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.¨
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.