Whilst a National Serviceman in the Royal Air Force, I spent about twenty months at Chivenor in North Devon, where the champion ‘Military Wives’ singing group are now based. One evening activity for us was to go to the “Astra”, as the camp cinema was called. I remember in particular a season of Marilyn Monroe films and especially the film ‘Niagara’, with the star walking away from the camera. It had always been said that Bromide was included in the tea at Initial Training, but it was evident from the catcalls, that the effects had certainly worn off by then !
I knew the part time projectionist, a Bristolian, who referred to the ’cinemal’, whereas the London lads spoke of ’the Flicks’. He invited me up to the Projection Box, which was interesting as the company I worked for before call up had manufactured some cinema equipment. Also, I saw the film free !
As a small boy I had often visited my grandmother, who was also visited by an uncle who worked for the local newspaper as a ’Reader’, a now outdated occupation it appears. His job was to read advance copies and correct any mistakes, before the main print run. A ’perk’ of the job was a selection of newspapers and magazines, which he deposited with grandmother, to be read by myself and various cousins in the area. One magazine was ’Film Fun’, which for a short time included short film strips, of a few frames from various films. I begged these and my intention was to make a projector and show these strips and make my fortune. Making a projector at that age was beyond me and the film strips were eventually consigned to the waste bin, along with my dream.
In those days the Cinema, or Picture Palace, was one of the main entertainments. The earliest visit I can recall was to ’Sabu the Elephant Boy’ and then ’Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, a Disney cartoon. These were first shown in Bridport in 1937 and 1938, so this is probably when I saw them in Wiltshire. But when did the cinema first appear here ?
A slim volume by Peter Dyson ‘A Century of Cinema in Dorset’ says that it all started here in 1896 as the old Shaftesbury Hall in Bournemouth had a showing of ‘Cinematographe moving picture show’, followed by the ‘Theatrograph Life size moving photographs’ at the Theatre Royal in the same year. About the same time Poole showed a ‘Theatrograph animated picture show’ in the Amity Hall. However, in smaller places the first films would have been seen in a ‘Bioscope Booth’ owned by travelling showmen at fairgrounds, e.g. at Sherborne at the turn of the century.
In 1901 the Shaftesbury Hall in Central Bournemouth was presenting films and live entertainment, as ‘West’s Pictures’. The Grand Theatre (later the Hippodrome) in Boscombe and Pokesdown showed films from 1897 by Birt Acre’s Royal Cinematographe.
Dorchester had some interesting moving pictures in the Corn Exchange from 1903. Large painted canvas rolls moved between two rollers, known as the ‘Myriorama’. Films followed there from 1909 and the Electric Picturedrome in Durngate Street operated from 1911.
At Gillingham cinema started with Walford’s Electric Picture Palace in the market hall, then in 1911 the Gillingham Palace in Buckingham Road was opened by R Robinson. Lyme Regis apparently showed films from the First World War in the Assembly Rooms by John Raymond, with his daughter playing the piano, as the films were silent. In 1912 Bridport opened the Old Artillery Hall, Barrack Street, as the Electric Palace, a name which was to move to several locations over the years.
On Portland there were presentations in the Jubilee Hall, Easton from 1908. Shaftesbury presented Magic Lantern shows in the Ebenezer Hall, then opened the Picture Palace in 1914/1915. Travelling showmen brought shows to Sherborne from 1906 and then films were shown at the Drill Hall and Rawson Hall. In 1912 Swanage opened the Gilbert Hall Pictures, but Weymouth had commenced in 1909 in the Jubilee Hall.
So from 1896 to around the First World War most towns had seen films introduced. Unfortunately Peter Dyson does not catalogue all the films shown.
However, I have a copy of ’The Cinemas of Bridport’ by John Surry which lists many of the films shown in the town. Looking at the inevitable war films after 1945 can be found a comedy ’The Navy Lark’, which had been filmed locally. Also ‘Cockleshell Heroes’, ’The Cruel Sea’, ’The Dam Busters’, ’Reach for the Sky’, ’Bridge on the River Kwai’, ’Sink the Bismarck’, ’Guns of Navarone’, ’The Colditz Story’, ’Stalag 17’ and so on.
On Tuesday 14th February (Valentine’s day !) Bridport History Society will be transported to ’Stalag 8B via Dieppe’ not on film, but in an illustrated talk by Sheila Meaney at 2.30pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport. All welcome, visitors £2, including tea. Details from 01308 – 425710 or 456876.
Cecil Amor, Chairman, Bridport History Society. Tel : 01308 – 456876.