What did the cinema mean to people in wartime Britain? How did the community make use of the cinema and what did they expect it to do for them? These questions form the basis of the final chapter of the book. Looking at the cinema’s position as a source of entertainment, and emotional facilitator (especially in the ways in which cinemagoers made use of popular melodramas and documentary-realist feature films) and as a collective experience, the chapter argues that there is no single way of conceptualising the cinema in this period. Rather, there were competing or complementary narratives that altered in response to the needs of the individual patron and the changing fortunes of the war. Using ‘escapism’ as a framework through which to discuss cinemagoing in wartime, the chapter asks if the cinema operated in such terms, and, indeed, whether or not patrons and audiences wanted it to.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45
The utility dream palace

The utility dream palace is a cultural history of cinemagoing and the cinema exhibition industry in Britain during the Second World War, a period of massive audiences in which vast swathes of the British population went to the pictures on a regular basis. Yet for all that wartime films have received a great deal of academic attention, and have been discussed in terms of the escapist pleasures they offered, the experiential pleasures offered by the cinemas in which such films were watched were inextricably connected to the places and times in which they operated. British cinemas – and the people who worked in, owned and visited them – were acutely sensitive to their spatial and temporal locations, unable to escape the war and intimately bound up in and contributing to the public’s experience of it. Combining oral history, extensive archival research, and a wealth of material gathered from contemporary trade papers, fan magazines and newspapers, this book is the first to provide a comprehensive analysis of both the cinema’s position in wartime society, and the impact that the war had on the cinema as a social practice. Dealing with subjects as diverse as the blackout, the blitz, evacuation, advertising, staffing and conscription, Entertainments Tax, showmanship and clothes rationing, The utility dream palace asserts that the cinema was, for many people, a central feature of wartime life, and argues that the history of British cinemas and cinemagoing between 1939 and 1945 is, in many ways, the history of wartime Britain.

The Second World War witnessed a massive expansion of state power in Britain, and it is unsurprising to find that the state and its various agencies had a massive impact on wartime cinemagoing. British exhibitors sought to maintain a positive relationship with the government, whilst also seeking to mitigate the impact that wartime regulations had on the industry. Analysing the government’s positive attitude to the cinema – which was understood as a channel for the dissemination of propaganda and as a means of maintaining morale – this chapter also demonstrates the limits the government placed on its willingness to accommodate the cinema. In addition to exploring the exhibition industry’s dealings with the Ministry of Information (in relation to MoI films), the Ministry of Food (in relation to sweets rationing and a ban on ice-cream manufacture) and the Treasury (in terms of Entertainments Tax), this chapter also investigates issues such as Sunday opening which allow not only for a better recognition of the ways in which government legislation influenced cinemagoing, but also for a more rounded understanding of the position that the cinema was thought to have in wartime.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45
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The end of the war did not bring about the immediate return of the pre-war cinema. Many of the control schemes that were instituted during the conflict were maintained for years after victory was declared, and cinemas damaged by enemy action took many years to receive permission to rebuild. Some never reopened. Unsurprisingly, reconstruction prioritised housing over picture palaces. Summing up the major themes of book, the conclusion suggests that the post-war decline in cinema attendance witnessed throughout the 1950s spoke to the domestication of luxuries associated with the cinema that had, before the war, not been available to Britons in their own homes. With many cinemas in advanced states of decrepitude as a result of wartime events and shortages, and continued post-war neglect, patrons no longer looked to the cinema as a dream palace. However, although the war sowed the seeds of post-war decline, we should be careful to bear in mind the central role that the cinema played in the lives of wartime Britons.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45
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Cinemagoing in the early months of the war

At the start of the war, all British cinemas were subject to enforced closure, a decision that George Bernard Shaw described as ‘an act of unimaginable stupidity’. When the anticipated German air raids failed to immediately materialise, the cinemas reopened, but not all at the same time, and not for their pre-war trading hours. Shorter opening hours, evacuation of children and the blackout combined to bring about financial losses within the exhibition sector. The blackout dictated that cinemas switch off external lighting designs that had been installed to attract attention and custom. The blackout remained in place for most of the war and proved a particular bugbear for the British people. The reluctance that many people felt to head out after dark led to a contraction of both time and space, forcing Britons to reimagine the urban nightscape and their place in it. The blackout’s association with the war was so great that the switching on of streetlights, and especially cinema lights, was understood as being symbolic of victory.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45
Cinemagoing in the blitz

Prolonged periods of aerial bombardment were a reality for many towns and cities in Britain during the Second World War, meaning that air raids and bombing were realities for British cinemas and cinemagoers. Hundreds of cinemas were damaged by enemy bombing during the war. Looking at the ways in which patrons were informed about the possibility of impending attack, the destruction of cinemas and the deaths of cinemagoers, this chapter positions the British exhibition industry on the front line for both the blitz and later ‘Doodlebug’ (that is, V-1 pilotless rocket) raids. The destruction of the Whitehall cinema in East Grinstead, in which more than 75 people were killed, is used as a case study. The intrusive nature of modern, industrialised warfare threatened to undermine the cinema’s ability to facilitate escape, but also made the possibility of escape all the more precious and valuable.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45
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Cinemas were, for tens of millions of Britons each week, an element of everyday life, and cinemagoing was a cultural and experiential activity that was at once exciting and mundane. Changes to pre-established ideals of cinemagoing were, therefore, significant; popular reactions to such changes, which were used by bodies such as the Metropolitan Police to gauge morale, no less so. Establishing the parameters of the study, the introduction also, explains the varying meanings of the word ‘utility’, from which the book takes its title’ and provides an overview of the British exhibition industry in 1939 in order that the changes that occurred during the war can be understood in their proper context.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45

Maintaining adequate staffing levels was a major concern for many cinema managers especially after many young men were called up into the services. Exhibitors repeatedly attempted to get certain members of staff “reserved” – that is, exempted from conscription – and repeatedly found itself on the losing side in its skirmishes with the Ministry of Labour. This chapter looks at the ways in which British cinemas reacted to the loss of employees, and the ways in which changing employment demographics – most noticeably the increased proportion of female staff and the greater number of women projectionists (a.k.a “projectionettes”) – effected patron experience. The chapter also investigates the challenges facing managers as they sought to obtain and maintain uniforms for their employees. Clothes rationing brought about significant changes to the appearance of people employed in the cinema as clothes coupons, utility overalls and second-hand costumes became the order of the day. In a period before shabby was chic, poorly maintained clothing threatened to undermine pre-war ideas of the cinema as dream palace.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45

Pre-war cinema management manuals were adamant that publicising a cinema was one of the most important – and challenging – jobs that an exhibitor had. Using The Stars Look Down (1940) as a case study, this chapter shows how promotional activities were made all the more difficult by wartime limitations that restricted advertising. Legislation that effectively brought about paper rationing not only imposed a maximum size on posters, but also restricted the number that could be produced, controlled where they could be posted and prohibited the publication of information – such as place names – that might conceivably aid the enemy. As more established forms of publicity were curtailed, there were concerns that cinemas would become less visible within the urban environment, a concern made all the more pressing by the lack of exterior lighting and regulations that limited expenditure on maintenance. The chapter explores the place of showmanship in wartime, both in terms of advertising individual films and programmes, and also the promotion of the cinema as a site of experiential pleasure.

in Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45