Dr James Jones, University of Sussex
We all have experiences of visiting the cinema: memories of going as a child; a first independent visit with friends; visiting today to catch the latest superhero blockbuster or to make a pilgrimage to an independent screening.
That cinema-going is still a popular past-time in an age when media consumption and film viewing has radically changed (think of the Netflix revolution) is rather remarkable. In the UK, there are around 170 million cinema admissions per year – a not-insignificant figure. Yet, some seventy-five years ago, cinema-going was astoundingly popular in Britain, reaching a peak of 1.64 billion admissions in 1946. Some of the reasons for this are fairly obvious: there was limited opportunity for other cheap recreational activities outside of the home, television had yet to assert its power, and film was an established medium which exposed millions to different worlds and alluring cultures (or, rather, to American culture).
There was, however, a deeper and, perhaps, more fundamental reason for cinema-going’s immense popularity in the British mid-century. My research focuses on the interplay between space and emotion, and how cinemas acted as facilitators of emotional experiences in ambiguous spaces. The history of emotion offers an exciting way to approach historical sources: revealing new insights and allowing a better understanding of the lived experiences of people in the past. It not only traces how emotions were shaped by the time in which they were felt, but also how this affected people’s outlook on life.
Different times in history – and different spaces – created new emotional landscapes and altered existing ones. This makes emotion a useful category for the historian to study changes in society and culture. The history of emotions has been integrated alongside other methodologies to help form a more refined picture of the past, and it is a valuable way of introducing new insights into established topics, such as film studies and wider leisure history.
Turning this methodology to cinema-going in a specific location – as I did in my Cultural and Social History article, which examined the affective film experiences of people in Bolton (or, Worktown, as it was named in a study by the social research organisation Mass Observation) – reveals the relationship between emotion and space which characterised the mid-century cinema.
Crucially, the darkness of the cinema environment presented the opportunity to experience strong emotionality in public, in the anonymous environment of the auditorium. No other public space in the mid-twentieth-century facilitated this to such a degree, and this uniqueness reveals how, more generally, British emotional culture developed in specific contexts and in precise locations.
The renowned historian of emotions Barbara Rosenwein, and her work on emotional communities, is particularly useful in exploring the dynamics between emotion and space during the heyday of British cinemas. The enclosed and defined space of the cinema auditorium, containing a distinct group in the form of an audience, is an obvious example of an emotional community. People in the cinema were aware of both their own emotions and the feelings of those around them, looking for validation or reassurance that their emotional reactions to a film were being mirrored by their fellow patrons. In this manner, Rosenwein argues that, while we tend to think of emotions as being “individual”, they are, ultimately, social and communal tools. Cinema-going in the British mid-century was, therefore, as much a social activity as a recreational one – something which cemented its popularity.
The exoticism of Hollywood films naturally factored in the escapism which was most frequently identified as one of the main attractions of the cinema. The film critic Leslie Halliwell recalled in his memoir on cinema-going in Bolton that film took “people furthest out of themselves, into a wondrous and beautiful world which became their Shangri-La”. This utopia was reflected in the very names of cinemas – the Orion, the Rialto, the Plaza, the Regal – and in the architecture of the buildings which encompassed a range of styles including the clean lines of Art Deco and the high theatrics and excess of the “atmospherics”.
Evidence suggests that many people viewed their local picture-house, whether a flea-pit or a first-run super-cinema, as a reassuring and familiar space which was characterised by a hazy emotionality which fluctuated between the individual and the group. This ambiguity (in terms of space and the subsequent experiences of emotion within that space) lay at the heart of what the mid-century cinema signified to people. In few other areas of British life were emotional landscapes (an extreme of which was represented by the stiff-upper-lip stereotype) softened to such a degree, and this made the cinema a very attractive place.
Cinemas occupied a position on the boundary between the domestic and the public which allowed emotion to be concurrently experienced as both communal and private. Using the history of emotions allows access to this and, crucially, to the evolving emotional landscapes which were crafted by cinema patrons in the mid-twentieth-century. The fundamentals of this emotional experience have little changed over the past seventy-five years. The price of popcorn, however, most definitely has…
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About the author: James Jones graduated in 2019 with a PhD in History from the University of Sussex. His research examines the role of British cinemas in public emotion, spatial appropriation and the development of modernity.