Wonderland researcher Shelley Budgeon reflects on the common threads in three oral histories about formative film experiences.
The social and cultural significance of cinema reaches far beyond its role as a form of entertainment. Going to the cinema provides the opportunity to be transported to distant places; to be fascinated by the lives playing out across the screen; and to perceive our world in a different way. Setting out to capture such dimensions, the Wonderland project explored the numerous ways that Birmingham’s cinema history is also a personal history – a multi-layered story about the chaotic fun of children’s Saturday morning picture shows, the fond reminiscence of a special night spent sitting on the balcony, or a recollection of the thrill of being star struck. In a series of oral history interviews these kinds of moments were recounted, illuminating the special place going to the movies has occupied in many people’s lives. In particular, the centrality of cinema within the life of Birmingham’s working-class communities such as Tile Cross, Hockley, and Small Heath emerged in these personal histories. Every neighbourhood had at least one local cinema and going to the movies played an integral part in the rhythm of weekly life. These stories reveal several key themes that help us to understand how Birmingham’s cinemas were experienced and their enduring significance.
Firstly, the cinemas frequented by interviewees were described as spaces where they encountered images and ideas that impacted deeply on how they understood their place in the world. This was an experience defined by a sense of release from the mundane reality of daily life.
Secondly, memories of going to the cinema were animated by the physical characteristics of the buildings themselves and their geographical location. A colourful picture of their place within the landscape of the community emerged in the detailed accounts of the streets where these cinemas stood, their unique architectural features, and the journeys taken by bus or by foot to get there.
The cinemas of the older generations were described as providing rather basic amenities. In contrast, however, those associated with the golden age of the 1930s were remembered for their grandeur. These picture palaces, embedded within the local neighbourhood, were very much part of the community and yet they also provided a separate, special space marked out from their immediate surroundings.
Programmes from the 40s and 50s for just four of the many cinemas along the Coventry Road.
Courtesy of the Cinema Museum
The third theme woven through the personal stories captures the collective aspects of cinema going. An outing to the cinema was an occasion to spend time with friends. Often it was also enjoyed as an intergenerational pastime with parents. However, beyond sharing the evening with those people closest to you, going to the pictures offered a profoundly communal experience.
The meanings that were created, the sensations that were generated, and the depth of the lasting impressions formed were attributed to knowing that a common culture was being shared at that moment. The activity of watching a film with other people – a ‘group encounter’ – heightened emotions such as joy and laughter and enhanced a sense of interconnectedness. This was expressed most evocatively in the memories of going to the Saturday pictures as a child. The ‘ABC Minors’ was a weekly film club where movies made specifically for children were screened. Many of these were produced by the Children’s Film Foundation whose mandate was to ensure that children would have the opportunity to view wholesome films with content that was age appropriate.
For these interviewees the love of the movies carried on throughout their lives and materialised in various ways outside the act of going to the cinema – itself illustrating its lasting personal impact and wider cultural significance. Jane’s love of the movies, for example, is expressed in an extensive collection of movie memorabilia and a series of diaries that she wrote between 1974 and the early 1990s as a way of documenting each and every one of her very frequent trips to the cinema. Jean’s love of the movies inspired her to get involved in the campaign to save the Kingsway cinema from closure. It had become another victim of a widespread decline that came to characterise the British cinema industry from the 1960s onwards. Ultimately the campaign didn’t succeed but Jean was able to preserve some of these threatened places, at least on film, in a series of photographs that became part of the Wonderland exhibition. For Alan, the formative role of his early cinema going days led him to impart both his extensive knowledge of film and his joy for the movies to younger generations throughout a long career as a film studies lecturer.
The Wonderland oral history project offers a fascinating glimpse into what going to the movies has meant and why these recollections are cherished by so many people. The memories and detailed narratives chronicled in these interviews leave us with a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the significant place cinema has occupied within the lives of Birmingham’s communities, and they invite us to reflect upon our own stories.