Super cinemas in the suburbs: Clifton cinemas and the difficulties of independent exhibition, 1934-1966.
This essay explores the history of the Clifton cinema chain in the 1930s. Clifton was one of a number of small-to-medium sized circuits operating during the years of growing concentration in the film exhibition business. The particular focus here is on circuit owners Sidney Clift and Leon Salberg, and on their relationships with two of the three big cinema chains in the United Kingdom at the time: Oscar Deutsch's Odeon chain and John Maxwell's Associated British Cinemas (hereafter ABC). (1) While ABC and Odeon were both taking huge financial risks by embarking upon large-scale building and acquisition schemes in order to establish their cinemas nationally, the owners of the Clifton chain delayed the construction of their cinemas until it became clear that the sites would be financially viable; however, by this time the exhibition market was too saturated to accommodate another national competitor. World War II then prevented the Clifton chain from reaching its full potential. Clift and Salberg intended to create a nationally significant chain of purpose-built, modernist Super-Cinemas, but their hesitancy cost them the realization of this ambition, eventually limiting their circuit to a dozen purpose-built cinemas and a ramshackle collection of outmoded acquisitions.
The Clifton circuit was established by Sidney Clift and Leon Salberg. Clift was born in 1885 in Birmingham in the English Midlands. A solicitor by trade, his interest in cinema began in 1914 with a 100 [pounds sterling] investment in a modest 670-seat venue, the Empire in the outer-Birmingham suburb of Stirchley, which had been purchased by his father-in-law William Astley (Clegg and Clegg 49; see also "Sir Sidney"). Clift fought in the First World War, rising to the rank of Captain; upon his return, he began acquiring old theatres and converting them into cinemas with his father-in-law. Clift and Astley never fully financed a cinema; they would invest capital in return for a dividend and a seat on the cinema's board, as can be seen at the Empire and also at the Kingsway Cinema in Kings Heath, Birmingham (Hanson and Wilkinson 58). (2) Between 1924 and 1928, William Astley scaled back his business activities with Clift, choosing instead to concentrate on his role as Treasurer of the Birmingham branch of the Cinema Exhibitor's Association (CEA). Clift, in sole control of a considerable cinema investment portfolio, formed Cinema Proprietors Ltd. with the owner of Birmingham's Alexandra Theatre, Leon Salberg. Together, Clift and Salberg set out to finance purpose-built cinemas, such as the Alhambra in Birmingham, which was the second Atmospheric cinema in the UK, opening in 1928 (Clegg and Clegg 31). (3)
Clift was a prominent member of the Birmingham CEA and was involved in the Sunday-Opening campaign in the early Thirties, which successfully petitioned the Birmingham Local Watch Committee to allow the opening of cinemas on the traditional Christian day of rest. He became Vice-Chairman of the Birmingham CEA in March 1932, progressing to Branch Chairman two years later and becoming National Chairman in 1944. (4) In the course of his association with the CEA, Clift appears to have befriended Oscar Deutsch, another Birmingham-based cinema entrepreneur who rose to prominence through his Odeon cinema chain. Their friendship gave rise to a firm business relationship between Clift and Deutsch. This would come to play an important role in the histories of both the Clifton and Odeon chains.
The Clift-Salberg partnership had refurbished or constructed seven cinemas, and was developing plans for more, when, in October 1929, ABC conducted a takeover of Cinema Proprietors Ltd., adding seven cinemas to their own burgeoning portfolio (Eyles 1993, 15). It appears that ABC made Clift and Salberg a very lucrative offer, which they accepted. However, the partners did not sell to get out of the cinema business; they chose to offload their portfolio and start all over again, with the increased capital from the ABC deal. This time, they were to focus upon purpose-built Super-Cinemas--a term which denotes a style of cinema constructed on modernist lines with luxurious interiors and with a seating capacity of over 1,000.
Information regarding the activities of Clift and Salberg between 1929 and 1931 is patchy, but, following the takeover in 1929, ABC seemed to have not only bought the cinema portfolio of the Cinema Proprietors Ltd. partnership, but also their expertise in acquiring and developing sites in the Midlands for ABC cinemas. The case of the New Theatre Royal and nearby ABC Savoy in Wolverhampton, twelve miles from Birmingham and in the heart of the industrial Black Country, is a prominent example of this. Leon Salberg had purchased the Theatre Royal in August 1928, operating it as a repertory theatre until 1931, when plans were submitted to convert it into a cinema (Williams 57; see also "Theatre Royal"). (5) Architectural plans submitted on September 22, 1928, immediately after Salberg's purchase of the theatre, do not mention any alterations being made to the building for the purposes of film exhibition; the plans concern the refitting of the bar and lavatory areas--as the old Victorian theatre was in need of extensive refurbishment (Wolverhampton Archives WTON/9724). These plans were drawn up by Satchwell and Roberts, a Birmingham-based architectural firm that was beginning to specialize in cinema construction. After the refurbishment was complete, Salberg prefixed the Theatre Royal's name with "New," and the venue operated on a repertory basis until 1931.
