No two towns are alike in their provision of cinemas, although many of the same patterns and issues are common, regardless of the location.
Brighton and Hove have two characteristics that are a unique combination. The conjoined towns were one of the pioneer centres for cinema and film development. The new industry was talked and written about as a local phenomenon right from the start, which must have increased local awareness. Film shows took place as early as 1896, within three months of the Lumières' first demonstrations. So familiar was Brighton with this heritage that the experiments by William Friese-Greene, memorably recreated in the film The Magic Box, were appropriated for commemoration, even though he was living and working in London at the time and did not venture down to live in Brighton until more than 15 years later.
Brighton is also a seaside resort. Although the days of summer holidays on the English coast have long since given way to package trips to the Mediterranean and Florida, until the 1960s the cinemas in seaside towns were beneficiaries of the influx of visitors beset by the vagaries of the English weather. When clouds and rain kept trippers off the beach, the film show and the amusement arcade were the obvious alternative attractions.
In Brighton, therefore, nearly all the main cinemas were to be found in a line from the railway station to the seafront, in West Street and North Street, or close to the seafront 'prom' (promenade) itself. These were not the towns' first cinemas, however. At least half a dozen others opened before a roller skating rink in West Street was converted into the first of the big theatres, the Grand Picture Palace, in 1911.
There have been three main phases of cinema building: the 'silent' cinemas from 1909 to 1912, the talkie cinemas of the early 1930s and the functional multi-screen sites towards the end of the 20th century.
The earliest cinemas were the shortest lived. The initial attraction of moving pictures in converted shops and other small venues was soon replaced by a more mature approach that required bigger premises to accommodate the larger audiences wishing to see the longer and more sophisticated films. Four cinemas closed by the end of the First World War, with an average lifespan of barely four years. The only other closure before 1939 was another neighbourhood cinema, the Devonshire (formerly The Royal Tierney Picture Theatre) in Edward Street—the fourth name it had had in a mere 11 years to 1922.
Purpose-built cinemas first started appearing in English towns, and elsewhere in the world, around 1909. The first was built in Brighton in 1910: the Duke of York's—still in operation, it has survived long enough for its period charm to be appreciated and valued. Three followed in 1911 and two more in 1912. Only one more was opened during the silent era, in 1922, before four new talkie cinemas were built in the 1930s (1930, 1933, 1934 and 1937).
New cinema construction then waited until 1973 before the three-screen Odeon Kingswest was opened—effectively replacing three other single-screen sites. Since then, a 10-screen multiplex has been opened in the Marina complex on the eastern edge of Brighton.
Otherwise cinemas were converted out of buildings that had other previous uses. The most obvious adaptation, given the early inclusion of films in live stage programmes, was of four theatres and music halls turned into cinemas (1990, 1910 and as late as 1931 and 1943). Other early conversions were of a shop (1910), a bazaar (1911), a roller-skating rink (1911), a chapel (1920) and two former newspaper printing works (1910, 1911).
The problems of running smaller cinemas away from the main centres of population in the latter half of the silent era is exemplified by what were essentially neighbourhood cinemas in Southwick and Shoreham. In 1915 Frederick George Ellis bought some land at Southwick on a mortgage and built a cinema and two shops in Albion Street, the road that runs alongside Shoreham Harbour, at a total cost of £5,000. He kept the New Kinema going until October 1921, when he sold it to a Mr George Sheffield 'who did not keep to the agreement', so Ellis re-possessed it. Sheffield was later declared bankrupt. Meanwhile, Ellis had taken over the tenancy of the Star Cinema in Shoreham, a converted Congregational chapel, in March 1921 but sold on this lease in September 1921 for £176. He tried to expand again by taking over the Coliseum Cinema in Shoreham.
SURVIVAL AND CLOSURE
The average lifespan of cinema sites, excluding those still operating, was just under 38 years; for the 18 cinemas that closed after the introduction of talkies, the average was 46 years.
A chart based on the number of cinema openings and closings and the total number of sites operational at the end of each year shows that the number of screens remained relatively constant between 1911 and 1929, then began to rise to a peak in 1937-1938 and but for some (temporary) closures early in the Second World War, again remained relatively stable throughout the period to the mid 1950s. Then the closures began over the coming decade before another decade of attrition. Since 1981 the number of cinema sites has been between three and five, although three of the cinemas open during that period were multi-screen operations.
Very mixed eventual fates awaited the cinemas. Two were destroyed by fire (the Grand Picture Palace in 1919 and the Cinema-de-Luxe in 1942) and the building that had been the Grand, North Road was also burnt out, but not until 21 years after its closure. Three were converted for bingo—one of the most common uses of former cinemas in Britain—two became the sites for social clubs and one was converted into night clubs. Two became retail showrooms, two others became shops and on the sites of a further two now stand modern retail stores. Office blocks occupy four sites, housing two, a petrol station and a conference centre one each.
The one that has retained the closest links with its past is the one-time Bijou Electric Empire Cinema, which is now a busy Burger King, designed with a cinema motif and using large-screen video projection to entertain the clientele with MTV—perhaps a foretaste of the era of digital cinema to come.
Only one former Brighton cinemas still stands more or less intact, at least as a shell: the Savoy Cinema-Theatre (latterly ABC) in East Street. The Astoria in Gloucester Place and the Hove Cinematograph Theatre (latterly Embassy Cinema) in Western Road, Hove have been lost. As always their fate depended partly on the town planners. Until recently it would have been argued that the days of such sites were over. The flagship ABC had been split into a four-screen unit to help it pay its way but it still closed. It is now a collection of bars and eateries.
Nonetheless, a new era in cinema arrived, based on all-digital technology, with the potential for new types of programming and a new economic model. Given the revival of interest in movies in the current century and a growing desire to revitalise towns as the emphasis shifts away from out-of-town retail and leisure parks, there may be a healthier future for such moribund town centre sites. Other than the Duke's at Komedia, however, there has been little sign of any such revival in Brighton & Hove.
Cinema in Sussex: The wider context
Checklist of Brighton Cinemas by date of opening and closing
Brighton Cinema Directory
Brighton & Hove's contribution to film history: A chronology