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Local History

1896 - 1914

a photo of a Bioscope in a fairground

The Bioscope

The first places in this country where people paid to see films were tents at fairgrounds.  They appeared only a year after the first experimental showing of moving films in 1895 and were called 'Bioscopes'.

They had all the tatty glamour of fairground peepshows. There was a brightly lit, wooden front, with a noisy mechanical steam organ drowning out the sound of the traction engine that provided the power.  Some had a little stage, with a few dancing girls, and from here the 'barker' would urge the public to step inside.

You paid your money, 2d (1p) for adults, 1d (1/2p) for children, and went inside. Wooden benches were set up in a large tent facing a canvas screen. The projector clattered away in full view at the back.  The short films, lasting only two or three minutes, were simply shots of everyday scenes: a train entering a station, workers leaving a factory, the sea breaking on rocks.

The public loved it and there were soon several shows competing with each other at the big fairs such as Hull Fair and Nottingham Goose Fair. Films were also shown in public halls; these were nicknamed 'Penny Gaffs', after the admission price. This was the golden age of music halls and some of them began to add a film show to the range of acts on their programmes.

An Evening at the Penny Gaff

This was cheap entertainment. The audience, particularly children, were crammed onto the benches, often shoved up together by a poke from the barker's stick. Grubbier patrons were sometimes squirted with heavily perfumed disinfectant by the usherette. The lights could not be dimmed, but were suddenly switched out, producing total darkness. There was no soundtrack to listen to, so the audience talked all through the performance, loudly enough to be heard over the piano accompaniment and the projector. Members of the audience would read the subtitles out loud and shout comments on the action on screen. Handwritten slides told members of the audience not to spit, or asked ladies to remove their large hats, which blocked people's view or even got in the way of the projector. The film often broke, or the projector lamp blew, causing catcalls and stamping of feet. It was quite a night out!

Films and Filmmaking

Showing a moving film to an audience was the culmination of several inventions. The magic lantern was invented in the 17th century and quite sophisticated shows of projected glass slides were available by the mid-19th century. The illusion of movement created by viewing rapid sequences of still pictures was also known and exploited in children's toys like the zoetrope. Celluloid, from which films were made, was invented in 1856 and a camera to take sequences of pictures invented in 1890.

In 1892 in the USA William Dickson, Thomas Edison's assistant, invented the Kinetoscope, which projected perforated film, (Edison's invention), inside a big wooden box, viewed by one person at a time. Then in 1895, in France, Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the Cinematographe, which could project Kinetoscope film to an audience. There were almost simultaneous developments in Britain. Birt Acres filmed the Boat Race in March 1895, and showed it on a projector made by his associate, Robert Paul, in January 1896, a month before the Lumière brothers first showed their films in this country.

With rapidly growing public interest, filmmaking improved quickly. Specially made dramas and adventures appeared. The Great Train Robbery (1903) was the first full-length action film. All these films were silent, of course, although the audience wasn't.

The First Cinemas

After a series of disastrous fires, the Cinematograph Act of 1909 (effective from 1910) was passed. There now had to be a separate projection room, adequate exits and fire precautions. The Bioscope tents and some of the scruffier Penny Gaffs had to close. A few purpose-built cinemas had been erected before 1910, but the Act stimulated the building of many new cinemas. Architects of new cinemas turned to music halls for ideas. Interiors were opulent, with plenty of gilded mirrors, dark wood and deep-red plush seating. There was a deliberate effort to make them look respectable and to get away from the Penny Gaff image that had put off many people. In May 1912 the Electric Palace, Harwich, built in 1911, advertised:

'Always a good, up-to-date programme. Superb ventilation. Strictly sedate and orderly.'

By the beginning of the First World War there were probably about 3,500 cinemas in Britain. With so many men away in the forces, audiences declined, and about a quarter of them closed. However, this decline was not to last long. The cinema was to have its heyday in the boom years after the war.