The Theatre Royal refurbishment plans were the first to be drawn up by Satchwell and Roberts for Leon Salberg; the company would go on to design all of the purposebuilt cinemas constructed by Clift and Salberg in the Midlands. Satchwell and Roberts would also go on to design several Midlands Odeons, including the Odeons in Shirley, Stafford and Hereford, but they were never fully appreciated as an architectural firm by Oscar Deutsch. Sidney Swingler, chief construction engineer for Odeon, who preferred architect Harry Weedon, described Satchwell as a "pantomime architect" (Eyles 2002, 153). It would appear that Deutsch and Swingler thought Satchwell to be an amateur. Nevertheless, the cinema architecture of Satchwell and Roberts in the Black Country towns of Sedgley, Coseley and Great Barr in particular compares positively with what might be considered the architectural blandness of more celebrated Weedon Odeons, such as the Odeon Dudley.
By April 1931, Salberg had grown exasperated with the failure of his 533-seat New Theatre Royal, and--possibly influenced by ABC--had decided to convert the venue to enable it to present the relatively new "talking pictures." The Midland Counties Express carried an interview with Leon Salberg on April 25, 1931, in which he explained his change of tack:
"[A cinema exhibitor's license] does not mean we have finished with the theatre as a theatre," said Mr. Salberg, who spoke of the great difficulty of finding plays by good authors for 52 weeks in the year, and said that while he was thankful to those people who had consistently supported the plays, he did not think there was a sufficient audience to keep going for 52 weeks ("Theatre Royal").
Plans were submitted on April 11th 1931 to construct what would prove to be an inadequate operator's box, to be suspended from the ceiling and accessed via two gangways above the balcony bar. Ned Williams notes that "... the resulting angle of projection was ridiculously steep. Even with the screen angled it was impossible to prevent some distortion of loss of focus" (Williams 57). The new balcony was to hold 274 patrons. It was originally intended to accommodate more, but the new operator's box required the addition of a great deal of constructional steelwork to prevent the collapse of the roof. The engineering plans for this were beyond the talents of Satchwell and Roberts, and so G. W. Costain was co-opted by the architectural firm to draw up the extensive plans (Wolverhampton Archives WTON / A-707).
Salberg also owned another site opposite the New Theatre Royal on Garrick Street. Clift and Salberg commissioned Roland Satchwell to designa hugely ambitious 3,000 seat cinema on this vacant plot of land. The plans were submitted in 1930, but the building never materialized. Instead, Clift and Salberg provided ABC with the development site soon after the Satchwell and Roberts plans were submitted. They also provided ABC with a short-term lease of the New Theatre Royal, the conversion of which was completed in June 1931. ABC ran the New Theatre Royal while its purpose-built cinema, not more than 100 yards away, was under construction. ABC's plan for the site was more modest than Clift and Salberg's. W. R. Glen submitted plans for "Proposed New Theatre, Garrick St" to Wolverhampton Works Committee in June 1931. ABC's plans, which list Leon Salberg as the owner of the site, indicate an intended capacity of 1,800, significantly reduced from Satchwell's 3,000 seat design (Eyles 1993, 158; see also Wolverhampton Archives WTON/9724). It would seem that ABC's chief, John Maxwell, shared with Oscar Deutsch a distrust of Satchwell and Roberts; their plans had been accepted by the Works Committee, but, in choosing to have W. R. Glen redesign the new cinema, Maxwell caused a considerable delay to the commencement of building work on what was to become ABC's Savoy.
The Savoy finally opened in December 1937, and the New Theatre Royal passed back into the proprietorship of Clift and Salberg in early 1938. By 1937, Clift and Salberg were no longer assisting ABC with the location of sites; instead, they were formulating plans to construct their own cinemas. Between 1931 and 1937, Clift became involved in several projects with his friend Oscar Deutsch; plans were drawn up by Satchwell and Roberts for a cinema in Tewkesbury near Stratford-upon-Avon to be funded by both Clift and Deutsch, but, for reasons unknown, this cinema never materialized (Eyles 2002, 30). Clift held directorships in several of Deutsch's early Odeon cinemas, and he was a regular at Odeon opening night galas, including that of the Odeon Bognor Regis (42).
Back in 1932, Clift and Salberg had opened what would remain their largest cinema, the 1,700-seat Grove located in Smethwick, near to the boundary between Birmingham and the Black Country. The Grove Cinema Company was formed by Salberg, Clift and George A. Parker to build, book and administer the cinema. The company had commissioned Roland Satchwell to draw up the plans for the cinema, which were submitted in 1931. The Grove was built as an independent venue, but most of the money came from Clift and Salberg. The structure, which stills stands, bears very little architectural resemblance to the cinemas which later carried the Clifton name, and its capacity exceeds the next-largest Clifton by over 500. Similarly, the Rock Cinema, situated just outside Birmingham city center in Saltley, opened in 1934. This, again, was built as an independent cinema, and operated as such, despite Clift and Salberg financing part of its construction.
