Campbeltown in 1911 had a population of 7,625. It had a thriving distillery industry till the 1920s with around twenty active distilleries; it had a shipbuilding yard with a workforce of around 300 until World War 1; and a substantial herring fishing fleet. There were nearby coal mines, serviced by the Campbeltown and Machrihanish Light Railway from the late nineteenth century till the 1930s. 140 miles from Glasgow by road, it could be reached more directly by sea with a daily sailing by Clyde steamers in the early twentieth century. It became a significant tourist destination on the Clyde Coast.

There was a large enough local population to attract touring theatrical and variety companies during the winter months, and the season flourished during the summer. The first documented film screening was by an ‘expert operator’ from Lizars opticians in Glasgow, in the Victoria Halls on 19 November, 1896. The report in the Campbeltown Courier, however, notes that this first exposure to the ‘Wonder of the Century’ was ‘second rate’, partly because of the expertise of the operator — ‘His lens was not properly adjusted, while his screen was placed too low, making it impossible for those behind to see’ — and partly because of the bad behaviour of the audience: ‘rowdyism prevailed’ and loud comments were made, ‘all couched in the most vulgar language’. By the time Robert Calder’s ‘Famous Cinematograph and Pictorial Concert Company’ appears in 1899 skillful operators have restored faith, and ‘cinematograph exhibitions as a form of entertainment have sprung into popularity’. There are regular ‘exhibitions’ at the Victoria Halls and occasionally at the Town Hall. As in many towns, the local newspaper reports how films from the Boer War attracted strong patriotic interest: ‘The photo of Paul Kruger was greeted with howls and hoots of indignation, but the portrait of Mr. Chamberlain elicited shouts of approbation.’

The Picture House opened on 26 May, 1913. The building, with a seating capacity of 640, was designed by A.V. Gardner, who also designed the Grosvenor and the Kelvin in the West End of Glasgow. ‘Architecturally’, says the Courier, ‘the building undoubtedly enhances the appearance of the harbour front.’ The managing Director was Fred Randall Burnette, a pioneer of the business who had learned his trade had learned his trade in the United States, and who already owned the Argyle Electric Theatre, the Partick Picture House and the Theatre de Luxe in Glasgow, and the Theatre de Luxe in Rothesay.

Topical films had been made in Campbeltown as early as 1900, and ‘an ad in October asks ‘Have You Been Cinematographed Yet? Come and see yourself as others see you.’ Burnette also made local topicals, and his rather eery advertisement on 18 July, 1914, ten days before the outbreak of war, proclaims, ‘CAMPBELTOWN INVADED, by F.R. Burnette and his Cine Operator.’ They were filming the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arriving at Campbeltown pier at the beginning of a training exercise that would be interrupted by actual war. ‘After the invasion,’ says the advertisement cheerfully, ‘you will be able to see yourself at the Picture House.’ The topical is preserved and is available online at the Scottish Screen Archive.

The Picture House operated throughout the period, with a brief break during the influenza epidemic in 1918, as a ‘pictures-only’ cinema, with variety or live ‘turns’ appearing quite rarely. It post-dates the Hippodrome in Bo’ness by two months, but has a longer continuous run as a cinema. Part-time bingo was introduced in 1963, but the cinema continued till 1986. It then closed for three years, but was taken over by Campbeltown Community Business, and the refurbished building (now seating 265) re-opened as a cinema in 1989. In December 2014, it received a grant of £1.1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund for renovation and development.