Permanent purpose-built cinemas first began to appear in Britain in the early years of the 20th century. Since their invention some years previously, films had been projected in travelling shows, fairgrounds or converted shops, and in variety theatres as an additional attraction to live performances.|
The heyday of the picture palace was roughly the period spanning the two world wars. During these years many hundreds of movie houses were built, ranging from bijou fleapits to grand super-cinemas with splendid foyers, imposing staircases and mighty Wurlitzer organs.
Many smaller picture houses came into existence, flourished, perhaps changed their names and ownership and then, after a few years, faded away. By the Twenties and Thirties almost every town and suburb had two, three or more cinemas, to which, in those depressed decades, the public flocked, exchanging their pennies for an hour or two of excitement or escapism.
"The flicks" were never more popular than during World War 2, when many people went to the pictures several times a week, a popular way of escaping briefly the dreariness of wartime. I can remember long multiple queues outside cinemas, even in the rain, as a common evening sight. Often these queues continued around the inside walls of the cinema as people stood waiting for seats to become vacant.
All this was to change during the Sixties, when newer leisure habits, especially television, began to cut into cinema attendances. Movie theatres struggled to keep going but were fighting a losing battle; large numbers of them closed and were demolished or changed to other uses. Those that kept going have usually converted to multi-screen performances, an adaptation that has often proved successful.
But many of the buildings that housed the old picture palaces are still around, serving new patrons as clubs, dance-halls or shops. These pages celebrate a few of those that have survived as cinemas, have been demolished or now serve other purposes in busy highways and back streets. Here you will find histories and pictures of 25 or so old London cinemas, past and present, large and small, grand and grotty. In my time I have patronised a number of them; many were, of course, long before my time. Except where otherwise stated, the photographs were all taken in 2002.