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A CHAIN IS BORN
After the opening of the Rock, Clift and Salberg appear to have grown tired of part-financing independent cinemas. They formed a new company, Cinema Accessories Ltd. and through this company, they now began to build, equip, staff and book their own chain. The chain would come to be called Clifton Cinemas, but the first two venues built by Cinema Accessories Ltd. were actually called the Regal, the first of which opened on October 14, 1935 in Wednesfield in the West Midlands (Williams 76). (6) The Wednesfield Regal was fully managed by Cinema Accessories; it was designed by Satchwell and Roberts in what would come to represent the established house style. It held 1,028 patrons, a figure comparable with the capacity of later Cliftons, and it was overseen by Ken Jones, the newly-appointed Area Manager of the Clifton circuit. While it appears that the Wednesfield Regal set the conventions to be followed by later Clifton cinemas, the second Cinema Accessories venture, the Regal in Wells, Somerset, owes more to Oscar Deutsch's Odeon in Bognor Regis than to Clift's Wednesfield cinema. Attributed solely to architect Ernest Roberts, the Wells Regal seated a mere 588 patrons, and is clearly designed to serve holidaymakers. Clift's observance of the success of the holiday-resort Odeon in Bognor Regis may well have inspired his decision to build his Regal in Wells. The provincial cinema is evidence, however, of the Clift-Salberg partnership's desire to expand beyond the Central England locations with which they were familiar; the Clifton chain came to be particularly identified with Birmingham, but the example of the Regal Wells runs counter to this common perception of the chain.
The two Regal cinemas were the only new openings for Sidney Clift and Leon Salberg in 1935. The expansion of the chain began in earnest after the two Regal openings, with nine purpose-built Super-Cinemas constructed in the following three years. The Cinema Accessories partnership displayed a new sense of confidence in its own corporate identity, with each of the nine newly-built cinemas carrying the Clifton brand name above its marquee. Six of these were located in the Black Country towns and villages of Lye, Sedgley, Fallings Park, West Bromwich, Great Barr and Coseley, with three more built further afield--at Leominster, Wellington and Ludlow--but still within the confines of Central England. Clift and Salberg intended, not unreasonably, to begin the construction of their cinema chain in areas within easy reach of their Birmingham headquarters.
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Owing to the employment of Satchwell and Roberts as architects, the Cliftons possessed an architectural house style. The businesses were managed as a franchise; Cinema Accessories Ltd. would build the cinemas and then set up an individual company for each building. Each was an individual business overseen by Cinema Accessories, whose responsibility it was to book films and equip the auditoria. Strictly speaking, Clifton Cinemas was not a chain, but a series of independent cinemas sharing the same corporate identity. Oscar Deutsch's Odeons worked in a similar manner, and again, the similarity between business models provides another example of the influence of Deutsch upon Sidney Clift. The Clifton cinemas were all equipped with British Thomson-Houston (BTH) sound and projection equipment, which was marketed exclusively by Sound Equipment Ltd., a company set up by Oscar Deutsch in 1929 to install sound equipment in preparation for the talkies (Eyles 2002, 17).
The extent to which Cinema Accessories controlled each cinema also varied, dependent upon the amount of money invested by Clift and Salberg. The Cliftons at Great Barr and West Bromwich, for example, were never entirely under the control of Cinema Accessories; they were collaborative ventures between Clift and two other local cinema entrepreneurs, W. H. Onions and Edgar Summers. Salberg was not financially involved in either cinema, and so it appears that Cinema Accessories only booked these cinemas, receiving a yearly dividend as a result of Cliffs initial investment. The two venues co-financed by Clift and George A. Parker--the Smethwick Grove and the Wednesfield Regal--were completely bought out by Cinema Accessories by 1945, and so too was the Saltley Rock cinema; however, the two Cliftons co-financed by Summers and Onions at Great Barr and West Bromwich were never fully controlled by Cinema Accessories. Similarly, the Rosum, in the Black Country town of Walsall, was booked by Cinema Accessories for the period of its existence, but it was financed collaboratively by Ernest Roberts, Sidney Clift and Edgar Summers. Despite the collaborative nature of the Rosum project, there can be no doubt that it was a project of specific personal importance for Walter Summers, who chose to name the cinema after his wife, Rose Summers (Williams 103). The Rosum, again, was never fully controlled by Cinema Accessories.
THE CHAIN EXPANDS
In 1936, Clift and Salberg began to acquire cinemas from further afield, operating most of them under their original names. This acquisition program started with a takeover of the Bath Cinema Company's subsidiary, the Stratford-upon-Avon Picture House Company, which owned four cinemas in Leamington Spa as well as the Stratford-upon-Avon Picture House itself (Lawley). The reasoning behind this takeover is unclear; whilst the four cinemas amounted to a Clifton monopoly of cinema exhibition in Leamington Spa, the acquired cinemas were of varying quality.
