Programmes 1895-1920 – Reaching the Audiences of The Past: A Special Guest Blog by Dr. Phil Wickham

31 October 2016

History

This blog post has been written by guest blogger Dr Phil Wickham. Dr Phil Wickham is the Curator of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter.

Examining the material culture of the past can help us to understand how audiences of that time might have felt about what they saw, diminishing our assumptions that we bring from the present day. Some of the most fruitful sources for this research are programmes from popular venues. At The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter we have 4000 cinema programmes, including fascinating examples from the beginnings of cinema history between 1896 and 1920. Many of these can be seen in Adam Matthew’s publication Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema, part of Victorian Popular Culture.

Most venues in the early film period provided patrons with a programme to detail the attractions presented and to promote regular attendance. Looking at a couple of examples in detail demonstrates the development of film exhibition in Britain and their address to audiences. A programme from The Palace Theatre of Varieties on 2th July 1898 shows films’ entry into the existing entertainment structures of late Victorian Britain. The Palace was one of Central London’s most prestigious music halls – and still operates as the home of long running stage musicals. This programme features top music hall star, Albert Chevalier, alongside comics and speciality acts (such as Curtis and Gordon, Ball Punchers). One of the main attractions however is a selection of pictures from ‘The American Biograph invented by Herman Casler, of New York’. Screenings include actuality footage of the Derby race, naval engagements, ‘phantom rides’ from speeding trains, and other subjects that show off the potential of the new technology: ‘A Pillow fight’ is followed by ‘Ditto. Reversed’, demonstrating the comic possibilities of reversing the film and seeing the dispersed feathers return to the pillow. Casler helped develop the mutoscope but turned to projection once it was clear that it was more popular with audiences (1). This showcase for his American Biograph company at one of London’s leading venues indicates the international nature of the new medium. In another twenty years, the American product would start its long domination of the British market; Casler’s show could be considered an early portend, although much of the content is actually British, local ‘scenics’ and military subjects mixing with far away disasters. 


Variety theatre programme: Palace Theatre of Varieties, London. © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 
To see this document in the collection click the images.

A later example illustrates how cinema quickly became the dominant form of entertainment. The programme for the Premier Electric Cinema in Ilford, in suburban East London for 8th June 1911 is entirely made up of films, except for an accompanying orchestra. This comprises ‘scenics’, one-reel comedies, westerns, exotic adventures and even an early sound experiment with Hepworth’s Vivaphone. The show concludes with a longer film, an adaptation of dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. It’s interesting to see the emphasis on summarising the plots of the presentations in the film – it is clearly thought that without dialogue audiences needed this guide to the action. Much of the programme is dedicated to promoting the venue. Premier Electric’s matinee performances are advertised as ‘an ideal afternoon’s entertainment’, complete with free afternoon tea in their various suburban sites and it is emphasised that there is ‘always a brilliant programme’ of different types of animated pictures with multiple performances. The programme is designed to meet the growing aspirations and expectations of its suburban clientele. 

 

Cinema publicity programme: Premier Electric Theatre, Ilford. © The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

To see this document in the collection click the image.

Through these pieces of ephemera, designed to fulfil a specific function in a particular time and place, we can better understand the nature of the cinema industry, the society in which it functioned, and how it developed into such an important part of people’s lives. 

1. Herbert, Stephen and Luke McKernan. Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (London: BfI, 1996)

 

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About the Author

Dr Phil Wickham

Dr Phil Wickham is the Curator of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter. He also writes and teaches on British moving image Culture.

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