Heyday of cinema

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.

Outside the Whitehall Cinema Morecambe c1935 or 1936.  Mr Russell-Snowden is on the left and at the cinema’s front door is Maurice Nailor, the director’s son.  (67/3 Russell-Snowden © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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’.

Use of Jeyes fluid in one cinema (NWFA/12 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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 studio portrait of Mr McClelland in his pageboy uniform.  Taken at Gales Studio, Manchester 1925. (78/1 McClelland © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)
Mr. McLelland describes how he got the job as page boy and his duties (NWFA/29 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)
Mr. McLelland talks about the page boy uniform (NWFA/29 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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.

Renowned organist Sandy MacPherson played in a local cinema (NWFA/27 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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.

Variety acts on during intervals (NWFA/15 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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!

Mr Green and cinema staff in the doorway of Coliseum, Neville Street, Southport.  He had arranged for a leopard to be brought to the cinema to publicise the film “Cat Girl”.  1957. (91/10 Green © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)
Innovative marketing idea from Mr. Green! (NWFA/21 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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.

Summer season schedule (NWFA/42 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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.  I was surprised to discover one of the reels from the NWFA collection contains music that was possibly used as a soundtrack. We are hoping to learn more about this. Please get in touch if you can identify any of the extracts below.

Cinema soundtrack 1 (NWFA/7 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)
Cinema soundtrack 2 (NWFA/7 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)
Cinema Soundtrack 3 (NWFA/7 © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)
Coliseum cinema, Neville Street, Southport. The donor, Mr Green, is standing in the doorway of the Coliseum, c1950s (91/9 Green © North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University)

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.

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Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

Thousands of cassettes, open reels, CDs and MiniDiscs are sitting in archives, museums, libraries and in people’s homes all over the UK. All kinds of unique live music, radio and conversation are recorded on these tapes and discs. We’ve already lost many of the people captured on them. And the British Library estimates that we have fifteen years to preserve the sounds themselves.

Unique sounds held on physical formats risk being lost as the carriers degrade over time and the equipment to play them is no longer produced. If we don’t transfer the tapes from analogue to digital now (and get the data from the discs onto backed up storage) we many never get the chance again.

The Manchester Studies oral history collection at Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre

That’s why the British Library has received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to establish Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, an exciting new national project to save thousands sounds which are at risk of being lost forever.

Archives+ is the hub partner for the North West region, which covers Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside. We’ll be digitising around 15,000 recordings on 5,000 cassettes, reels and optical discs held all over the region here at Manchester Central Library.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Manchester Central Library
Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Manchester Central Library

The collections proposed for digitisation range from the oral histories of seafarers, dockers and football fans in Liverpool, to mill and hospital workers in Lancashire, to the stories of mountaineers from the Mountain Heritage Trust, immigrant stories from Tameside and Cheshire lives captured by the Chester Archaeological Society. Not to mention dialect poetry from Lancashire to the Lakelands. And local BBC radio recordings from all over the region, as well as output from pioneering independent radio stations like Piccadilly Radio. Plus live music recordings including 1960s folk gigs on the Wirral, Royal Northern College of Music student performances, Irish traditional music and, of course, loads of brass bands!

So far we have started digitising three collections held at Manchester Central Library. The first is an eye-opening open reel collection called Voice in the Crowd, broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester in the mid-1970s. In it you can hear ordinary people describe their often extraordinary lives. Here’s the BBC Radio Manchester news team, some of whom put Voices in the Crowd together.

BBC Radio Manchester Newsroom, 1970 (m06300)

Listening to some of the interviews brings home how much things have changed since the 1970s – and not just in the Newsroom! Here’s a vegetarian talking about how she explains her ethical beliefs to other people.

Explaining vegetarianism to other people (RMAN/1121 © BBC Radio Manchester)

Meanwhile a sword-swallower explains why it’s not a good idea to eat curry or drink cola before a performance…

The diet of a sword-swallower and foods to avoid (RMAN/1155 © BBC Radio Manchester)

The second collection is a classic local oral history project recorded on cassette by BBC Radio Manchester journalist Alec Greenhalgh, who applied his journalism training to find out about the childhood experiences of elderly people around Manchester. Here’s an anonymous woman from Greenfield, born in 1893, describing her mother’s delicious sheep’s head broth…

Our third collection is the North West Film Archive’s oral histories. These capture memories of all kinds of cinema and film experiences across the region, from the projectionists to the punters. Frank Molyneux was twelve-year-old chocolate boy at the Thatto Heath Empire when he got his big break into the projection room…

The British Library will archive the digital sound files and provide access to a proportion of them online; the rest will available to listen to locally. We’ll be creating a sustainable centre of excellence in digital audio preservation here at Manchester Central Library, recruiting volunteers and involving new audiences in engaging with their audio heritage in innovative ways.

Follow this blog for much more from the project team and volunteers – including lots more voices from the archives, project updates, and advice on caring for your own sound archives.

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.