North Star letterbook


North Star letterbook


Cinema management


Shetland Museum and Archives holds in the Archives Collection a letter book of carbons from the North Star cinema manager, W. Arthur Mann, dating from 2 August 1915 to 17 September 1915. Though the period covered is quite short, around thirty letters from just over six weeks, letter books are relatively rare and the letters give an insight into the day-to-day business of a small town cinema in a geographically remote location.

The North Star cinema was opened in Lerwick on 24 September, 1913, with a seating capacity of 750, billing itself as the first purpose-built cinema building in the North of Scotland. The management, with registered offices in Aberdeen but with the major share of investment coming from local businessmen, assured the public ‘that the pictures shown will be of a highly instructive and educative character with occasional comicalities thrown in’ and that they ‘intend running it as a picture house only without the aid of any extra "turns"’. (Shetland Times, 13.09.1913)

A letter to the Shetland Times from John Robertson, Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and a former headmaster at Burravoe, Shetland, about the proposal to build a cinema in Lerwick indicated the perceived importance of cinema for a town’s civic status and its ‘up-to-dateness’:

Sir, The floating of a picture palace company in Lerwick is a significant feature of the progress of that town, and wherever these houses have been established the social status of the people has advanced both in a diminution of drink consumption and in general purity. That the kinematograph entertainment of today has become an established institution is axiomatic, I may say, and it is for us to so utilise such a powerful invention as to cause it to be a material, educational and elevating aid to young and old alike. Picture houses to succeed must make a feature of showing clean, healthy and virile films; it is well for their own sakes that they do so. There is no greater stimulus in theatrical business than wholesomeness in its absolute essence. Such is the theory of Lauder's success as a comedian today. Educational films on geographical, biological, entomological, and bacterial subjects for example, exercise a potent beneficial influence on a community. Shetland Times, 17.05.1913

The Managing Director of the North Star Cinema Company was John Jeffrey, an accountant based in Aberdeen, referred to in Mann’s letters as his ‘Governor’. The Company Chairman, to whom Mann reports regularly, was Gilbert Anderson, based in Hillswick, Shetland. The first manager of the cinema was James M. Smith of Lerwick, and W. Arthur Mann was appointed sometime in 1914. He was an active and visible manager, writing columns for the Shetland News on ‘Facts about Film Favourites’ in 1915 and a series of nine articles on ‘The Art of Advertising’ in 1916, including an article on the psychology of advertising. His own art of advertising included advertisements in rhyme. He negotiated an arrangement with the Shetland News for exclusive access to programme advertising (the Shetland Times only published generic ads for the cinema) in exchange for favourable printing rates.  

Despite the initial claims that the North Star would be a picture house only, and would forego live ‘turns’, it emerges from the letters that Mann used an agent in Dundee, A.B. Macnair, to supply him with variety artists – not always successfully: ‘if you value your reputation as an agent don’t for God’s sake book The Three Nelsons for in sketches or want of real histrionic talent they Are The Limit.’ While these acts, particularly during the war years, were advertised in the Shetland News, by the 1920s the North Star seems to have returned to its initial remit of a pictures-only programme, with only occasional, and mainly local, vocalists advertised. Mann’s letters here may give some indication of the difficulties of booking variety artists, even through a trustworthy agent. The reliance on local talent and the increasingly rare appearance of visiting ‘turns’ may be a response to these difficulties. The letter of 9 September to Henri Holborn of the Gaiety Theatre, Clydebank, however, suggests that there may also have been some direct dealing between cinemas for touring performers.   It is interesting to note that, while he worked with an agent to supply live acts, for the supply of films he dealt directly, first with Green’s Film Service in Glasgow, and then with B.B. Pictures, also in Glasgow.

It is also interesting to note that, from Mann’s account, Green’s, despite its significance for early cinema in Scotland, did not enjoy a good reputation. In his programming,, he complains of being delivered substitutes for the films listed and complains particularly that, for the week in question, most of the films in the programme delivered by Green’s are more than forty weeks old: ‘I absolutely refuse,’ he says, ‘to pay 10/- for a 5/- service.’ His attempts to disentangle himself from Green’s hinge around the difficulty of getting access to the serial, The Trey of Hearts, without committing himself to the block-booking which Green’s already operated. Green’s clearly ‘smelt a rat’ and refused to supply him with films, though he seems successfully to have secured The Trey of Hearts, of which he had already shown at least one episode, with the threat of legal proceedings. The arrangement with B.B. Pictures proposes a circuit involving Thurso and Kirkwall, and his dealings with Macnair, his agent, suggest the ambition of both Mann and his ‘Governor’ to have a wider circuit for a film and variety programme, taking in small and large towns in the North and the North-East. This seems to imply a shift from direct programme dealing by the exhibitor towards a circuit system managed by an agent.  

