Dr Derek J Ripley on the death of the old cinema hall
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 February 2014 | UPDATED: 17:59 19 January 2016
Our resident historian, Dr Derek J Ripley, mourns the passing of the Lancashire fleapit
Walking along the High Streets of our local towns nowadays, it may seem as they have been colonised by pound shops, takeaways and tattoo parlours. Pause to look up every now and then, though, and above the window line you may be rewarded with the sight of a faded old sign or a tattered hoarding reminding us of the proud history of a once familiar Lancashire landmark - the cinema.
In these days of easily accessible digital entertainment, going to the ‘flicks’ (or ‘fleapits’ as they were more usually termed) was the only form of escapism available to the majority of Lancastrian folk, unless they were able to read, had a radio or access to a donkey and a ready supply of stones.
The word ‘cinema’ is derived from the Greek word ‘kinema’, or ‘motion’ and this is particularly apt for many the Lancashire cinemas which first screened the movie masterpieces of 20th Century Spatchcock.
The 1949 Cinematograph Act (under which, any building in which films were projected had to pay a supertax on their takings) sounded the death knell for many cinemas – at least until Alfred Spatchcock argued successfully that the term ‘building’ could not include anything on wheels and arranged for hundreds of railway carriages, caravans and hen-houses throughout the county to be converted into mobile cinemas. By the time the Act was repealed, there were few of the wonderful examples of the early cinemas remaining.
One that did survive was at Pennington Bluff, now, as then, a remote farming community. It is almost impossible to contemplate that the outbuildings that now shelter sheep from the harsh hillside summer were once packed night after night with shepherds and villagers, eager to view the latest Spatchcock offering.
The Old Majestic, high on the moors, was unusual in having a licence to sell intoxicating liquor up to 2.30am. This meant that as the nearby New Majestic played the National Anthem to close the programme, a steady stream of shepherds would meander up the hill to see the same films repeated, but this time with alcoholic accompaniment. Who can blame these honest folk their brief respite? If it occasionally meant that a few hundred sheep accidentally drowned in the River Penn (as happened after the premiere of ‘Moss Side Story’) it was but a small price to pay. That was Spatchcock’s view, anyway.
Spatchcock may be remembered for his films, but he also brought the precious gift of employment. Cinema patrons needed seating to be able to watch the latest offering in comfort. A grant from the East Lancashire Embroidery Council allowed him to organise a system of outworking, with housewives embroidering seat covers for discarded oil drums to form the principal seating arrangement.
But there was a risk to this. They used rudely dyed lambswool, rich in lanolin - and the drums were seldom cleaned to a high standard. Alongside the almost non-stop smoking of any cinema-goer over the age of eight, this presented an uninsurable fire hazard. It is estimated that at least 200 cinemas were destroyed annually by the ravages of fire.
There is a natural cycle to all things, of course. Gradually the cinemas were replaced as folk found other amusements in those crazes that swept Lancashire in the 60s and 70s: the hula-hoop, space-hoppers and collecting fridge magnets. High streets which had once boasted three, four or, as in the case of Prestwich, even five cinemas became lack-lustre thoroughfares as their cinemas were boarded up. Only the memories remain. And when you next see a gaggle of factory girls giggling their way into the travel agents, remember that in another era those lasses were about to be transported to another land, not by BOAC, but by the wonder of cinema.