How can a cinema be medieval when moving pictures weren’t introduced until the 1890s? My place of work is in one-such venue however: Cinema City in Norwich, where parts of the building date back to the fourteenth century. Its main use since its earliest days in the 1300s was as a merchant’s residence and dining hall, and so perhaps it is appropriate that the great hall is now used as the Cinema City café bar. Admittedly, it wasn’t converted to a full-time cinema until 1978, but before that (from 1925) it was a public hall that housed a projector and screen and was dedicated to ‘the advancement of education in its widest and most comprehensive sense’ [i]. Honouring this objective, since 1978, Cinema City has had an education programme as part of its offer. The cinema today is operated by Picturehouse and so screens a specialised film programme. In 2017 it also has three digitally equipped cinema auditoria, a box office, a courtyard, a restaurant, the café bar, a kitchen, offices, and an education facility.
I am part of a team of film educators based in this special building, operating separately to the main cinema and known as Cinema City Education. Recently we devised a project that would not only allow us to research the history of our own cinema, but more widely collect and preserve memories of cinema-going in our county – we called the project Norfolk at the Pictures. We were awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund Part, which allowed us to refurbish our first-floor education rooms. In the autumn of 2016 we launched the John Hurt Centre (named after our now sadly deceased patron, Sir John Hurt). This state-of-the-art and fully-accessible education and exhibition venue is now entered via a new foyer with a lift in our courtyard. It is used for regular film clubs for all ages (from U3A to young programmers), evening courses and day schools for adults, scriptwriting and filmmaking groups, school holiday animation workshops, training, conferences, and private functions.
As for the activities part of the project: What do you unleash if you invite the public to reminisce about their trips to the cinema with you? As it turns out you receive a mini avalanche of fascinating anecdotes, photographs, histories, artefacts (ranging from cinema programmes to pieces of projectors); and as a result, a palpable connection with the social history of cinema-going.
We heard from audience members from the 1930s onwards and really got a feel for the changing fortunes of picture houses, not just in Norfolk but nationally. We heard about the impact of World War Two, the rise of the picture palace, the coming of colour, the weird and wonderful promotional stunts that cinema managers would employ, the popularity of children’s cinema clubs, and the unrest that 1950s teenagers flocking to ‘rock and roll pictures’ caused with older audience members.
One particularly rewarding part of the project was cinema-themed reminiscence work with the elderly, we called this Moving Memories. A team of staff and volunteers visited residential homes and luncheon clubs, where we held sessions with groups of over sixties. This usually involved us presenting a show with photographs of cinemas, films stars and film posters, and film clips of archive footage. A popular clip was that of the National Anthem with images of Queen Elizabeth – which would always be played at the end of the film programme – some recalled patriotically standing to attention whereas others remembered it as a cue to make a mad dash to the door so as not to endure the song. We asked prompt questions of the groups such as, ‘do you remember doing anything naughty at the cinema – such as sneaking in without paying?’ and we took props such as tubs of popcorn, ticket stubs and cinema programmes for people to handle and help them to recall their cinema-going memories. Some of the participants were suffering from dementia and we took advice and training from experts to enable us to illicit responses from these particular folks.
Personally speaking however, the part of the Norfolk at the Pictures that I am most proud of is The Final Reel; the documentary film that we made in connection with the project. With a micro-budget and a small team of dedicated and talented crew, we made a feature-length documentary charting the development of film exhibition in Norfolk, but again, reflecting national trends too. We were fortunate enough to secure the talents of our patron, Sir John Hurt, who recorded the narration in his familiar gravelly voice. We interviewed film historians such as Stephen Peart and Tim Snelson (UEA), film lovers that had attended the different Norfolk cinemas through the years, and cinema managers and projectionists. It charts the decline of cinema from the heyday of the 1930s and 40s to the sad closure of many venues from the 1950s onwards, but we also reflect positive recent developments such as the rise of event cinema (live theatre and opera performances and outdoor screenings), community film clubs, and the continued appeal of much-loved art-house cinemas like Cinema City.
I feel very fortunate to work in such a beautiful, old building with such a thriving cultural offer and through The Final Reel film and the Norfolk at the Pictures project as a whole, we were able to share and celebrate this enthusiasm with a much wider audience.
[i] Ethel and Mary Colman, owners in 1925, bequeathed the building to Norwich City Council with this stipulation for the building’s use.
Anna Blagrove is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia in the school of Film, TV and Media Studies. Her thesis is an ethnographic study of teenagers and their relationship with cinema-going. Other teaching and research interests are Australian cinema, film locations, and the work of Studio Ghibli. She also works as Education Officer for Cinema City, a specialised cinema in Norwich.
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