Topic

Glasgow's neighbourhood cinemas

Cinema conquered Glasgow by becoming a regular and familiar part of working-class life in residential areas. While the big variety theatres and the flashy new picturehouses in the city centre positioned Glasgow as an up-to-date, vibrant entertainment hub, the trade was sustained by dozens of popular neighbourhood cinemas. Like the neighbourhoods they were in, they had their own distinctive character, catering for a strictly local audience for whom a trip to the city centre was a rare treat. Although very well connected by an extensive tram network, electrified in 1902, each of Glasgow's 'urban villages' had its own main street with its shops, pubs, baths, co-ops and banks, and often two or more cinemas in competition. These venues had more in common with small-town cinemas than with city-centre venues, and were more likely to be owned locally.

Only one in five cinemas functioning by 1915 was in the city centre. From 1907, when the Wellington Palace established itself in the heart of the Gorbals, cinema exhibitors had staked their claim on various halls and theatres, such as the Public Hall and the Lyceum in Govan. Between 1910 and 1912, the cinema-building boom extended to Bridgeton, Shettleston, Parkhead, Springburn, Ibrox, Maryhill, Pollokshaws, Whiteinch, Partick, Govanhill and Dennistoun. Many of these new cinemas were independently owned, like the Eglinton Electreum in Laurieston, opened in 1911 by Alexander Gilchrist Jr., a brassfounder and Independent Labour Party supporter, in the back-court of a tenement.

Others were part of growing local chains such as the B. B. Pictures, George Urie Scott's circuit, A. E. Pickard's circuit, and Green's Picturedromes. These quietly thriving businesses allowed canny entrepreneurs to build significant fortunes. Perhaps the most extraordinary case is that of John Maxwell and Scottish Cinema and Variety Theatres, Ltd., which could trace its roots back to Springburn and Shawlands, and grew to become Associated British Cinemas (ABC), the largest UK circuit in the 1930s. SCVT's main rival, Alexander B. King's Caledonian Associated Cinemas, had also started with a single neighbourhood cinema, the Lorne in Ibrox. Having found their audience in the residential districts, some pioneer exhibitors were surprised that cinema was able to succeed in more expensive and sumptuous city-centre venues. As J. J. Bennell recalled,
I had pinned my faith to the working classes and the twice nightly house, and I did not dream that the palatial picture house, as we know it to-day, drawing its tens of thousands of well-to-do patrons, would ever become a reality.

Most neighbourhood cinemas operated on a 'twice nightly' schedule, showing their programme at 7 and 9pm or similar. In addition to this, there were two or three matinees (including one for children on a Saturday), and in some areas the times would be linked to local work patterns. While in most cases people were able to enter the cinema at any point in the screening, profits were not dependent on a quick turnover but on two large houses. This pattern made it easier for neighbourhood cinemas to show longer films when they started becoming regularly available from 1912. So, perhaps paradoxically, it was the more peripheral cinemas that embraced new trends first, because they were better placed to accommodate them in their long evening programmes. Neighbourhood venues were also the training lab for new architects like James McKissack and A. V. Gardner, resulting in a rich variety of styles, from the very Scottish back-court halls to the more escapist 'atmospheric' cinemas.

As industry trends continued to reward the consolidation of circuits, many of the existing neighbourhood cinemas changed ownership during the 1920s, and in some cases underwent substantial renovations to approach the chain's style. Their popularity, however, continued to reside on their convenience and familiarity. While many of the silent-era cinemas had declined into 'fleapit' state by the 1950s, they were still regarded as an important part of local life, and are remembered with affection.