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Cinemas in Britain

A History of Cinema Architecture


Richard Gray


Revised edition. London: Lund Humphries, 2011

Hardcover. 176 p. ISBN 978-1848220720. £45.00


Reviewed by Elizabeth Darling

Oxford Brookes University



Richard Gray’s study of cinemas in Britain first appeared in 1996. Now substantially re-written, although he tells us [6] that the information remains largely the same, it has been re-issued. This seems timely for, just as the transition from still to moving image towards the end of the nineteenth century caused a revolution in the way we could see ourselves and express our culture, today the replacement of the ‘actual’ film camera with the digital image has led to a similar epiphany about modes of representation; an idea which Tacita Dean’s recent installation at Tate Modern explores and, perhaps too, Michel Hazanavicius’s award-winning film The Artist.

Gray’s book reminds us of when the moving image was new. In this wide-ranging study, he traces the process whereby the ad-hoc environments which showed the films of early experimental film makers like the Lumière brothers became the picture palaces of the inter-war years and, by the 1950s, when cinema building reached its peak, the local Odeon (one of the most significant British cinema companies) became ‘absolutely part of everyday life … as constant as the church or swimming pool’ [7].

His approach is firmly factual. Early chapters deal with the origins of cinema, and the link between the enactment of legislation to monitor film production and showing—much to do with the flammability of cellulose nitrate film—and the form of the first purpose-built cinemas. This established the basic ‘blueprint’ for the cinema with the projection room separated from the auditorium, placed above the entrance foyer and entered from the open air. By the time the first such act was passed, in the form of the Cinematograph Act 1909, 3,500 cinemas were in existence across Britain. In 1913, 497 buildings in London were showing films [25].

The bulk of the book thereafter is devoted to a sequence of chapters which deal in detail with the cinemas built in the period between the 1920s and the 1950s. Not surprisingly, given that the inter-war decades were the heyday of cinema, the majority of the discussion deals with this period and the many companies which used architecture to brand their cinema chains. Gray therefore discusses the work of companies such as Gaumont-British, ABC and Union and, a rare survivor into the present day cinema scene, the Odeon chain. This main section of the book concludes with a discussion of what he calls ‘The Third Age of the Cinema’ which has seen both the emergence of the ‘multiplex’ cinemas, often an integral part of retail developments on out-of-town sites, and funded by major American corporations such as Showcase and Warner, and, in a sort of mitigation, the re-emergence of independent cinemas such as the Tricycle cinema in Kilburn, north-west London or the Ritzy in Brixton, south London. A final section of the book comprises a glossary of architectural terms, a discussion of the future of listed cinemas and a gazetteer of British cinema buildings.

For the cinema enthusiast, this is undoubtedly a book worth having. It offers an invaluable documentation of cinema building across Britain, and Gray has assembled an unparalleled series of illustrations of cinemas, from the humblest to the most splendid, especially important given how many have been demolished in the last thirty or so years (I was surprised to see that the cinema of my childhood—Twickenham Odeon in west London of ca. 1928—was not, originally, the rather dingy hall of my memory but an exceptionally fine proto-Modernist structure; at that time my focus was on the film not the architecture. Alas it was replaced by a particularly appalling neo-vernacular housing development in the 1980s; its showier equivalent in nearby Richmond remains). Likewise, as an introduction to the history of cinema, as a technology and as a legislated form of entertainment, this has much to offer a student in film studies or cultural history more generally.

As an architectural history it lacks a little. Given that its subtitle is ‘A History of Cinema Architecture’, I would have expected to see plans and sections, and more discussion than there is of the architects who specialised in cinema design and the aims of the companies which commissioned them. There is no concerted attempt to really consider how these key spaces of modernity were designed to invoke escape, wonder or, more simply, to cope with the ingress and egress of crowds and the development of technologies of sound and projection. Nor is there any real consideration of what we might think of as the phenomenology of cinema going and how the spatial design of the cinema environment might contribute to, for example, that curious feeling, on leaving the cinema, of suddenly being delivered from a space of wonder back into the overly-bright, but now very dull, world of everyday life. In this respect, it might be helpful to read the book in conjunction with Bruce Peter’s Form Follows Fun. Modernism and Modernity in British Pleasure Architecture 1925-1940 (Routledge, 2007) which does consider this synthesis of the practical and the psychological. But this is, perhaps, to be overly harsh.

Essentially, this is a work of reference. It is not quite an encyclopaedia of British cinemas but very nearly, and on that basis it is a work that should be on the shelves of any historian of popular culture and its built environment. One might reasonably hope that it provides the basis from which more detailed study of the histories of the environments and experiences of cinema going in particular parts of Britain might develop...


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