History of the early picturehouses

The story of cinema in Brighton began on 1 July 1896 when Robert Paul presented a programme of short films at the Victoria Hall, Kings Road. Over the next ten years films were shown at a number of different locations in Brighton. These included the Hippodrome Theatre, where they were shown between variety acts, the Brighton Aquarium and the Palace Pier and West Pier theatres.

Electric Bioscope: Brighton’s first cinema
The first permanent cinema in Brighton was the Electric Bioscope, which opened in January 1907. The Electric Bioscope was a thirty-seat cinema based in a converted shop at 129B Western Road. The owner, Mr W Harold Speer, operated a hand-cranked projector and the screen consisted of a stretched canvas painted white. Admission cost 1d. or 2d. The Electric Bioscope proved a success and Speer was able to enlarge and refurbish the cinema which he re-opened, in August 1910, under the new name of the Queen’s Electric Theatre. The Queen’s Electric was described by the Brighton Herald, 1910 as ‘at least four times the size of the old place, comprising of a balcony with lounge for afternoon teas. The patent sheet on which the pictures are projected is enclosed in a beautiful frame in the middle of the stage, and is most artistically draped’.

Growth of Brighton cinema
Before the First World War, there was a steady growth in the number of cinemas in Brighton. By 1911 there were seven cinemas operating in the town. They included purpose-built cinemas such as the Duke of York, Preston Circus and the Academy, West Street. The opening of these cinemas witnessed a further surge in popular enthusiasm for film-going. As the public flocked more and more to local cinemas there were complaints concerning the morality of cinema-going, especially from some of the local clergy, who objected to the showing of films on Sundays. After a heated debate Brighton Borough Council decided to ban Sunday opening of cinemas in December 1911. The restriction does not seem to have lessened the cinema’s popularity in the town. Indeed, demand was so great that in 1913 the Academy was enlarged to become the first 1,000 seat cinema in Brighton.

Cinema as social life
The popularity of cinema in Brighton was partly a reflection of its importance as a tourist resort. This is demonstrated by the fact that majority of local cinemas were located in the town centre. The most favoured location for cinemas was along the route taken by millions of visitors and day trippers from the railway station, via Queens Road and West Street, to the sea front. No less than five cinemas were built along the route between 1911 and 1939. The most important of these, was The Regent, opened in July 1921 on the junction of Queens Road and North Street. The Regent was Brighton’s first super-cinema, costing £400,000 to build and with accommodation for 3,000 film-goers. It had its own orchestra, restaurant and café and a dance hall, which was opened on its roof in December 1923. The Regent was to play a major role in Brighton’s social life as both a cinema and dance hall for many years.

1930s and the peak of cinema
The 1930s were to witness the climax of cinema development in Brighton. In the course of the decade six new cinemas opened in the town. By 1940 there were 24 cinemas in Brighton and Hove, providing seats for 23,000 people. This period of expansion began with the opening of The Savoy, on the corner of East Street and Grand Junction Road in August 1930. This cinema, part of the Associated British Cinematography (ABC) chain, was designed in art deco style with an interior based on an oriental theme. It had seating for nearly 3,000 people, two cafes overlooking the sea and an underground car park with room for 300 vehicles. Other major cinemas that were built during the 1930s included the Astoria, Gloucester Place, in December 1933, and two Odeon cinemas, St. George’s Road, Kemp Town, in February 1934 and West Street, in December 1937.¨

Affordable escapism
Cinema played a central role in the social life of Brighton during the 1920s and 1930s, offering a cheap and enjoyable form of entertainment. In 1920 it was possible for two adults to attend an evening cinema show in central Brighton, with some light refreshment, for about 2s 6d (12p), including a return bus or tram fare to the northern suburbs. Cinema also offered a form of escapism from the harsh realities of life for many local working class people. It allowed audiences to watch glamorous film stars in adventure or romantic movies in the luxurious surroundings of cinemas such as the Regent, Savoy and Astoria. As such, public demand for films was insatiable and business remained good for Brighton’s cinema owners. This trend continued throughout the 1940s, with record levels of attendance at local cinemas.

1950s and the decline of cinema
In the 1950s a steady decline began in the numbers of people attending Brighton’s cinemas. This reflected a national trend in which cinema was hit hard by the growing popularity of television. Attempts to revive the fortunes of local cinemas, such as the introduction of wide screen films and other technical innovations, failed to halt the decline. Between 1953 and 1965 12 cinemas closed down in Brighton and Hove. By 1986 another 9 had closed, leaving only 3 local cinemas in operation. Former cinemas were converted into bingo halls or shops, while others were demolished to make way for new buildings. Even prestigious cinemas such as the Regent did not survive, it was closed down and demolished in 1974 to make way for a branch of Boots the chemists. Of all the old cinemas in Brighton, only the Duke of York has survived by appealing to the market in independent and art orientated films.

In more recent years there have been signs of a revival in the fortunes of cinema in Brighton. Film attendances are rising again, helped by the opening of a new ten-screen cinema at Brighton Marina in 1991. In 1999 the Odeon group announced its intention to upgrade its Kingswest cinema, in West Street, from six to ten screens. Such developments seem to suggest that there remains a future for cinema in Brighton during the 21st century.

Comments about this page

  • A few cinemas that I remember from my childhood in the 1970’s were:- ABC Hove – in Portland Road (now a semi-derelict Bingo Hall); The Embassy – Western Road, Hove, just past Norfolk Square; The Classic – Western Road, Brighton (now Waitrose); The Cinescene – North Street (where Burger King now is) – used to show all-night quadruple bills back in the early ’80’s. There were also a couple specialising in more ‘adult’ entertainments:- The Continentale in Sudeley Place (Kemp Town) and the Vogue on Lewes Road where the Vogue Gyratory system is (& Sainsbury’s.) Apart from the last two I can remember visiting each of these in my youth and seem to recall they all had a single screen. Somehow a visit to one of these seemed to be more of an event than going to the modern multiplexes!

