A look back at Stockport's cinema heyday
PUBLISHED: 10:48 10 September 2012 | UPDATED: 12:05 12 April 2016
How many Cheshire Life readers remember the days when every town had several large cinemas? We take a trip down Memory Lane, recalling how a visit to the flicks could be a full day out WORDS BY SAM BRADLEY
Looking at Stockport now, it is hard to imagine how this town of faded chimney stacks and grey motorway overpasses could be farther from the gilded, technicolor world of Hollywood. While Stockport now hosts only two cinemas, movie-goers in 1946 had 28 cinemas to choose from.
Today we can watch television, listen to radio, watch world-class sport or go to art galleries – but before the advent of ‘the tube’, cinema was the only form of mass entertainment enjoyed by all ages and classes of society.
The birth of cinema in Britain began properly when Thomas Edison first exhibited his ‘kinetoscope’ in London, in 1894. Early movies, limited by the size of the film reels, were only five or ten minutes long, and since there were no proper cinemas, would have been shown in fairground tents or stage theatres. Although films were shown as early as 1896 in Stockport, the first dedicated cinema was not opened for another
Sitting in the art deco café-lounge of the Stockport Plaza, Ted Doan, the general manager, spoke about the role cinemas played in the lives of Stockport people. ‘At that point, cinema was the affordable mass entertainment of the people.
Theatre was a little bit more expensive, and you had the variety halls in Manchester, but the great thing about these venues was the mix; places like the Plaza would occasionally have stage shows, or between the films it would have musical acts. It was hugely important for the working classes to be able to get out of the factories that were all around here and go into somewhere that was a little more glamorous.’
When the Stockport Electric Theatre opened in 1911 with the feature film The Mohawk’s Way, seats cost as little as 3d. By the outbreak of the First World War, there were 14 cinemas, and several other establishments with public film licenses. While the film was the main attraction in early cinemas, customers were often treated to organ recitals, cinematic shorts or theatrical performances.
‘Mixed programmes were quite prevalent at the time, I think because it has always been one of the adages of theatre – ‘diversity or die’ – and you had to do something a little bit different,’ says Ted.
‘The big thing in cinema in those days was showmanship; it was all about grabbing people’s attention, so it wasn’t unheard of to see a manager of a cinema to go out into the street with a live tiger or something silly like that.’
As well as the films themselves, an industry grew up on the sidelines of the movie business – popular magazines such as Film Weekly, Picturegoer Weekly and Film Pictorial were printed for the
When the Plaza was built in 1932, it boasted state-of-the-art sound equipment, an elaborate ‘Holophane’ lighting system and seating for 1,800.
The first movies shown were Out of the Blue and a Laurel and Hardy film, Jailbirds. It was one of several next-generation movie theatres known as the ‘Super Cinemas’.
‘It was pretty much an all-day experience at a place like the Plaza; you could come and see the matinee, and then you’d have your lunch, have your afternoon tea and then go back and see the evening film – it was probably the first time there was a complete entertainment complex,’ said Ted.
The 1940s proved to be the high water mark of cinema as the most popular form of entertainment in Britain – more films were produced in Britain during that decade than any other, spurred on by wartime investment by the Ministry of Information.
But in 1949, the first television licenses were issued to Stockport residents, and by the early 1960s, cinemas also faced tough competition from the rising popularity of bingo – the Plaza itself was converted into a bingo hall in 1966.
‘Television was the beginning of the end. And then there was bingo - suddenly there was something that was as cheap to do but you also had that gambling aspect, the fact that you could potentially win a prize.’
While there might be only a remnant of Stockport’s former cinematic glories left, Doan doesn’t believe it will disappear completely. ‘Cinema will never be back at the top, but it is a popular art form that is here to stay.’
Historic images courtesy of North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University
About cinema in Stockport...
The Stockport Plaza took almost 350 tons of steel to build.
Between 1926 and 1960, British cinemas had to show a certain number of British-made films, to fulfil government quotas.
Thomas Edison never patented his original ‘Kinetoscope’ outside of the USA – allowing imitations to flourish in Europe.
The last film to be played at Stockport’s first cinema was the Beatles movie, Help!
Among the first films played to Stockport residents in the 19th century were re-enactments of the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, and of Joan of Arc being burnt at the stake.