Defining the first ‘film’ to be shown in West Sussex can be tricky. Nowadays, many of the earliest films put on display would be the equivalent of our modern-day computer gifs – short in length, no sound, and playing on an endless loop. However, on the 31st of August 1896, at the Pier Pavilion in Worthing, the first ‘electric animated photograph’ was shown to residents of West Sussex. Sussex became a hub for early film makers, with Brighton and Shoreham in particular being focal points. Indeed, the earliest film Screen Archive South East have in their collections is an 1896 film of Brighton Beach.
Today in this blog we’ll be taking you through the twentieth century. By looking at the early picture palaces of the 1910s, the art deco boom of the Golden Age of Cinema in the 1930s, the post WWII bust and our more modern multi-screen chain behemoths, we can see, not only changing architectural styles, but also the film viewing habits of the public. Today, we focus on the everchanging Corn Exchange of Chichester, the classic Pier cinemas of Bognor, the long lasting Dome Cinema of Worthing, and the tragic loss of East Grinstead’s Whitehall Cinema. We’ll be sharing a few images and documents from the archive which tell these fascinating stories, as well as quick glimpses of other county cinemas.
Sussex Cinemas and Film
Snippet from the film [The Heath Cinema in Haywards Heath] by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.
Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.
Sussex Cinemas in the Archives
In 1909, the Cinematograph Act was passed by Parliament. This was the first piece of legislation that attempted to regulate the infant film industry. In relation to this blog, its primary impact was the buildings in which films were hosted.
Throughout the 1890s and 1900s, film exhibitions were held in temporary venues: theatres and music halls, penny gaffs, fairgrounds. However, these could be a severe fire hazard and coupled with the very flammable nature of these early films many fires (often fatal) did occur in the early days. The Act specified a building code with which all commercial cinemas had to comply. Two stipulations? of the regulations were that each building must have been inspected by the Local Authority, and that the projector had to be within a fire-resistant enclosure. Simple things to us, but their impact was huge.
It is around this time that there is the first boom of new cinemas. Many of the ones that were opened at this time were converted buildings, rather than purpose built. One of these was the Granada Cinema, aka the Exchange Cinema, aka Poole’s Picture Palace, aka the Corn Exchange, which can be found at the end of East Street in Chichester.
Originally built in 1833, the building has seen many changes in its use over the decades, but for most of the twentieth century, it was Chichester’s primary cinema. It had been used to show films (or their predecessor forms, such as the myrioramas the Poole’s peddled) since the 1880s, but made the move to a converted cinema in May 1910, before in the 1920s becoming a full-time movie theatre. The Granada Cinema eventually closed its doors in 1980, with its last film being Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, which certainly is not a bad send off!
The Granada was at one time one of four cinemas in Chichester, sharing the city with the Olympia at Northgate, the Picturedrome (later Odeon) on South Street, and the Gaumont on Eastgate Square. None of these made it to the new millennium. Instead, Chichester now has the New Park Cinema, opened in 1982, and it was later joined by the Cineworld down at Terminus Road.
One town that benefitted greatly from these new cinemas was Bognor, especially at the Pier. Initially films were shown within the pavilion, but by 1911 a shiny new construction was opened: The Pier Picture Palace, later the Pier Electric Theatre. This was accompanied by the larger Pier Picture Theatre, later simply the Pier Cinema. The two theatres were part of a large complex built at the base of the Pier, along with an arcade of shops. The Palace could hold around 500, the Theatre over 1,000. The Palace, as the First World War began and continued, became less of a film hosting site, instead focusing more on live shows. Its larger sister, however, continued to show films until the early 1950s.
The Pier Cinemas had competition in the Kursaal Theatre (later the Theatre Royal), which was also opened in 1911 and a few years later the Picturedrome (or Classic, Cannon, or ABC theatre depending on your memory) opened in 1919. The Picturedrome still exists and shows films to this day. An Odeon (eventually called the Regal) opened in the 1930s, but later folded in the 1970s. This means at one point, Bognor’s population of less than 20,000 would have had three large purpose-built venues to pick from. Not all cinemas showed the same films, so competition to get the pick of the bunch could be fierce.