Letters to Jeyes Sanitary Coy and to S.S. Fry suggest that hygiene and ‘sweeties’ were an important part of business, and his letter to his Chairman about a disappointing week due to good weather and the departure of 170 Royal Navy Reserves suggests that profit margins were always exposed to variables. Lerwick in particular may have been particularly exposed to such variables as the itinerant fishing fleet, freight charges, and, during World War 1, the movements of navy personnel. The variability of the weather in the North Sea affected not only attendances, but also the delivery of goods – both films and generator fuel – from the mainland.   We reproduce below extracts and full copies of the majority of letters in the letter book, all from W. Arthur Mann, and we are grateful to the Shetland Archive for access, assistance and permission.


W. Arthur Mann


Letterbook preserved at Shetland Museum and Archives


2 August 1915 to 17 September 1915


Bound letter copy book.






North Star

Collection Items

Asking for fewer posters as ‘this being a small town’, they don’t need so many. Also ordering The Trey of Hearts serial.

Ordering five gallon drum of Jeyes Fluid for sanitation.

Dear Sir,

Enclosed please find statement of returns for week ending July 31st.

We are down considerably this week owing no doubt to the loss of 170 R.N.R. men who left Lerwick recently – also I may mention the weather has been very fine this…

[extract] My dear Macnair Just a word – if you value your reputation as an agent don’t for God’s sake book The Three Nelsons for in sketches or want of real histrionic talent they Are The Limit. I have your wire stating you can’t fix up an artist for…

Dear Sir

Enclosed please find statement of returns for week ending Aug. 7th.

Contrary to our programme enclosed herewith, I have retained - at the eleventh hour - the Nelson Sketch Coy for another four days at however a reduced price viz £4 for…

Letter explaining that he had kept the Three Nelsons on at reduced rate, because programme could not sustain solo vocalist. Also questioning carriages and note on hiring from Green's:'I am showing in arrangement with Messrs Greens Glasgow The Trey of…

Dear Sirs

I have to advise having today received my programme for this week - but no posters. Some of these films are substitutes for the one's [sic] listed and while - these unfortunately not being filled - I have nothing to say as regards the…

My dear Macnair

Again - please excuse brevity. My governor has been in Glasgow and he apparently met some variety agent who suggested running a film and variety agency but - although he likes the idea - and indeed has thought on this idea for…

Letter enquiring about availability for hire of The Black Box, a serial, for exhibition in Lerwick.

Letter protesting about carriage rates for topical - if they can only be sent carriage forward, Mann will refuse delivery.

My dear Macnair Your letter dated Aug 25th just to hand. Previous to its receipt I had wired you regarding the Trey of Hearts and in further explanation thereof I beg to inform you that at the present time I get all my programme from Greens, Glasgow.…

Dear Sir

Enclosed please find statement of returns for week ending Aug 28th. To-night and for three days we have a strong opposition show with the Military Tattoo as advertised in the War Specials - as practically all R.N.R. men will have to take…

Dear Sirs

Enclosed please find order for chocolate which I trust will be accorded your usual prompt attention. Accompanied by order for: 30…

Dear Sirs

I am in receipt of yours of the 2nd inst., in answer to my wires and note that you are unable to supply me with the Trey of Hearts. I also note that you have forwarded me an offered list of what you could do for the 13th week commencing,…

My dear Macnair

In explanation of my wire of today, evidently Green's had smelt a rat as they sent me a wire stating they would not supply me with programmes on and after Sept. 13th. I however threatened them with legal proceedings with regard to…

Dear Sirs

I have today received yours of the 3rd inst. Together with offered (now confirmed) list for the 13th week commencing - for which many thanks. I note that you do not think you…

Letter expressing interest in the Fair Gay Gordons:

'their terms however are considerably more than I am prepared to give. I don’t know at the time of writing whether Macnair has anything in view for me for the 27th week, but if your friends come…
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