    By David Bebb (28/03/2005)
  • In the 1940 /50s, there were many cinemas in Brighton. Starting from the Lewes Road area, there was the Gaiety which was very plush but not so expensive as the main cinemas because they showed second runs after the main ones. Then there was the Arcadia known as The Scratch – during the showing, one of the usherettes would come around squirting a flit gun, to make it smell better and possibly to kill the fleas. They showed mostly horror films( as they were then). You had to be 18 to get in, but of course there were ways & means of getting around that! They also showed westerns with Johnny Mack Brown and Hopalong Cassidy. Next was the Duke of York( the only privately owned cinema in town) Then the Astoria (main & second runs after the Savoy had seen them). The Troxy or Coronation had been closed and became Redhill Motors at 104 North Road. Further up the road was the Grand, which showed the older films, with the Dead End Kids films as serials, also Flash Gordon. Going into the main part of town was North Street where there were the Regent, Imperial (later the Essoldo) and the Princes News theatre. In New Road a small cinema called The Court could be found, (3d a seat on weekdays, but 4d on a weekend) but you had to take something to sit on because it was bare boards in the cheap seats. Continuing down West Street there was the Academy (2nd runs of the Regent) and the art deco cinema the Odeon, with plaster seashell murals and hidden lighting. Just around the corner in Kings Road was the Palladium, which used to be the Alhambra music hall. To the east in Kings Road was the Savoy, where teas and light snacks were served in the interval – very posh. In Western Road there was the Curzon (Independent) and the small Tivoli( later the Embassy) which showed the older pictures that may have been missed before. Last but not least in Portland Road Hove was the Granada , sister cinema to the Savoy, usually showing the same films. Those were the days when you had choice, and good value for money. The highest price was 3/6d (19p). The shows usually were 2 films, the news, cartoon and an interest film. Now that was value!

    By Bob Wells (14/04/2005)
  • I spent much of my mis-spent youth in the 1950’s going to the cinema when I should have been in school. The Odeon Hove (outside Hove Station) was my local cinema but I would travel far and wide to find a “U” rated film or a cheap deal. The Curzon and the Tivoli were particularly good value. I recall seats at around 1/- at lunchtime. Occasionally I would ask an unknown adult going into the cinema to “take me in” to an “A” rated film. Terrifying in today’s world but no problem then.

    By Gareth Cheesman (14/09/2005)
  • I used to live in Coleman Street. I rember some friends and I used to go to a cinema at the bottom of Elm Grove turn right and it was about 200 yards on the left, some times there was a guy out side selling winkles from an enamal pint mug for a 1p – and I think about 9p to get in. Brighton was a great place in the early 1950s. There were so many cinemas, even at the age of 10 to 14 you could walk home at night quite safley.

    By Colin Miles (22/05/2006)
  • I remember bunking off school one day, when it was raining hard, with some other boys. One of us paid to go into the Odeon, then opened an ‘Exit Only’ door inside, to let the rest of us in. We watched The Towering Inferno. I’m sure one of the ushers realised that the front row filled up really quickly, but he hadn’t seated anyone. He said nothing though!

    By Kevin Bushby (09/04/2007)
  • Talking of free passes into things, does anyone recall going to see Enter the Dragon? I believe the cinema was on Western Rd. I think Roger Higginbottom bought the one and only ticket. I also recall getting thrown out of Felix the Cat in the seedy cinema in North Road. Those were the days.

    By Michael (09/07/2008)
  • I have extremely vague memories of going to a tiny cinema in Western Road to watch children’s films and cartoons as a very young child back in the 1960s. I go past the location of where I think this cinema was quite regularly. It is between Norfolk Square and Brunswick Square on the same side of the road as both of these. The cinema is now some sort of deli/sandwich shop. The only thing that gives it away is that it still retains the overhanging bit where the cinema’s name would normally go. However, it looks so tiny and so unlike a cinema now, I am starting to wonder whether I might have dreamt the whole thing up. Can anyone please enlighten me about this?

    By Patricia Keiller (02/09/2015)
  • I think you must be thinking of the Embassy at the top of Little Western Street, though they usually showed films that where on general release, not cartoons and children’s films. You might be getting mixed up with the Princes News Theatre in North Street (now Burger King) which did show cartoons.

    By Dan O'Shaughnessy (02/09/2015)
  • I think she is correct with the Embassy because of the location described, perhaps Patricia also went to the Princes and is mixed on the films/location.  It now does look so tiny because it opened out at the rear, but the rear was knocked down in 2007, you can read about it here: http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__8358.aspx

    By Peter Groves (03/09/2015)
  • To Patricia Keiller: Yes, that is exactly where the Embassy cinema used to be. If you go to the top of this page, and type in “Embassy cinema” in the search box on the right, the second result will show you a great photograph of the old cinema. As Dan said, it was on the corner of Little Western Street. Regards, Alan Hobden.

    By Alan Hobden (03/09/2015)
  • Yes, I used to go to the Princes News Theatre,my mum used to drop me off there and do her shopping, the usherettes were great and looked after me, I fondly remember watching the cartoons, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges and many more, then she would pick me up and we often went to the Embassy or the Curzon where my Dad would meet us after work.
    Fond memories.

    By Eric brown (17/08/2019)
  • I was one of the managers for the three Rank cinemas in the 60s. Also Uncle Mike on Sat morning Kids club at the much missed Academy Cinema which would have made a super art house venue today.

    By Mike Lang (15/03/2021)

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