalty cards for cinema chains in the city centre. So I was really looking forward to listening to the oral history interviews from the North West Film Archive (NWFA).
The NWFA is part of Manchester Metropolitan University Library Service. Since its inception in 1977 it has been working to collect, preserve and make available film and video made in or about the region. The NWFA also recorded oral history interviews with people who worked in the region’s film and cinema industry from projectionists and usherettes to cinema owners and film makers.
For this blog I am solely focusing on the interviews that chart cinema history in the North West; from the days of silent films with soundtracks on discs, through to the age of the talkies. One reoccurring theme was teenage projectionists. I was amazed to learn that a number of 13 year olds were learning to operate such heavy equipment and working with nitrate film, often unsupervised! I wonder what these interviewees would make of today’s teenagers watching films on their phones?
Interviewees all talk fondly about the cinemas they worked at or attended, even those affectionately described as ‘bug huts’.
Hearing about the disinfectant being sprayed made me squirm in my seat! I was stunned anybody would willing go there, but then again I am now used to luxe screens with reclining seats.
At the other end of the spectrum the interviews with those who worked as page boys were quite eye opening. These boys had a wide range of cleaning duties during long shifts. One interviewee, Mr. McClelland, speaks with pride about his uniform and how he ironed sharp creases in his trousers before going on duty. He also shares a little known fact about the page boys – once they grew too big for their uniforms they were out of a job and the uniform was passed down to the next in line!
A number of the early cinemas were converted from theatres and that tradition of music hall and variety, which was initially threatened by cinema, became part of the entertainment on offer, including accompanying orchestras and different acts on during intervals.
A projectionist, Wyn Knott, shares her memories of working in a cinema in Hazel Grove, Manchester. She talks about her duties and a typical days work. A particular highlight for her was a visit by Sandy MacPherson, a well respected theatre organist resident at the Empire in Leicester Square.
A cinema manager, Renee George, talks about her father’s early cinema career. He began with a film show in a travelling fair before settling to manage cinemas in Carlisle. Using tricks from his magician’s act he would entertain audiences during the intervals in between the films and serials.
Then, as now, publicity played a big part in drawing audiences to the screen. We are all used to promotional tie ins, such as action figures, posters, sweets and drinks, even Q&As with directors or cast members. However, I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed the screening of ‘Cat Girl’ at the Coliseum in Southport? I don’t fancy sharing my popcorn with a leopard!
Another change that is starkly different today is in the schedules. During the summer months we have multiple, almost hourly showings of the latest blockbuster film throughout the day and night. However, back in the 1920s and 1930s a busy summer season was much different.
Listening to the interviews about the more upmarket cinemas, particularly those where usherettes wore evening gowns, I found myself picturing art deco glitz and glamour. This reminded me of the film screenings in the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. Before and after screenings the pipe organ is played from a rising platform as the Walturdaw cinema screen also rises up from below the stage. As much as I like watching upcoming film trailers this seems a more appropriate start to a film given the beautiful architectural surroundings.
One of the reels in the NWFA collection contains music that was used in NWFA events to accompany silent films. While this soundtrack is technically not part of the cinema history that the NWFA were looking to capture, it is part of their work and we felt should be preserved and included in the digitisation. We are hoping to learn more about this soundtrack. Please get in touch if you can identify any of the extracts below.
Sadly, a number of the interviewees also talk about how they never went to the cinema as customers once they left the business. Perhaps because there was no magic as to how these moving images made it on to the big screen anymore?
Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.
You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.