1920s and 30s
The choices of films were changing throughout the decade. Whilst in 1914, a quarter of the films shown in UK cinemas were British, by 1926 this had plummeted to 5%. Another government Cinematograph Act, this time in 1927, required that cinemas would have to show a certain percentage of British films to their audiences. This led to a number of ‘trashy’ films produced just to reach that target. Still, a day at the cinema was the most popular choice of activity. In 1940, one year into the Second World War, there were one billion admissions across the country to the cinema. Compare this to 2019, when there were around 176 million admissions.
The Dome Cinema in Worthing is another example of what was a converted building, but one that is still used to this day as a cinema. Originally opened in 1911 as the Kursaal (the political climate of WWI brought about pressure to change the German name), what used to be its skating hall was converted into the Dome Cinema in 1921. Costing £8,000, huge levels of detail were introduced to the décor – plasterwork, panelling, light fittings… it was all done in the name of glamour. With its distinctive shape, the Dome can be seen in most modern and historic seaside shots of Worthing, and often did well in the summer months as something of a tourist attraction. Throughout the decades there were moments that threatened the building with closure, and an aging décor which required continual expensive refurbishment and maintenance, but despite all of this the Dome continues to operate and at 110 years old is still providing films for Worthing.
Cinema décor at this time was at its most stylish, and many of the cinemas that were constructed in the 1920s and 30s have a distinct look which gives them an inherently timeless feel. The Record Office has many plans of proposed cinemas from this time – some were built, some never got approved. All of them are an interesting look at the priorities of cinema goers during this golden age.
After the war, cinema attendance numbers dropped. By the 1950s and 60s, many of West Sussex’s cinemas were struggling. The blame for this is usually pinned on changing leisure habits, and the growing audience of television viewers.
Sometimes, however, the end of the cinemas is beyond anything as simple as an expiring licence or lack of paying customers. One pertinent example of this was the Whitehall cinema of East Grinstead. Opened in 1910 as a converted cinema, what was once known as the Grosvenor Hall became East Grinstead’s premier cinema. An extension in the 1930s changed the frontage to a beautiful art deco style façade, with its seating capacity now at 570. A ballroom, restaurant and three shops were also added to the complex, making it something of an entertainment hub. During the Second World War, it was frequented by local servicemen, and was popular enough to have three weeks’ worth of full houses when Gone with the Wind played.
Despite its solid income, some events could not have been predicted. On Friday 9th of July in 1943, an audience of around 180 were watching I Married a Witch. A warning for an air raid appeared on screen, but many remained in place, including the children sat at the front of the room. The cinema was then hit by a German bomber. The roof and the auditorium collapsed like a pack of cards upon being hit, and 108 people died. A third of them were children, some of whom had been evacuated from London. Another significant portion of the dead were soldiers from the Canadian Army, who were stationed in Sussex at the time. Although the front of the cinema remained intact, the rest of the building was hollowed out by the bombing.
The cinema was never rebuilt. Once the war had ended, housing was prioritised over leisure sites. Though the license had dutifully been resubmitted and paid each year, by 1957 it was no longer financially viable, and the site instead became shops. The front, with the word Whitehall carved into its stone surface is still visible to this day.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, cinema attendance was at an all-time low and multiplex theatres began to supplant single screen sites. There had been just 54 million admissions to cinemas in 1984, but by 1992 this had gone up to a healthier 100 million. Nowadays, non-multiplex cinemas are the rarity, and the average person going to the cinema will instead go to a Vue, Cineworld or Odeon on their trip out.
Our older cinemas still have a place, however. Some made the move towards showing more arts or indie films, whereas others have continued with their single or two screen cinemas bringing the latest blockbuster to local audiences. The Covid-19 pandemic brings another bout of difficulties. However, sites like the Dome Cinema in Worthing, the Picturedrome in Bognor, or the Orion in Burgess Hill are still going. All of them have either passed or are very closed to passing a centenary of film showing in Sussex, and despite recent difficulties, we hope they continue to do so for many more years!