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Hebden Bridge Local History Society

The Cinema in Hebden Bridge

Speaker: Kate Higham

Monday, 13 December 2021

As a committee member of Friends of the Picture House, Kate Higham is a real cinema enthusiast, and speaking to Hebden Bridge Local History Society she told the story of how cinema has been at the heart of the town since the early days of the travelling theatre tents.

The late 19th century race to master the technology of capturing moving images saw bitter rivalries, but no-one had really grasped the potential of the medium until the Lumiere brothers perfected their Cinematograph. This was both camera and projector, enabling large groups to watch the screen, and portable, so that cinema could travel from town to town. At first it was the technology that was the star, and the short films that were made showed scenes from ordinary life. The entertainment of the masses was music hall, and the short films were often shown as a post-script to programme of variety acts, only gradually becoming the main attraction.

Possibly the first travelling cinema to reach Hebden Bridge was in 1898, and films were also shown in the Co-operative Hall, but the turn of the century saw a greater demand for the newest entertainment. In 1911 approval was given for a permanent building, the Royal Electric Theatre and Hippodrome, with a design by local architect William Cockcroft. It opened in November 1911 and was so popular that a year later additions were proposed. There are recollections of 'the blood red tub', a wooden building with the most basic of seats, and of the snacks of tripe bits and chips purchased nearby to round off an evening's entertainment.

Throughout the First World War the Royal Electric thrived and by 1919 there was a demand for a more substantial building, which is the one we know today. Sutcliffe and Sutcliffe were the architects, and Oldfield Watson was the builder. The original plans show rows of seats very close together, with enough seating for 946. The grand opening was on 12th July 1921 and the cinema was given rave reviews as 'a fine place with elegance comfort and convenience'. Special mention was given to the gold upholstery and the lack of flickering in the projection. It was officially 'the coolest place in town.' The films themselves were now the main event, with an opening double bill ' Torn Sails' and 'The Iron Stair'. The manager was Selwyn Greenwood, who also showed films at the Co-operative Hall.

Cinema was thriving throughout Britain, and the Picture House had to fight off competition from cinema chains such as Gaumont and Odeon, but the popularity of going to the pictures soon saw Sunday opening, and the Saturday matinees beloved of generations of children.

The 1960s were a more challenging time with audience numbers falling, and the cinema closed for several months in 1964. It was rescued by local business man Lloyd Brearley who ran it on a shoestring until he was forced to sell in 1971. It looked as if its fate would be a carpet warehouse, until Hebden Royd Council stepped in to purchase it, with Brearley continuing as manager.

Over the next few years its future was precarious as the council tried to keep make budget cuts, but eventually money was invested in refurbishment making the building more suitable for live events. Cleaned and rewired, with electric lights replacing the ancient gas lights and rows of seats removed for better leg-room, it re-opened in April 1978.

Cinema nationally was struggling against competition from multiplexes as well as home videos and the removal of Government subsidies for the film industry meant that the Picture House remained financially precarious. Again the council considered selling the building, but protests from the Friends of the Picture House secured a temporary reprieve.

In a story as nail-biting as any old silent film, a plan to demolish the cinema was defeated by a single vote, and from 2011 Hebden Royd Town Council took on the lease, continuing improvements such as digital projection and live streaming of theatre performances.

Further hurdles have had to be overcome: the Boxing Day floods of 2015 meant the removal of the ground floor seats, and only the audience confined to the balcony, wrapped in blankets. A full re-opening in March 2016 boasted an improved foyer, with restored stained glass and the old brass clock.

And just when you thought it was safe… along came Covid! But the Picture House, like a true adventure hero, survived to celebrate its Centenary in July 2021… and so the story goes on!

At the next meeting of Hebden Bridge Local History Society at 7.30 on Wednesday 26th January at Hebden Royd Methodist Church, Ann Kilbey explores at the History of the House of Thornber: in search of the perfect egg laying machine. Visitors welcome (£4).

Details of the talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the History website and you can also follow the Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report