A Four Nations Approach to Cinema History

A Four Nations Approach to Cinema History

This week Sam Manning (Queen’s University Belfast) examines cinema going in the UK during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Sam compares Sheffield and Belfast, utilising a Four Nations framework to analyse differences in cinema attendance during this period.

Following the Second World War, cinema-going was the ubiquitous commercial leisure activity in urban centres across Britain and Ireland. In 1946, 1.6 billion cinema admissions were recorded in the UK. By 1960, this number fell to 500 million and the rise in television ownership, growing affluence and the diversification of youth culture meant that the cinema lost its place as the central focus in citizen’s leisure lives. These changes were not experienced uniformly and there was a wide variety in cinema-going habits across the United Kingdom. There were also distinct differences between cinema-going practices in Britain and Ireland. In the Irish Republic cinema attendance peaked in 1954 with 54.1 million recorded admissions.
How can a ‘four nations’ framework be applied to a historical study of cinema-going in this period? Richard Maltby has recently urged cinema historians ‘to work out how to undertake small-scale practicable projects that, whatever their local explanatory aims, also have the capacity for comparison, aggregation and scaling’. I believe that a ‘four nations’ approach to the study of cinema history offers a solution to this problem. My PhD research investigates cinema-going in two urban centres of a similar size in the United Kingdom, Belfast and Sheffield. This broadens the geographical boundary of leisure studies from Great Britain to the United Kingdom and aims to explore the variety of responses to this commercial leisure activity. My research focuses on reception, audience preferences, the relationship of the cinema to other leisure activities and the social discourse that surrounded the cinema. It aims to discover how the experience of cinema-going varied in this period and the extent that this was linked to local factors. To what extent did these locations follow national trends, and in what ways were they distinctive? Belfast and Sheffield shared several characteristics in the post-war period. They relied on high levels of skilled labour, were dependent on a small number of large industries and displayed low levels of immigration. In both cities, developments in housing and employment resulted in large population shifts away from the city centre. All cities, though, are unique.
Belfast and Sheffield responded to different pressures and developed along separate trajectories. This comparison is designed to show how the social, cultural and political developments of these urban centres affected the leisure practices of their citizens. Why was the American outlaw biker film The Wild One banned in Sheffield, yet exhibited in Belfast? How did the large number of troops posted in Northern Ireland during WWII affect the reception of American films following the War?
I utilise both quantitative and qualitative approaches as part of a multi-method approach. This aids understanding of cinema-going as a historically situated leisure practice and provides a full appreciation of the links between programming, exhibition and audience preferences. Cinema records and box-office data provide a clear picture of cinema attendance and the programming practices of cinemas. This evidence, however, is often fragmentary and differs in nature between locations. It cannot provide information information on the appeal of particular films or stars, or about their public reception. It is thus combined with qualitative data provided by local newspapers and testimony from oral history interviews. The latter provides information about the social experience of the cinema and on the meanings that it held for patrons. It aids in linking the experience of cinema-going to themes such as austerity, affluence and consumerism and to developments in areas such as work, leisure and housing. It reveals the close link of leisure habits to everyday life and to cultural customs that were often place-specific.
A ‘four nations’ framework enables historians to display the diversity of experiences of commercial leisure in post-war Britain and Ireland. Further, it highlights how the reception of cultural products was often place-determined at a local level. A comparative approach stresses the diversity of experience across the United Kingdom and highlights the ways that, while films were mass cultural products, local circumstances often determined their reception.

Sam Manning is a second year History PhD student at Queen’s University, Belfast supervised by Professor Sean O’Connell. His PhD thesis is titled ‘Post-war cinema-going in the United Kingdom: a comparative analysis of Belfast and Sheffield, 1945–60’. This research assesses exhibition, reception and audience preferences in these two cities and explores the localised nature of cinema attendance in relation to wider social, cultural and political developments.

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