The cinema most suited to the Clifton house style, the 950-capacity Bath Cinema, was refurbished and reopened carrying the Clifton name in August 1938 (Homsey 10). The Scala, Regal and Regent cinemas of Leamington Spa retained their original names. The 1,305-seat Regal was the most successful of the Leamington cinemas and currently operates as an Odeon, but Clift and Salberg chose to keep the name Regal, presumably because they already had control of two other Regals in Wednesfield and Somerset.
In 1938, the New Theatre Royal, Wolverhampton, the very first cinema of the Clift-Salberg partnership, passed back into the ownership of Cinema Accessories Ltd., due to the expiry of ABC's seven-year lease. The original name was retained, and Clifton operated the New Theatre Royal as a cinema. Alongside this re-acquisition, the burgeoning chain bought the Scala, Evesham--changing the name to Clifton--and the Empire, Walsall. Both, again, were in the vicinity of the West Midlands. Cinema Accessories also began booking the Savoy in Kettering in the East Midlands, although by 1945 the booking arrangement had disintegrated and the Savoy had returned to full independence. By the end of 1939, according to the Kinematograph Year Book, the Clifton chain managed twenty-two cinemas, ten of which were purpose-built by Satchwell and Roberts. (7)
These figures may seem substantial, or at least indicative of the scale of Clift's ambition, but the war and the untimely death of Leon Salberg in 1938 prevented the relatively local Clifton circuit from expanding nationally. Salberg was found dead in his office at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, in 1938. The impending certainty of war in early 1939 brought subsequent building restrictions which prevented Cinema Accessories from beginning any further building projects. As cinemas were classed as luxury buildings, materials were diverted to more urgent causes. However, the Clifton chain had already slowed down its cinema building plans due to Salberg's death. Salberg and Clift had equal shares in the Clifton venture, and whilst Clift often represented the partnership's public face, it was Salberg's business links with ABC that had proved vital in developing the Clifton chain. Eight extant cinemas had been purchased second-hand between 1936 and 1938, ten cinemas had been purpose-built by Clifton between 1935 and 1938, and the chain had acquired management control of four more in this period too, but Salberg's death curtailed the chain's growth in 1939. Only two cinemas were acquired hi this year: the small, basic, but locally much-loved Alexandra cinema in Lower Gornal in the Black Country, and the equally small but more luxurious Classic in Walsall. The Coseley Clifton was Cinema Accessories' only purpose-built cinema opening of 1939.
Notwithstanding the death of Leon Salberg and the start of the Second World War, it had been the financial conservatism of Cinema Accessories in the early 1930s that had handicapped the Clifton chain to such an extent that it was unable to progress. Oscar Deutsch, when building his Odeon chain, had gambled with his capital by building cinemas in areas where their need was not readily apparent, but his gamble had appeared to pay off: the Odeon chain had control of 258 cinemas at the time of Deutsch's death in 1941. Deutsch had already sold his Odeon chain to the Rank Organisation in 1938. Deutsch had built 17 cinemas in 1934, followed by another 13 in 1935. He had also managed to sign an exhibition deal with United Artists. Clift and Salberg were far more financially inhibited than Deutsch: Clift's unwillingness to throw his money at potential projects had allowed Odeon, along with the two other major exhibition chains, ABC and Gaumont, to saturate the exhibition market in Britain. Cinema Accessories' conservatism is exemplified by the 1935 story of the Warley cinema, situated on the border between Birmingham and the Black Country:
Jack Cotton had put the Warley site together and the original promoters included Captain S. W. Clift and W. H. Onions. They had difficulties arranging the finances and Oscar Deutsch came on board, taking the post of chairman, with W. G. Elcock becoming one of the directors. Both Clift and Onions remained as directors, along with J. B. Whitehouse and J. H. Lyndon. The cinema retained the Warley name although the signage used the Odeon style of lettering and the building was adverfised as the Warley Odeon within a couple of years of opening (Eyles 2002, 47).
The Warley cinema, originally designed by Satchwell and Roberts (before Oscar Deutsch commissioned Harry Weedon to redraw the original plans), and with backing from Cinema Accessories regulars, was clearly intended as an early Clifton, but Clift's unwillingness to take a financial risk led to his chain missing out on a very lucrative site. Eyles notes that Clift was unable or unwilling to fully finance the venture, despite the fact that, one year later, finance proved to not be an issue for his purpose-built Cliftons.
In 1939, along with 300 other cinemas in the country, the Clifton Great Barr defaulted on its exhibition quota requirements. All cinemas in the United Kingdom were obliged, under the Cinematograph Exhibition Act 1938, to allot 12.5% of their short film programming and 30% of their first features to the exhibition of indigenous productions. The statement of defense offered by the circuit gives an idea of the difficulties of cinema management at the outbreak of war:
The manner in which this difference has happened is owing to the chaotic state that film deliveries were in during the early days of the war and to the postponement and re-arrangement of programmes. Unfortunately this shortage was overlooked at that time.
The films for this theatre are booked by a booking department which arranges the booking for some thirty theatres and unfortunately the Manager of the Clifton Cinema, Great Barr, did not call the attention of the Booking Manager to this discrepancy ...
