Cinema in small towns

The distribution of the population of Scotland, with 57% living outside major urban areas, gives a particular significance to the study of early cinema in small towns. In the 1911 Census, the population of Scotland was 4,759,445. Of this total, 2,062,592 lived in Principal Towns with populations larger than 30,000, and 2,696,853 lived in towns with populations lower than 30,000, or in mainland and island rural districts with some of the lowest population densities in Europe. Of the 205 burghs registered in Scotland in 1911, 159 had populations of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.

A town like Hawick, with a population of just under 17,000 had three picture theatres, or picture and variety theatres, from 1914; Bo’ness, with a population of around 11,000, had two picture theatres in the 1920s, and at various points before that had four venues offering cinematograph shows; and Lerwick and Oban, with populations of 4,500 and 5,500 respectively, had ‘purpose-built’ cinemas as early as 1913. Cinemas dotted the landscape of small towns, from the market towns of the south and the north-east, to the coastal resorts of the Clyde coast, to the fishing towns of the east coast and the north. Only in the West Highlands and Islands is cinema strikingly absent. If one draws a line from Lerwick to Oban, curving a little to include Thurso, and continues the line from Oban to Campbeltown, there is only one cinema to the west of it: the Lewis Picture House in Stornoway, opened in 1915. The West Highland and Islands had a population of about 350,000, but a population density of twenty-three per square mile.

In many small towns, the arrival of the cinematograph, and the purpose-built cinema to house it, were a token to the town’s modernity: a modernity which is often reflected in the architecture, from Matthew Steel’s Hippodrome in Bo’ness, to AV Gardner’s Picture House in Campbeltown. Characteristically, these cinemas were opened as a civic occasion by the Provost, and were welcomed as an opportunity ‘to educate and elevate the tastes of the people’. Even in Stornoway, where the cinema seemed to pose a threat to the strict Presbyterian values often associated with the town, the early-cinema-tradepress id="245/">Provost welcomed the cinema, with confidence that ‘the house would be so conducted that those who had misgivings about “the pictures” coming to Stornoway would find that their fears were groundless.’ In many of these small or large towns, cinema became a part of the civic culture, reported in the local press, running benefit shows for local causes and celebrating local events and festivals. In particular, in many small towns — Ardrossan, Bo’ness, Lochgelly, Hawick, for example - the proprietors or managers used local topical films, not only to bring in customers who wanted to see themselves on the screen, but also to share and commemorate local events.

At the same time, other small town cinemas — the Cinema House in Oban, for example, or the North Star in Lerwick — were opened by entrepreneurs from Glasgow or Aberdeen who saw a commercial opportunity that could be exploited. In such towns, though the cinemas themselves are successful and continue operations into the 1960s and 1970s, there is less evidence of them becoming an integral part of a civic culture.

The development of early cinema in small towns highlights the diversity of early cinema history, and establishes the importance of place and locality. There is no simple, classical mode for cinema-going, and the cinemas in small towns are sometimes more different from each other than they are from cinemas in large towns. From about 1915 on, the programming of the cinema in Lerwick is probably more like the programming of a cinema in Glasgow or Dundee than it is like the programming in Bo’ness. Frequently, this is determined not simply by remoteness or by accessibility to distribution networks, but may be the result of the local culture and the traditions of entertainment.

Where this is particularly apparent is in the mix of live acts, variety ‘turns’, and touring companies, with ‘pictures’ and the movement towards cinema as a distinct and quite separate experience. While, towards the end of the period, there is evidence that many managers attempted to dispense with touring acts - which had become expensive - and to offer instead a pictures-only programme, there seems to be a popular demand for a mixed programme. While many metropolitan histories tend to see the movement away from the mix of variety and the cinematograph from about 1912, cinemas like the Hippodrome in Bo’ness or the Pavilion in Hawick still offered live variety acts in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. A ‘good night out’ in many small towns seems to hold out the promise not simply of watching and being absorbed by the films but also of participating in a ‘live’ event: singing along, interacting with the performers, being astonished by the tricks of the conjurors or the mind-readers, or the skills of the jugglers, the acrobats and the performing animals. In many — but not all — small towns the early cinema was still part of variety and live entertainment throughout the period, and this mix of ‘theatricality’ and ‘absorption’ defines the experience of going to the pictures, or, more accurately, of going to a show.

The early development of cinema in small towns raises questions not only of cultural history but also of the geography of that history, and of the significance of local cultures in determining the place of cinema within the civic community. While one can trace in the years after the First World War the movement of globalisation and standardisation and the increasing dominance of American narrative cinema, the study of cinema in small towns and remote locations reminds us how contingent that was, and how much, throughout the period, the experience of cinema was local, and its history was not yet quite determined by a metropolitan or global experience.