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Local History

Task 1

Photograph of a crowd of people in a cinema queue

BFI Posters, Stills and Design

Oral History

The main sources for finding out about cinemas are the buildings themselves, newspapers and people’s memories (oral history). Of these, learning from oral history is both accessible and rewarding for young children.

There are many benefits for pupils in carrying out an investigation of the place cinema-going has had in people’s lives through talking to their grandparents and great-grandparents, the generation that went to the cinema most. This ‘dialogue of the generations’, as it has been called, helps pupils to understand that the past is not boring, and that the people in the past had many of the same wishes and desires as we have today. It also helps older people to feel that their lives are valued and appreciated by children.

You could start by looking at some of the pictures in the Gallery and talking about them with the class. The picture above of a cinema queue gives rise to several opening gambits:

  • How can you tell this is an old picture?
  • Where are all these people?
  • Why are they here?
  • What time of day is it?
  • What film are they going to see?
  • Why were they all so keen to see it?
  • How can we find out more about cinemas?

Pupils now need to find out more about cinemas and cinema going in order to begin to frame some questions for their interviews. They need to know some detailed information to get their interviewees talking. Books, websites and selected extracts from old newspapers could be used here. They could also be given some extracts from transcribed oral testimony to give them a flavour of what they could do. Like this example from 'The Time of Our Lives':

'The cinema was more ‘the thing’ than it is now. Everybody in the family used to go. I can remember we always used to go to the pictures at least once a week. You’d think there was something wrong if you didn’t. You had to queue. You couldn’t walk straight in.'

'As kids, we used to go to the Saturday morning pictures. These were usually cowboy films. There were the goodies and the baddies, with lots of hissing and booing the baddies and cheering the goodies. Roy Rogers was a great favourite. When any horror bits came on the girls would put their hands over their eyes, but the boys were determined to get their tuppence worth.'

'I usually went to the cinema once a week, sometimes twice. I worked in the West End of London so after work I would go to the cinemas in that area, where the big films were shown before reaching the suburbs. People took a great interest in the private lives of these film stars and followed the news of their marriages, divorces and love affairs in the daily press... One irritating habit the management of the cinema had was allowing the sale of ice cream, chocolates, cigarettes etc. during the film and this could be very distracting if you were sitting near the end of a row. The usherettes would come up and down the aisle with their tray of things to sell, at the same time flashing a torch to attract your attention.'

From 'The Time of Our Lives', published by Age Exchange.

Pupils now go off in pairs and draw up some questions to ask their interviewees. Good questions are open-ended, to get people talking not precise answers:

  • NOT: ‘How old were you when you first went to the cinema?
  • BUT: ‘Can you tell me what your favourite cinema was like inside?’

Other questions could include:

  • What was it like at the Ritz in the High Street?’
  • Did you muck about in the Saturday morning picture shows?’

Possible topics to pursue could be:

  • children’s films
  • favourite film stars
  • favourite cinemas
  • cinema cafes and restaurants
  • commissionaires and usherettes
  • other entertainment at the cinema: the organ, solo singers, bands
  • eating in the cinema
  • the price of tickets, (this will need putting in contemporary context by comparing ticket prices with the prices of other everyday items we still use)
  • where you liked to sit
  • change: the war years, the decline of cinemas

From the pupils’ ideas, select questions and have them ready for pupils to take with them on their interviews. If it can possibly be managed, it is far better to record interviews than to have pupils laboriously writing down answers.

There are several ways of presenting the results.

  • One of the most effective is to take some slides of local cinemas today (or their sites, if they have been demolished) and play the tapes of old people’s reminiscences over the slide show.
  • It is a long and laborious job to transcribe recorded interviews. Better to ask pupils to make their own presentation, orally or in PowerPoint, from what they found out.
  • The presentation could be made more demanding by asking pupils to put what they found out from oral evidence in the context of what the websites and books say. They would thus have to deal with – possibly conflicting – interpretations of the past.
  • One of the problems with whole-class feedback sessions is persuading pupils to pay attention to each other’s findings. Listening for a purpose could be encouraged by setting a common question to which all pupils have to offer an answer, based on their investigations e.g. why did cinemas decline?