I can assure you that a[l theatres under my control are instructed to watch the quota figures very carefully ... and I think it is forgivable ir, in thirty theatres, only one theatre should make such a mistake in view of the state that the business was in ... (National Archives BT 64/49).
Each purpose-built Clifton was designed to hold over 1,000 patrons, each cinema had a car park, and some had restaurants. The defense above demonstrates the difficulties of managing a chain of cinemas of this stature in the early wartime period; it also indicates some of the booking problems to be felt by the Clifton chain in the 1940s when acquiring British productions to exhibit in order to fulfill its quota requirements.
The Coseley Clifton was the last to be built before wartime building restrictions, opening on July 8, 1939. It was situated on the main arterial route between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. The cinema demonstrates the level of Clift's ambition through its large capacity, luxurious modernist architecture, car parking and restaurant facilities and A-road location. Clift's final cinema built to these specifications was situated in Warwick, two miles from Leamington Spa. The New Cinema was designed by Ernest Roberts specifically for the Clifton chain, but Clift's decision not to make use of the circuit name remains a puzzle.
The New Cinema provides another example of the friendly relationship between the Clifton and Odeon chains. Oscar Deutsch's wife, Lily, managed Decorative Crafts, a subsidiary of Odeon which specialized in providing the interior decoration for the purpose-built Odeons. The New Cinema appears to have been the only non-Odeon cinema with screen tabs (drapes) provided by Decorative Crafts. Allen Eyles speculates, however, that, "[a]s it opened in 1940, perhaps the set was originally made up for an uncompleted Odeon" (Eyles 2002, 112).
A SLOW DECLINE
Following Leon Salberg's death, Clift was left to steer the growth of his chain alone. By building super-cinemas in the suburbs, he may have hoped to serve the increasingly mobile middle classes of suburbia whilst trying to coax punters out of the cinemas of the major city and town centers; however, his ambitions were not to be realized. World War II, and Salberg's death, had prevented Clift from expanding any further. Between 1941 and 1945, the Clifton chain acquired only one more cinema: the 816-seat Broadway in Walham Green, London, in 1943. This cinema was inferior to Clifton's other properties in terms of decor, architecture and capacity. The Broadway--Clift's first London cinema--received the dubious honor, in 1955, of being the first Clifton-managed venue to close its doors for good. One more cinema--again in London--was acquired before the demise of the chain. In 1948, Sidney Clift bought the 998-seat New Royalty Kinema in Brixton Hill. This cinema had opened in 1911, following an extensive shop conversion, and was originally managed by Montagu Pyke's circuit. Despite the New Royalty Kinema being far removed from the Clifton tradition, Clift decreed that it should carry the Clifton name. The Clifton Brixton Hill was a "flea-pit," as Allen Eyles, a former patron, recalls:
It was the only cinema that advertised the name of its manager. It always said: "The Clifton Brixton Hill, manager R. A. Brackenridge"--as though this bestowed some great honor. I don't know why his name was there because it was a very seedy place (Eyles and O'Brien 72).
Eyles was not the only customer with this impression of the Clifton Brixton Hill. The film editor and critic Tony Sloman also shares his cinemagoing experience:
The Clifton Brixton Hill was an interesting cinema. They might have played the circuit releases but they used to change the 13 feature, so I used to see things like a sepia print of Sun Valley Serenade [Humberstone 1941] on with whatever the A feature was. I do remember seeing The Yellow Mountain [Hibbs 1954], when I started scratching and my mother made me take a bath (78).
Ironically, by the virtue (or misfortune) of its location, and published recollections like these, Brixton Hill is now probably the most well-known Clifton cinema.
The difficulty for the Clifton chain in the 1940s--other than the worry about fleas in its collection of substandard, acquired cinemas--lay in procuring films for exhibition. The quota legislation, whereby cinemas were required to allocate 45% of their screen time to British first-feature films, was hitting independent exhibitors hard in the late Forties. 2,600 British cinemas had applied for quota exemption on the grounds that "the 45 per cent Quota will be commercially and mathematically impracticable" ("Revolt Against Quota"). Managers of these cinemas were worried that, in order to fulfill their quota obligations, they would be programing played-out films. The new quota was not a concern for the Rank Organisation--with its recent acquisitions of both the Odeon and Gaumont cinema chains; nor for ABC, as they were vertically-integrated--and so produced their own content; the quota provided a guarantee that their films would find an audience. The special relationship between ABC and Cinema Accessories--instigated in 1931 by the Wolverhampton agreements surrounding the New Theatre Royal and the site of the future Savoy--proved to be of great value to the Clifton chain in this period. Looking at the programming of the Coseley Clifton, it would appear that ABC would let Clifton book the occasional Associated-British film ahead of their own Black Country cinemas, alleviating some of the booking problems faced by the chain. Examples of preferential treatment accorded to Clifton by ABC can be seen in the programming of the wave of controversial post-war British crime films in the late Forties.
