From the office: Celebrating Britain's historic cinemas

By Editor, 9 June 2016 - 3:55pm

Inspired by Amanda Randall's article on WW2 cinema-going in the July issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, Sarah Williams takes an appreciative look at a newly restored picture house in Bristol

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 9 June 2016
Sarah Williams, Editor
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Whiteladies Picture House 1921

An artist's depiction of the newly-opened Bristol cinema as it looked in 1921

I enjoyed reading Amanda Randall's article about British cinema-going during the Second World War in the current issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine.

It was full of fascinating bits of information such as the astonishing fact that in 1943, in the middle of this huge global conflict, there were 1.5 billion admissions to UK cinemas. Almost half of all teenagers went to the cinema twice a week or more in that year.

But I also enjoyed it because last week I went to visit the newly-opened Everyman cinema in Bristol. Based in what was once the Whiteladies Picture House (or the Odeon, when I was a student), the new owners have done an amazing job at restoring the beautiful 1920s décor.

The Western Daily Press reported on the décor when it was opened in 1921 in the presence of the Duchess of Beaufort, although sadly the “16 feet painting showing the ‘various phases of life which are demonstrated by the cinema’” has not survived. The opening film was Pollyanna, which was “guaranteed to draw a tear to the eye of the veriest cynic”.

Reading about cinema-going during air raids (people queued in Leicester Square to see Gone With The Wind while fires were being extinguished around them) made me think of the people who had sat under the same roof as me all those years ago.

Bristol had its fair share of air raids, but none of them hit the Picture House that sits away from the centre of the city. Searching the newspaper collection on findmypast.co.uk it is clear that Whiteladies Picture House was busy during the war, applying for a special licence in 1942 to enable it to show films on Christmas Day.

The sympathetic restoration of Bristol’s oldest surviving cinema celebrates its history, but it’s not just about a building. As I sat admiring the ornate ceiling, I thought about all the people who have looked up at the same sight in wartime and in peace over the past 95 years. 

As family historians we are very aware that we are part of a chain, that we are continuing a line that started with the very first Homo sapiens. Last week, before I enjoyed a very pleasant evening watching Love and Friendship, I was keenly aware that I was following in the footsteps of wartime teenagers and sixties sweethearts going all the way back, 95 years, to that great tear-jerker Pollyanna.
 

You can read more about British cinema during the Second World War in the July issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine on sale now

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