Caerwedros, a key site in the history of the Rebecca Riots, has a village hall that is brand new. By contrast the Memorial Hall in Aberaeron from 1925 has been refurbished, rewired, replumbed, reinsulated and repainted this century. But its interior, its fittings and fixtures, still speak of its history. In particular, at one end a large black box stands on spindly wooden legs. It was enclosure once to the projector that was the weekly draw to the community’s cinema.
Older residents talk of their childhoods before the time of mass car ownership. Aberystwyth, sixteen miles away, was by night a far-off place. For those who owned a receiver television had but one channel. Up the valley at Theatr Felinfach spectators would glue themselves to the outside windows for a glimpse of theatre. But the Hall was the fulcrum for entertainment with every genre from choir to film to wrestling.
Most of the venues have gone to demolition or other purposes. But in a culture of visual excess some cinemas in the west are thriving. The Memorial Hall in Newquay is once again showing films. The Lantern House in Tywyn has revived a beautiful historic building. Mark Bond and Geoff Hill have decorated the interior with murals from cinema’s history; Don Corleone, Laurel and Hardy, Hitchcock are among the vivid figures who look upon the new audiences. The 1877 Gerlan Chapel in Borth has become the opulent Libanus cinema-eatery. When it was a semi-building site I asked one of its two makers, Peter Fleming, what grants he had gone for. “I couldn’t be bothered with that,” was his reply.
All these venues are covered in Alan Phillips’ book. The author is a former projectionist with the Service Kinema Corporation. His book is one of devotion but also one of expertise. He knows the Zeiss Ikon Ernemann equipment, the BTH Supa Cinema MK2, the Cinemeccanica Victoria 5 CX20H, the Kalee 8 and the Kalee 11. He knows proscenium widths and anamorphic lenses. His extensive research tells of the owners, the distributors and the pioneers. John Codman was born to the family that did Punch and Judy shows on Llandudno Pier. He took to the new technology and his magic lantern living picture show toured north Wales.
An early cinema entrepreneur, William Haggar, set up his Bioscope in Aberavon in 1898. In 1910 he opened the Coliseum in Aberdare, later to be named Haggar’s Electric Palace. Other cinemas under his ownership followed in Llanelli, Pontarddulais, Neath, Mountain Ash and Pembroke. Phillips recounts how the buccaneer days were followed by legislation. The Cinematograph Act of 1909 mandated a licence for the showing of films. Film stock made from nitrate was highly flammable. Projectors were required to be protected within fire resistant enclosures.
The form of the book is alphabetical, thirty-one venues in a geography that encompasses Pontarddulais-Fishguard-Tywyn-Llandovery. In his introduction Phillips traces the ascent of the new art and entertainment. Britain’s first purpose-built cinema was built in 1909, its counterpart in Wales in 1910. The conversions of older buildings included that for the Silvograph Animated Pictures in Rhyl in 1906.
In their scale and architectural flamboyance cinema-designers aimed ever higher. Building boomed to reach a peak of 4,902 cinemas across Britain at the end of the 1930s. The fate of most was decline. Neyland’s Plaza was changed for bingo, suffered a fire in 1972 and was demolished. Tenby’s Royal Playhouse survives as a facade. It is now entrance to an architectural box that houses a pound shop. Llanelli’s Hippodrome too became a bingo hall. After demolition it was site for a supermarket and now appropriately it is the location of Tinopolis.
But some were hauled back from the abyss. Cross Hands’ Public Hall was closed in 1984 in a state of disrepair, reopened with new finance in 1996 and shows films three times a week. Lampeter’s Victoria Hall was listed as a cinema in 1931 and run by the Lampeter Cinematography Company. In 2014 volunteers launched the Magic Lamp Cinema- Film Hub Wales. In an irony of history some venues of today were upgraded to digital projection courtesy of European Union Regional Development money. On the other side historic interiors, as in Llanelli, have survived demolition thanks to the ubiquitous Wetherspoons. In the summer of 2016, when history turned on its pivot, the chain flooded its bars with a million beer mats marked “Out.”
The book’s pictures evoke mixed emotions. Many of the buildings were rudimentary. The photograph of Machynlleth’s Powys Cinema shows a structure of blank plainness. Twm’s Cinema in Burry Port was of corrugated iron. But to see the King’s Hall in Aberystwyth in its 1934 art deco style against its 1989 replacement is a comparison to sadden. Aberystwyth is now well served by two cinemas. Phillips runs through the history and recounts that the town had nine predecessor cinemas.
Cinema and authority have at times been at loggerheads since the earliest days. “Life of Brian” was nothing new. A century ago ecclesiastical authority condemned a film called “From the Manger to the Cross.” On February 9th 1916 the Pavilion in Cardigan showed it nonetheless, earning itself headlines in doing so. The films that Phillips remembers would stretch the expertise of many a self-declared film buff. Haverfordwest’s New Palace Cinema opened with “Zuma, King of the Gypsies.” In 1909 Carmarthen’s Market Cinema was showing “the Beggar’s Gratitude.” In 1915 the town’s Empire Cinema was showing “The Jockey of Death” and “Married to a German Spy.”
136 photographs accompany the text. Phillips’ book is a journey into social, cultural, architectural and civic history; it must be the definitive study of its subject.
The Cinemas of West Wales is available now from Y Lolfa.