Non-Theatrical Cinemas

Secrets of Nature films, like many other interwar shorts classed as ‘topical’ or ‘instructional’, were often played before the main feature film in cinema halls around the country. Whilst we know that their distribution was fairly widespread (see the interactive map), Mary Field and Percy Smith admitted that their films were often favoured in what they called “better-class halls”. In other words, they were more likely to be seen in ‘respectable’, ‘middle-class’ cinemas, something which reflects the series’ promotion by a section of interwar British society which sought to transform the cinema into an agent of social ‘improvement’.

But by the 1930s, the Secrets also found an audience in a more niche type of cinema that became fairly prevalent in the 1930s. Some cinema patrons worked out that audiences sometimes enjoyed going to the cinema not to watch dramas, romances or action movies, but to view newsreels and non-fiction films which were rapidly beginning to be associated with the word ‘documentary’.

In the 1930s, the British documentary movement, a loose group of socially-conscious filmmakers wedded to the notion of filmic ‘realism’, were making and releasing films that would define the styles and forms of the documentary genre for decades. The relationship between this group of filmmakers and the less ‘avant-garde’ individuals involved in making the Secrets was a somewhat complex one, and I won’t go into the details here. But I was surprised to find the other day, when leafing through World Film News, a periodical closely associated with the ‘movement’, an article about H. Bruce Woolfe, where he ‘”confesses to the paternity of British documentary”. This sounds like a characteristic ‘humble brag’ on Bruce Woolfe’s part, but it is a reminder of the close association between the documentary style and the Secrets films.

Something else that I found in World Film News were several adverts for cinemas that were established solely for showing non-theatrical films. I thought I would quickly share three of these adverts, and a little bit of context about the cinemas in question: The Polytechnic, the Tatler, and the Imperial Institute. All three are a reminder of the fact that non-fiction films continued to enjoy a loyal audience, even after the introduction of the 1927 Cinematograph Act and its associated ‘quota’ for British films, which had the effect of driving shorts out of many cinema programmes by encouraging the ‘double bill’ format. Although firmly outside of the mainstream, the existence of these specialised cinemas shines a light on one of several ‘contexts’ in which Secrets films were screened. Update: I have added to this post details about a fourth important non-theatrical cinema in the history of the Secrets, the Embassy Theatre in Holborn.

1.The Polytechnic

Now known as the Regent Street Cinema, and still in use, the history of this place takes us right back to the earliest days of cinema. In 1896, the theatre of the Royal Polytechnic Institute was used to display a new invention, the Lumière Cinematographe, making this the first cinema screening to take place in the UK.

By the late 1920s, it had become known as a place where ‘unusual’ films could be seen.

As Arthur Leslie, the cinema’s manager wrote in 1930:

The Polytechnic Theatre seats 600 people and is a cosy and intimate house which has specialised in films of reality for the past 8 years. We have now installed a Picturehouse Apparatus which enables us to present pictures of topical interest, amusing cartoons, and Secret of Nature [sic] subjects.

Leslie argued that the cinema served a “two-fold” function of introducing the public to high-quality films, while also allowing producers and the cinema trade more widely with a platform to display their films and secure “world-wide marketing arrangements whose success alone can make their enterprise commercially possible.”

One highly-acclaimed film that was shown at the Polytechnic was Secrets-cameraman C.W.R. Knight’s ‘The Filming of the Golden Eagle’, which he accompanied with a live lecture.

2. The Tatler

The original Tatler, located on Charing Cross Road in London, was opened in February 1931. Its first programme “consisted of a news-reel, magazine, cartoon and a two-reel interest”. In other words, it focussed principally on factual films, which the managers complemented with light-hearted cartoons. According to World Film News, “this new type of cinema attracted people with time to spare, as well as those interested in the cinema”. Before long, schools, colleges, and universities were arranging field trips for students.

Over the course of the 1930s, the Tatler expanded its offering to other towns, including places like Liverpool, Birmingham, and Newcastle. Similar cinemas specialising in ‘topical’ films and newsreels also cropped up around the country. They were especially popular in or around railway stations, were travellers could stop by for a short while to wait for trains.

