Friday, October 4, 2019

Bridgwater, Somerset


Domes and silk stockings

I make occasional trips to Somerset and sometimes, having left the house early, stop off for a coffee somewhere en route. Bridgwater is one of my occasional stopping places. To some, it’s an unassuming town with a rather nondescript High Street, but there are plenty of architectural discoveries to be made (one of the best early Georgian streets in Britain, a Victorian concrete house) for anyone prepared to look. This building, with its square dome, is a landmark at one end of the town and it quickly caught my eye. ‘An early-20th century theatre,’ I thought to myself, and I was partly right. What was originally the Empire Theatre opened in 1916 with a performance of a play called A Pair of Silk Stockings. But the venue showed movies as well, making it one of the first wave of cinemas in Britain, a wave that was turning into a steady stream by 1916, as more and more people began to want to see ‘moving pictures’.*

If some of the very first purpose-built cinemas were rather anonymous-looking buildings with little to identify them apart from large boards for posters advertising what was showing, some adopted a theatrical look, or were indeed converted theatres or dual-purpose buildings like the Palace. Already, some people were starting to realise that a showy or glamorous looking facade with features like the Palace’s tower and dome, and its round window, decorative swags, and classical pilasters, helped draw the eye and bring in the customers.† A good 700 people per screening were accommodated in the interwar period, followed by many members of the armed forces when it became an ENSA venue during World War II.¶ But afterwards it was less successful, as going out to a film was steadily replaced by staying in and watching television. After a long period unused in the 1980s and 1990s, the Palace became a night club, like many of its kind. It may look a little dishevelled, but it’s still an eye-catcher.

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* Britain’s first cinema opened in London’s Regent Street in 1896. By 1909 the wave was starting to break, with cinemas in places as diverse as Birmingham and Colwyn Bay.

† It was said originally to have been in the Moorish style; I wonder if that means the interior. The outside seems solidly Classical.

¶ ENSA: Entertainments National Service Association, set up to provide entertainment for members of the forces during the war.

2 comments:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

There is a pleasing Neo-Baroque ex-cinema dated 1912 at Trefforest, Pontypridd, South Wales.
The 'Cecil' also served as a snooker hall and second-hand washing-machine shop. You could probably do a whole blog on ex-cinemas - I remember some in Birmingham that were exciting and luxurious, chunky brick 1930's, etc.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you for telling me about the 'Cecil'. There's an impressive art deco ex-cinema in Worcester that's a furniture shop, and several in London that now have religious uses.