They Made Me A Fugitive (Cavalcanti 1947) was shown at the ABC Forum in Birmingham on September 14, 1947, running for six days. A British film particularly noted for its violence against women, it had received hostile reviews in the national newspapers. (8) The first cinema in the Black Country to show this film was not an ABC-controlled cinema, but rather the Clifton in Coseley.
It is worth mentioning here the disparity between the national and provincial reception of British films in the newspapers. In London, the Sunday Graphic's review of They Made Me A Fugitive assesses the film as "a curious mixture of nastiness and naivete. Its particular sort of violence does me violence" (Fletcher). C. A. Lejeune of The Observer was even more scathing, saying of Cavalcanti, "I cannot admire a fool, even when he is a technical expert, and the modern insistence on violence and morbidity in films seems to me the height of folly" (Lejeune 1947). However. at least two reviews from the West Midlands are positive: the Bilston & Willenhall Times calls They Made Me A Fugitive "thrilling," ("Films") and F. Leslie Withers of the Sunday Mercury praises the film, calling it, "... a first-class film of its kind, proof that we are mastering the intricate technique of American speed ..."
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Despite positive local reviews, the national critics clearly unnerved the ABC chain. ABC often passed the opportunity to screen these films over to the Clifton circuit. Brighton Rock (Boulting 1947) was first seen in the Black Country at the Coseley Clifton in July 1948 for six screenings, and Noose (Greville 1948) was another first for the Coseley Clifton, appearing for three days in 1949. It might be surmised that the Coseley Clifton audiences liked to see these controversial British crime films, which were associated with younger male audiences.
Cinema Accessories Ltd. was either unafraid of the risks taken by screening the critically-derided films, of was forced into programming them to fulfill its quota obligations. Whilst the programming points to a special relationship between ABC and Clifton, there is no such evidence of a similar agreement with Rank. Bilston Odeon programmed Ealing Studios' sordid, realist film, It Always Rains On Sunday (Hamer 1947), in mid-April 1948, whilst the Coseley Clifton, less than two miles away, acquired the film for its second run, screening it in late July of the same year. As well as purchasing the Odeon cinema chain, Rank had also acquired control of Ealing Studios; the case of it Always Rains on Sunday demonstrates J. Arthur Rank's willingness to fill his circuits with his own films regardless of their content. With its story of female juvenile delinquency, Good-Time Girl (MacDonald 1948) provides another example. A Rank film, it made its first appearance in the Black Country at the Bilston Odeon on November 27, 1948, despite receiving hostile national reviews. (9) Good-Time Girl did not arrive at the Clifton until January 17, 1949.
In between programming second-run Rank films and "sordid" ABC provincial first-run films, the Coseley cinema programmed re-runs of varying quality, depending upon the competition from the local Rank or ABC cinemas. Thus, whilst the Wolverhampton Gaumont played the spectacular Technicolor Saraband for Dead Lovers (Dearden 1948), the Coseley Clifton tempted urbanites out of the big towns with a re-run of the blockbuster spectacle Gone With the Wind (Fleming 1939) for six screenings commencing October 23, 1948. It's Not Cricket (Rich and Roome 1949), a 55-minute Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne B-feature, was programmed as a co-feature alongside The Lost Moment (Gabel 1947) for three dates in August 1949. Both films were Rank B-films. and whilst It's Not Cricket is a very good film, it nevertheless demonstrates the difficulties of booking films for an independent circuit. Over the following two months, the Bilston Odeon and Wolverhampton Gaumont shared the exhibition of the early Ealing comedies, amongst other box-office successes, whilst the hapless Clifton programmed re-runs and revivals.
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The Clifton achieved what appeared to be a coup in 1950, programming The Third Man (Reed 1949) for three days--the first Black Country cinema to do so. However, after its six-week run in 1949 at the ABC Bristol cinema in Birmingham, one may suspect that those who wished to see the film had already done so. Played out by ABC, The Third Man wasn't retained by the Coseley Clifton. The rest of 1950 proved disappointing for the Clifton; the Bilston Odeon presented The Blue Lamp (Dearden 1950) for six days, but it never made it to the Clifton; instead, the rest of 1950's program was filled with serials and B-films upgraded to main feature status.
