The moving picture craze
1911 - 1981
The era of silent films
During the 1890s, the development of celluloid film reached a stage where moving images could be recorded and projected on a screen for the benefit of an audience. Almost immediately, the appeal of this novelty swept the country. The public's insatiable demand for moving pictures was reflected by the growth of buildings tailor-made for this new form of entertainment. When the Lyric Palace opened in 1911 opposite York House on Richmond Road, Twickenham, it paved the way for a proliferation of local cinemas.
A visit to the pictures circa 1900 was an exciting if haphazard event that could take place in a music hall, a fairground booth, an old shop or a converted railway arch. Most of these venues were dirty and flea-ridden, and the quality of the picture left much to be desired. A dramatic step forward took place in 1910, when licensing came into effect to ensure the public's safety from the notoriously flammable film. Reels of film were to be kept in a projection booth separate from the audience, and more than one exit from the building was required in case of fire. For the first time, purpose-built cinemas such as the Lyric Palace were constructed. Rectangular in shape with a barrel-vaulted roof, these were designed with seating on a raked angle to ensure that all members of the audience could view the screen.
Due to their new-found popularity, cinemas sprang up throughout the area. The Palaceum, on Station Road, Hampton, opened in September 1912. In the same year, The Gaiety opened its doors. Situated on Richmond Road, East Twickenham, it was to change its name over the years to The Grand Picture Theatre, The Gaiety Electric Theatre and The Albert. The Regal Cinema, London Road, Twickenham, was built on the site of Fortescue House and is now the present site of Regal House.
During this era of silent films, it was common practice for a film to be issued with a complete score as well as a theme tune, allowing a pianist or small orchestra to accompany the action. Cheap seats were closest to the screen, and patrons paid extra to be separated from the 'great unwashed', who arrived through a separate entrance down a side passage. Attendants used hand sprays between and during performances to prevent disease and to freshen the air.
At first, the films themselves were a novelty: short and cheap with a rudimentary story line. In the 1920's, audiences would have been equally entertained in the larger cinemas by the Mighty Wurlitzer, a massive theatre organ with coloured lights and elevating consoles. The advent of talking pictures, however, put paid to the careers of cinema musicians.
The advent of talking pictures
The first all-dialogue film, The Lights of New York, was released in 1928, followed closely by The Jazz Singer. Audience reaction was so favourable that Britain was the first European country to convert its cinemas. By 1930, 63 per cent of all movie houses in the country were wired for sound.
In the rush to exploit the new talking pictures, there was a much-criticised boom in construction as cinemas opened literally next door to each other. A local example of this overbuilding was the Twickenham Cinema (later renamed The Queens and then The Gaumont), built in 1928 only a few yards away from the Lyric Palace. An expensive capital outlay of up to £4,000 was required to fit a silent-era cinema with audio equipment, and many were too old or inadequate to be refurbished. The Lyric, in common with many others across the country, was forced to close down.
Competition driving new ideas and designs
The 1930s, a golden age for British pictures, saw the appearance of the major cinema chains. Banker Isidore Ostrer created the Gaumont-British Picture Corp, and this was soon rivalled by Associated British Cinemas (ABC). Then a striking newcomer joined the scene: the Odeon chain, brainchild of Birmingham businessman Oscar Deutsch. Deutsch was an innovator who encouraged his architects to design on the grand scale. He created a distinctive, eye-catching series of buildings, and the stylised 'Odeon' street sign still in use today. He concentrated on movies alone, at a time when other cinema chains offered variety acts, massive restaurants and dance halls. Deutsch's chain was such a success that, by the end of the 1930s, 136 Odeon cinemas had opened across the country.
In terms of film distribution, the big chains were virtually guaranteed the first showing of the most popular films. Their independent rivals found it difficult to compete. The poor Gaiety in East Twickenham was an early victim, its popularity eclipsed by the arrival of the much larger Richmond Kinema (which later became an Odeon) in April 1930. The Gaiety ceased showing films and became a Temperance Billiards Saloon in 1931.
In order to contend with the chains, cinema architecture reached new levels of whimsy and opulence. The Luxor, which opened in November 1929 in the centre of Twickenham at the junction of Heath Road and Cross Deep, had an Egyptian theme, as its name implies, and customers were shown to their seats by usherettes dressed as would-be Queen Cleopatras. The Luxor boasted seating for 1,700, a symphony orchestra, a John Compton Theatre Organ, and a well-equipped stage with a forty foot proscenium. Even this spectacular enterprise was in vain, however, for The Luxor was acquired by the Joseph Mears Theatres group in 1932 and eventually sold to the Odeon chain in 1944.
Prices in the suburbs were much lower than cinemas in the West End. In 1934, audiences would have paid anywhere from seven pence to two shillings to see a film in Twickenham, but up to eight shillings and six pence for a seat at The Tivoli on The Strand.
The importance of local cinemas during World War II cannot be overstated. Not only did they provide a much-needed psychological boost during the Blitz, with entertainment and newsreels relating the events of the war, but they were also places of refuge. Although messages were flashed on the screens warning of imminent air raids, most patrons preferred to stay in their seats, realising they were safer in these massive, well-built public buildings than out on the street.
Cinema chains are fiercely competitive to this day, with new ideas and designs constantly supplanting the old. As the original silent-era cinemas made way for larger venues designed for the talkies, the grand Art Deco-style movie houses of the 1930s have been replaced by contemporary 'multiplex' developments which cater to a larger catchment area. Our district reflects this somewhat regrettable trend. Today, Richmond and Kingston have large multi-screen Odeons, and there is not a single cinema left in Twickenham, Teddington or Hampton.
The British Cinema Book, edited by Robert Murphy (BFI Publishing, 1997)
The Great British Picture Show by George Perry (Pavilion, 1985)
Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection
Display of local cinemas at Twickenham Museum