The Tatler was founded and managed by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, who also owned Gaumont-British Instructional, which was responsible for the majority of Secrets produced from the mid-1930s. This meant that Secrets films were frequently screened at Tatler cinemas in different locations across the UK. The voice of the Gaumont-British newsreels, E.V.H. Emmet, moreover, was the main narrator for Secrets of Life, meaning that viewers would have appreciated a degree of continuity across the programme.

In the late 1930s, Gaumont-British teamed up with television pioneer John Baird, and used the Tatler in Charing Cross to screen live footage of the 1938 Derby as well as a boxing match between Tommy Farr and Red Burman.

3. The Imperial Institute

The Imperial Institute occupied a site in South Kensington that now houses Imperial College London. The only remaining architectural feature of the building is The Queen’s Tower that stands at the heart of the college – you can read more about it on their website.

The Institute was established in 1887, and served as a kind of cultural centre for the promotion of the British empire. Among other things, this involved a large exhibition space and a rolling programme of educational talks. The Institute also had a cinema, mostly intended for visiting school children. The Institute ran a daily film screening, mostly focussing on subjects relating to the empire, very often focussed on the cultivation of crops in colonial territories. The Imperial Institute was home to the Empire Marketing Board’s film library, which it kept and maintained after the former’s dissolution. The upkeep of this library was maintained, in part, thanks to contributions from colonial and dominion governments, chiefly Canada.

Having access and control of the Empire Film Library meant that they had first dibs on a wide range of early documentary films without having to pay anything for their use. In most other cases, it would have been a practical impossibility to screen solely non-fiction films without having some other way of drawing audiences and generating income.

J. Russell Orr, who was the Secretary of the Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, said this about the Institute’s cinema in an article in Sight and Sound in 1932:

At the daily exhibitions of the Imperial Institute it is possible by means of the film to travel completely round the Empire and to become acquainted with the nature of each country and with the peoples and the inexhaustible resources of the great British Commonwealth of Nations.

Elsewhere I have explored some of the links between the Secrets and the British empire. Secrets films had formed part of the early Empire Film Library from the late 1920s, and prominent politicians and intellectuals viewed them as the kind of film that could promote British imperial interests abroad. The Imperial Institute, therefore, was very much a natural home for these films. Moreover, the kind of films that were most frequently screened at the Institute’s cinema – films that showed agricultural and rural life in distant lands – were themselves deeply influenced by the Secrets style, which played a defining role in blending education and entertainment.

In 1962, the Imperial Institute was replaced with the Commonwealth Institute, which was housed in a new building on Kensington High Street, and also included a cinema.

4. The Embassy Theatre

In 1923, The Bioscope reported on an ‘experiment’ undertaken by the Embassy Theatre in Holborn, Central London. Located a short walk away from the West End, Holborn became a sort of satellite centre for smaller theatres and cinemas in the 1910s and 1920s. Prior to becoming the Embassy, this venue was known simply as the Holborn Cinema (you can read more about the building’s history here).

The ‘experiment’ advertised in The Bioscope was started by New Era Films, who distributed the Secrets of Nature films. It consisted of a proposition that, at the time, would have seemed unusual to many: instead of showing feature films preceded by a couple of ‘shorts’, the Embassy showed only short-length films, promising to display ‘only the cream of the shorts’. The Kinematograph Weekly, reacting to the new development, commented:

We welcome this departure. Originally the kinema owed its popularity partly to its mere novelty and partly because it was a form of entertainment which could be enjoyed by the spectator who could enter and leave at almost any time. The increased length of pictures has largely destroyed this advantage. (13 December 1923, p. 37)

The cinema’s first programme was printed in full by The Bioscope. As can be seen in the image below, Secrets films featured heavily in the programme:

The Bioscope, 6 December 1923, p. 33. British Newspaper Archive.

That a cinema in central London was run with an almost entirely Secrets-oriented programme was remarkable. The venture, however, did not last long, and by 1924 the Embassy was under new ownership. It retained something of its original flavour: its new owner, George Lattimore, was committed to showing ‘films that were different’ (The Sphere, 25 April 1925, p. 48), but the Embassy would permanently close in 1925.

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