Purpose built? or date of (acquisition) Cinema Name [booking] Capacity Opened Closed Kingsway, Kings Heath, Yes 1362 1924 Birmingham Grove, Birmingham Yes 1700 1932 1981 Rock, Saltley Birmingham Yes 1934 1972 Regal, Wednesfield Yes 1028 1935 1962 Regal, Wells, Somerset Yes 588 1935 1970 Clifton, Leominster Yes 1936 1970 Rosum, Walsall Yes 1200 1936 1966 Picture House, No (1936) Stratford-on-Avon Clifton, Leamington Spa No (1936) 950 1925 1982 Scala, Leamington Spa No (1936) 527 1930 1952 Regal, Leamington Spa No (1936) 1305 1931 n/a Regent, Leamington Spa No (1936) 1935 1960 Clifton, Lye Yes 1006 1937 1965 Clifton, Sedgley Yes 1091 1937 1978 Clifton, Wellington, Yes 1937 1983 Salop Empire, Walsall No (1937) 1933 1964 Savoy, Kettering No (1938) 1903 1961 Clifton, Evesham No (1938) 1923 1980 Theatre Royal, No (1938) 1073 1931 1978 Wolverhampton Clifton, Ludlow Yes 1938 Clifton, Fallings Park, Yes 1166 1938 1961 Wolverhampton Clifton, West Bromwich Yes 1202 1938 1964 Clifton, Perry Barr Yes 1938 1980 Clifton, Coseley Yes 1050 1939 1963 Alexandra, Lower Gornal No (1939) 500 1912 1966 Classic, Walsall No (1939) 750 1912 1958 Beacon, Great Barr No (1940) Metropole, Birmingham No (1940), bombed '41 New Cinema, Warwick Yes 1940 Broadway, Walham Green No (1943) 816 1910 1955 Clifton, Brixton Hill No (1948) 998 1911 Embassy, Ilfracombe No (1950) 483 1948 1964 Beaufort, Ward End, No (1945) 1929 1978 Birmingham Norton, Kings Norton, No (1945) 1142 1938 Birmingham New Cinema, Trowbridge No (1945) Maypole, Kings Heath, No (1950) Birmingham
On October 18, 1951, returning from a business trip to London, Sidney Clift collapsed at Birmingham Snow Hill station. He passed away before the ambulance arrived ("Sir Sidney Clift Dies.") The later Kinematograph Year Book entries for the Clifton chain no longer list anyone as the Chairman of the Clifton circuit; prior to Clift's death, they had listed Clift as the Chairman and Managing Director with Ken Jones as the circuit's General Manager. After 1951, Ken Jones took full charge of the circuit, retaining the same title as before. By 1958, Clifton was no longer listed as a circuit in the Kinematograph Year Book: declining family audiences alongside the Entertainment Tax and the new enthusiasm for bingo began to hit the circuit. The Clifton in Fallings Park, West Bromwich, celebrated its 21st anniversary in 1959. The souvenir program produced for this occasion praises the advances in cinema technology over the previous 21 years, but, tellingly, notes that, "whilst this great progress has been taking place, a large number of cinemas have had to close down for ever, largely because of a high rate of entertainment tax on which we have only recently been given any relief" ("Clifton Fallings Park").
By the late Fifties, most of time local companies set up by Clift as owners of the individual cinemas had gone bust. Clifton Cinema (Fallings Park) Ltd. was no longer the proprietor of its cinema, which had passed into the hands of Midlands Leaseholdings Ltd. in 1959; the cinema was closed and demolished in 1961. Clifton Cinema (Great Barr) Ltd. applied for liquidation in 1957; Star Holdings Ltd. had taken possession of the New Theatre Royal in February 1966; (10) the Lye Clifton's local company, Clifton Cinema (Amblecote) Ltd., was dissolved on August 27th 1957 (National Archive BT 31/37366/351430); and The Coseley Clifton, which had been sold on in the early 1960s, closed on August 10, 1963. Harry Crane had managed the Coseley Clifton its entire 24-year existence. He "always wore evening dress every night, even to the bitter end, and could always oblige time patrons with a tap-dance on the steps" (Williams 12). According to Ned Williams, "he was given a week's notice and had to find work elsewhere," which he did, moving on to the Penn Cinema nearby (12).
Three Midlands Cliftons survive. Great Barr Clifton, is a derelict bingo hall, the Lye Clifton is a halal market hall, and the Sedgley Clifton is a tastefully-restored Wetherspoon pub. All are worth a visit, standing as monuments of a bygone age of cinema architecture, distribution and exhibition.
A table of all cinemas owned by the Clifton chain is included above. This has been compiled from a variety of sources, including the British Cinema Theatre Association's incomplete collection of the Kinematograph Year Book, the website <http:// www.cinematreasures.org>, Ned Williams' Cinemas of the Black Country, and holdings at the UK National Archives and the regional archives of Wolverhampton, Dudley and Shrewsbury. Even these combined sources do not provide a complete data-set; therefore, my research is ongoing. However, the table provides an indication of the extent of the Clifton chain.
The author would like to acknowledge the following archives for their invaluable contribution to this paper: The Steve Chibnall Archive; The Cinema Theatre Association Archive; Dudley Archives; Wolverhampton Archives; Birmingham Archives; The British Film Institute National Library; The Ronald Grant Archive at The Cinema Museum, London; The National Archives, Kew. The author would like to express his thanks to Elizabeth Brindley for providing contemporary images of the surviving Cliftons, and Charles and Gillian Rock for their suggestions and support in reading drafts of the research.
Anon. Sunday Chronicle 2 May 1948: N.page.
Clegg, Chris and Rosemary Clegg. The Dream Palaces of Birmingham. Birmingham: Privately Published, 1983.
"Clifton Fallings Park: 21st Anniversary 1938-1959." Souvenir Brochure. Archive of the Cinema Theatre Association.
