A Timeline of 20th Century British Cinema: From 1910-2000
Throughout my time at university, I’ve been both volunteering and working at The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Here, I’ve come to learn a lot about the history of British Cinema, especially its development in the 20th century. In celebration of ‘Arts’ month at the maker, I thought I would take our readers a trip down memory lane.
Marking the beginning and end of the Edwardian age, the cinema in this period represented a period of growing prosperity and intense class struggles, as well as increasing mobility and invention. This led to the cinema becoming ‘the peoples’ form of entertainment.
The 1909 Cinematograph Act, under which cinemas became licensed, created a boom in the building of purpose-built cinemas. Combined with increased investment in brick-and-mortar production, the cinema business began to evolve. Furthermore, several film companies, such as Pathé and Gaumont, were established as moviegoers flocked to consume the new (and newly accessible) medium.
During this decade, many cinemas launched the showing of regular newsreels, a phenomenon which would gather momentum in 1911 with the launch of many competing newsreel suppliers. The headlines would play at the start of every screening informing the cinema goer of current affairs. Films were still silent and popular topics included the development of science and nature, with the fiction film we know and love today was evolving at a much slower pace.
Yet despite seismic technological and legal advances, the global events were far more repercussive and wide-reaching. The First World War greatly affected the film industry in Europe. Films became an important source of information for working class audiences and attempted to rouse patriotism at the home front as its main genre.
Post-war, with construction limitations lifted, ‘super cinemas’ began popping up around the country hosting 2,000+ seats. Many cinemas began combining live acts and films, providing live performances as a ‘preshow’ before the movie.
The first film with sound was released in the 1920s- “The Jazz Singer,” with the genre being coined as the ‘talkies.’ For a while, talkies and silent cinema continued to coexist as converting to ‘talkie’ technology was a gradual process.
Hollywood become the prominent force in the film world, with British cinema becoming more ‘Americanised,’ leading to fears over a loss of British culture. Despite these concerns, cinema became a much more creative medium. Writers and thinkers of all kinds opined on the growing medium; Virginia Woolf’s critical essay ‘The Cinema’ notably explored the potential of this incredible new form of art. The cinema became a means of capturing senses and emotions too abstract to be represented in other artistic formats, allowing cinema to perfectly capture the world as it truly was.
Coined the ‘Golden Era’ of British cinema, tickets sales and movie production peaked in the decade of the Fabulous Forties. In 1940, cinemas were closed due to fears the buildings would become targets for air raids in the newest World War. However, they were soon reopened once the government realised the cinema’s potential for spreading wartime propaganda across British society with propagandist messages threaded, implicitly or explicitly, into the decade’s feature films.
Even after the war ended, national hardship remained. Given its status as the only cheap form of mass entertainment that Britain’s working classes could access, a small luxury during destitute times, the cinema flourished once more. The end of the 1940s marked the beginnings of the ‘social problem film’, which integrated social, political issues into the individual conflicts of cinema’s protagonists.
Yet despite this post-war flourishing, the 1950s marked a period of cinema closures across the UK, with many justifying a decline of visitations with a decline of standard. Shadowed by the golden age of British cinema, many 1950s films failed to impress at the box office. While war films remained popular, comedies and horrors also seemed to do well in this period. Many of Britain’s greatest directors had migrated to Hollywood, with the UK faltering behind their American counterparts.
The 1960s marked yet another period of transition in British cinema. Many of the great wartime film studios had collapsed and been replaced by American studios. American corporations began investing in British studios, keeping the domestic industry afloat.
Socially conscious films became popular, with many Northern, working-class anti-heroes dominating the big screen. James Bond was also born in this period, becoming a staple of British cinema.
With the rise of ‘Swinging London’ in the 1960s, many films produced were centred around this enthralling, expressive culture. This British buzz also drew in overseas directors causing an increase of films being produced in Britain.
Many see the 1970s as a period of British cinema that is best to be forgotten. With funding problems, falling audiences, the increased competition of small screens– not to mention Thatcher’s budget cuts to state funded cinema– the movies were struggling.
Two genres of film dominated during this time: low-brow sex comedies and horror. Many studios tried to complete with small-screen entertainment by producing ‘spin-off’ movies from people’s favourite TV shows. Though, the TV medium struggled to adapt to the big screen.
However, many personal works thrived in this period, with individual projects gaining remarkable success in the box offices despite their tiny budgets, functioning outside the traditional distribution chain. Notably, many minority groups broke through to the film making industry with some BAME and LGBTQ+ creatives beginning to see their works on the big screen.
Many of the major studios began pulling out of Britain in the 1980s. Cinema faced harsher competition from video and television. As well as this, the Conservative government scrapped the Eady Levy (1950), a tax on box office receipts, which subsidised film production. As most studios downsized, companies operated on a smaller scale with films conceived on modest budgets. Yet alongside this decrease in cinematic excess, many big-budget epics were still produced.
During this decade, cinema wished to foster links with their greatest competitor, TV. Cinemas made agreements with channels to lengthen the period between TV and Cinema release. The music video also became popular, with their aesthetics beginning to inspire cinema.
Female directors also came into their own in this period as well as the start of the golden age of animation.
As Britain galloped towards the turn of the century, investment in British film production started to rise as new tax incentives allowed American producers to invest in British films. This era marked the rise of the dramatic comedy and rom coms. Cinemas tried new means to lure their audiences away from the easy comfort of their TVs. Studios began investing vast amounts in special effects, enticing people into watching films on the big screen. Later in the decade, cinemas began exercising in-cinema experiences, such as 3D glasses, to differentiate them from their competitors.
Many big franchises also took off in this period, perhaps most notable of which being the Harry Potter series. This was also the UK Film council’s final decade of production before its abolishment, crafting many cult classics.
Film has undergone intense transformation across the 20th century. A silent cinema goer in the 1910s surely could not have dreamed of the effects of modern-day productions. We’re thinking about this here on The Maker this month, with a general theme of the arts rounding out our Summer of Literature 2022. We’d love to hear your thoughts on modern-day cinematic advances and inventions. You can send your reflections to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by The Maker’s digital intern, Anna Craig