New cinema history

Former Odeon Cinema, Flat Street, Sheffield (1993)

It pleases me to have books on my bookshelf that were written by people I know.

I met Sam Manning at the 2015 Picture House Revival weekend that Hand Of created to relaunch the Abbeydale Picture Palace as a cinema after it had been closed for forty years.

Sam was at the time doing postgraduate research into cinema-going in Sheffield and Belfast between 1945 and 1965, and asked me to contribute an oral-history interview to his PhD thesis.

That research is now published as Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom:  decades of decline, 1945-65 (University of London Press 2020), and I couldn’t resist buying a paperback edition. You can preview it as a .pdf file at https://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/cinema-going.

I’ve never been to Belfast, so that aspect of his writing was new territory for me, but the Sheffield sections relate to my childhood memories and my more recent local-history research.

Sam writes as part of the “new cinema history” movement [https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137337016_7], which seeks to place the contemporary experience of going to the pictures in the wider context of social history in the first sixty-five years of the twentieth century.

This extends the ubiquitous nostalgia accounts of the generation that knew or worked in cinemas until the 1960s and the analyses of cinema architecture, the business history of the industry and the endless literature of films and film-makers that have appeared in recent decades.

On the local level, I learned a great deal because Sam has done the legwork of surveying the surviving archives of individual cinemas against city-wide data from local newspapers, government and industry records and oral-history evidence.

He revises the long-held view that suburban cinema-going was killed by the advent of television.  There were other significant factors in play – increasing affluence, flight from inner-city slums to new housing estates and the rise of a generation of young people who thought they’d invented “teenage”, the generation commemorated in Cliff Richard’s hit ‘The Young Ones’ (1962).

He also explains a counterintuitive feature of Sheffield’s post-war cinema history, the building of one of the few post-war Odeon cinemas on Flat Street, later followed by a luxurious ABC on Angel Street.

In the 1930s, when three major chains – Odeon, Gaumont and ABC – dominated the national industry, Sheffield’s cinemas were largely owned by local companies.  Gaumont British Theatres took over the Regent in 1929, two years after it opened, and in 1931 ABC leased the Hippodrome, a variety theatre dating back to 1907, which they gave up in 1948.  Neither invested in the sort of super-cinema that is the villain of the piece in the film The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

The Odeon chain leased a site at the junction of Flat Street and Norfolk Street in 1933, and after a five-year delay the architects Harry Weedon and W Calder Robson designed a 2,326-seat cinema, four shops and a three-storey office block.  Construction began in March 1939 and quickly came to a halt at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The post-war realignment of Sheffield’s proposed inner ring road, later known as Arundel Gate, meant redesigning the Odeon on a smaller footprint. 

When building restrictions were removed in 1954 the pre-war steelwork was dismantled and the new cinema, without the intended shops and offices, was built to a completely fresh design by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant.

This design featured a 55-foot screen and seated 2,319 – 1,505 in the stalls and 814 in the balcony. Lighting in the auditorium was by three rows of fittings hanging close to the ceiling and from concealed lights in the two decorative panels each side of the proscenium.  Sheffield had seen nothing like it before.

The new Odeon opened on July 16th 1956 with the newly-released Kenneth More feature-film Reach for the Sky, attended by the Deputy Lord Mayor, Ald Joseph Curtis, the managing director of the Rank Organisation, John Davis, and his wife, film star Dinah Sheridan, accompanied by the Dagenham Girl Pipers, state trumpeters from the York & Lancaster Regiment and a contingent of service personnel from RAF Norton.

In November 1958 the Odeon was equipped to show Todd-AO wide-screen films with stereophonic sound so that it could specialise in long runs of blockbuster movies. 

By the mid-1960s, cinema-going habits had changed radically.  The Sound of Music on first release ran from October 3rd 1965 until February 1967.  It was immediately followed by Khartoum (1966). 

For a short period of slightly less than two years, there were four high-quality 70mm screens in the city.  The new ABC had a 60ft screen from its opening on May 18th 1961.  The 70ft screen at the Gaumont was first used on July 23rd 1969 and the smaller screen at Gaumont 2 followed in October of the same year.

The Odeon closed on June 5th 1971 at the end of a further fourteen-month run of The Sound of Music and reopened in September of the same year as a Top Rank bingo hall, later rebranded as Mecca.

The Gaumont closed on November 7th 1985, followed by the ABC on July 28th 1988.  Both buildings were demolished.

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