Eyles, Allen. ABC: The First Name In Entertainment. London: BFI/CTA, 1993.
--. Odeon Cinemas 1: Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation. London: BFI/CTA, 2002.
Eyles, Allen and Margaret O'Brien. Eds. Enter the Dream-House: Memories of Cinemas in South London from the Twenties to the Sixties. London: BFI, 1993.
"Films." The Bilston & Willenhall Times (6 March 1948): 3.
Fletcher, Helen. "Why Pick On The Spivs?" Sunday Graphic 29 June 1947: N.pag.
"Good Time Girl." Daily Mirror 30 April 1948. N.pag.
Hanson, Margaret and Christine Wilkinson. Birmingham Cinemas. Birmingham: The History P, 2003.
Hornsey, Brian. Ninety Years Of Cinema In Leamington Spa. Privately Published, 1999.
Lawley, Peter. "Summer Waters By Leamington Spa." Unpublished CTA Visit Handout, 16 July 2000.
Lejeune, C. A. "Black Country." The Observer 29 June 1947. N.pag.
--. The Observer 2 May 1948: N.pag.
"Revolt Against Quota & Trading Terms Grows." To-day's Cinema (2 July 1948): 3.
"Sir Sidney Clift Dies." To-day's Cinema (22 October 1951): 3.
"Theatre Royal to Show Films." Midland Counties Express (25 April 1931): 11.
Williams, Ned. Cinemas of the Black Country. Wolverhampton: Uralia P, 1982.
Withers, F. Leslie. "Delay In The Town." Sunday Mercury (25 May 1947): 12.
--. "Crime Does Pay--At The Box-Office." Sunday Mercury (20 July 1947): 12.
Archive of the Cinema Theatre Association. Leyton, London.
Kinematograph Year Book. London: Odhams P, Issues 1934-1957.
National Archives. Kew, Surrey, UK. BT 64/49, BT 31/37366/351430.
Wolverhampton Archives and Local Studies Service. Wolverhampton, UK. WTON/9724, WTON/A-707. Also at <www.wolverhampton.gov.uk/leisure_culture/libraries/archives>.
(1) Gaumont-British, the third of the "Big Three" cinema chains of the period, was not as direct an influence upon the business plan of the Clifton circuit as either Odeon or ABC.
(2) Hanson and Wilkinson reproduce an opening-night list of the Kingsway's directors from 1924; along with Astley and Clift, the directors also include W. W. Turner, W. H. Bull and George A. Parker. These names frequently turn up in directorial positions in later Clifton cinemas.
(3) The first atmospheric cinema to open in Britain was the Astoria, situated on Stockwell Road, Brixton, South London. The atmospheric style, made popular in the late Twenties in the US, signifies a cinema interior that mimics an outdoor scene, with the ceiling decorated so as to resemble the sky. The use of mock-Moorish architecture is prominent in this type of cinema.
(4) The 1934 Kinematograph Year Book lists Clift as being elected Vice-Chairman of Birmingham C.E.A. in March 1933 (128). The 1935 Kinematograph Year Book indicates Clift's progression to Chairman (128). His obituary in To-day's Cinema notes that "in 1944-45 he was C.E.A. national president" ("Sir Sidney Clift Dies").
(5) The phrase "Black Country" refers to a heavily-industrialised working-class area of the British West Midlands, loosely including the towns of Dudley, Wolverhampton, parts of Walsall and Smethwick. Etymologically, the term refers to the natural abundance of coal in the area (known locally as the Thirty Foot Seam) and subsequently to air pollution deriving from the myriad iron foundries and steelworks based in the Black Country during the Industrial Revolution.
(6) I am grateful here for the observation of Steve Chibnall, who suggests that the prevalence of "Regal" as a name for ABC's cinemas may imply that Cinema Accessories' two Regals were constructed with the intention of leasing them to ABC.
(7) Data drawn from the 1940 Kinematograph Year Book, 401. The chain actually managed at least 23 venues; the purpose-built Coseley Clifton had opened on July 8, 1939, but is not listed in the chain's Kinematograph Year Book entry for the forthcoming year. See also Williams 124.
(8) It is worth noting here the film distribution system in the UK in the 1940s. There was typically a delay between the release of a film in London and the same film's release in Birmingham, followed by a further delay between the Birmingham play dates and the Black Country release. This delay between the London and Birmingham caused some dismay amongst the local film critics in 1947, causing F. Leslie Withers of the Sunday Mercury to bemoan the fact that "no one has ever satisfactorily explained why movies often go into cold storage between London opening and suburban release, and again between the latter and provincial release." He was, however, hopeful that this situation may soon change.
(9) In The Observer, Lejeune calls the film "squalid;" (Lejeune 1948) the Sunday Chronicle finds the violence "sadistic;" (Anon) and the Daily Mirror calls it "another of those unsatisfactory, unsavoury pictures which depend upon sordid brutality" ("Good Time Girl").
(10) Data drawn from the Tony Moss Collection, Cinema Theatre Association Archive.
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