Fancy a romance in the foyer?

The British Cinema Source Book - Gaumont British Cinemas

June 28, 1996

Gaumont British Cinemas is a specialist publication, but not quite as narrowly based as its title might imply. Those who enjoy studying the bricks and mortar of cinema as well as film will no doubt find in the book enchanting and enlightening. The A to Z of past and present Gaumont cinemas (25 pages), for example, will surely register as a particular gem, along with the listed titles of all the features shown there between 1932 and 1959 (18 pages). Whether the general run of filmgoers will find their blood quickening to quite the same degree is open to question. The romance of the foyer is not for everyone. But the author's sheer enthusiasm for his subject, coupled with his impressive knowledge and wide-ranging research, casts a wider net. Allen Eyles has produced a surprisingly readable book, neatly laced with nostalgia. It reminded me instantly of boyhood days when cinema performance not infrequently spanned a main feature, second feature, newsreel, cartoon, organ recital and live stage show, with time allowed for an ice-cream in the interval.

Eyles seems to be tackling film history a circuit at a time. He has already dealt with the ABC organisation in a companion volume, and presumably Rank, which he treats rather dismissively at times, will qualify in due course. It has to be said that lists of cinema are reminiscent of the rolls of honour commemorating fallen warriors. All too many have been closed, demolished, subdivided for other purposes or moved on to the higher delights of bingo.

Those associated with construction and design have reason to feel warmly towards the cinema. Once it was discovered that film could tell stories as well as merely record movement, exhibitors found that they were riding on a magic carpet. Architects were among the first to benefit from the rapid development of a national taste for screen entertainment - with whole families going once, twice or three times a week. New buildings were needed urgently to replace the converted shops, churches and fairground booths to which the public had earlier been attracted, by the sheer novelty of moving pictures, even if they showed nothing more riveting than a train bearing down on the camera.

The architects' role was not just to provide a hall with good sight-lines. The customers came expecting much more: escape from the drabness of their own homes into a world of wealth, luxury, indulgence and fantasy. It was no accident that the frontages of movie houses often resembled the massive sets used in the epic productions exhibited inside. The linking element was flamboyance, manifested in an abundance of pillars, arches and turrets. The cinema was not merely the showcase of fantasy, but part of the fantasy itself. Inside, the emphasis was on rich carpeting, crystal lighting, giant mirrors and marble staircases.

The best way to appreciate the variety of styles applied to cinema construction is to look at the illustrations in the book. Some facades resemble the prow of an ocean liner, others the entrance to an Egyptian temple or the British Museum, yet more a watch-tower or observatory.

But however soaring their vision, the architects had to keep their feet firmly on the ground to ensure the buildings could cope with the huge audience flows involved - up to 3,000 or 4,000 for each showing in some locations. Not infrequently demand exceeded supply and long queues formed - almost unthinkable nowadays.

The British Cinema Source Book is exactly what its name implies: a straightforward listing of archival materials. For the genuine researcher only.

Don Harker is a former director, Granada Television.

The British Cinema Source Book: BFI Archive Viewing Copies and Library Materials

Editor - Elaine Burrows, Janet Moat, David Sharp and Linda Wood
ISBN - 0 85170 474 3
Publisher - British Film Institute Publishing
Price - £35.00
Pages - 216

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