Cinema came to rural communities


Dorset Council supported films in certain village halls, and these remained popular into the early 1980’s, says local guide Paul Birbeck.

In Shaftesbury, The Palace Picture House was at the bottom of the High Street, but was demolished in 1925. The Savoy Cinema opened on Bimport in December 1933 with “Maid of the Mountains”, starring Nancy Brown and Harry Welchman. It stood opposite the town’s largest church, which apparently caused some initial controversy. It closed in 1984, and was demolished in the same year to make way for what is now ‘Savoy Court’ residential flats.

Imagine a world with few domestic cars, telephones or television. No mobile devices, computers. internet or social media platforms. What would you do for entertainment? How would have spent your time and keep in touch with friends and relations?

Many people remember such times, some – those who hanker for a simpler, less complex lifestyle than we live today – with affection. My memories of growing up in the 1950’s are formed of climbing trees, playing sport, walking, cycling and exploring with friends. If the weather was poor we played board games and cards. The dark brown radiogram, record player and the crackly black & white TV in the corner of the lounge were the height of modernity. By the early 1960s, Saturday mornings often involved walking under the railway arches below Oxted railway station to the Odeon cinema, where eating popcorn and watching children’s films were more than satisfactory. Trailers for the adult blockbusters, screened in the afternoon and evening, only tempted young teenagers to unsuccessfully try and pass off as 18 years old to gain entry…

Early cinema in Dorset

In late C19th Dorset, early commercial cinemas, or picture houses, opened in Bournemouth and Christchurch and were the first to show short cinematic film programmes. By the 1930’s, cinema houses had started to open in most market towns and people began to ‘go to the pictures’

As the Hollywood film industry evolved through to the 1950s, Dorset’s town cinemas were supplemented by rural properties like chapels and village halls which were modified to enable the latest films to be shown. The film stars were the idols of the day.

Mobile cinema

In remote rural areas, travelling showmen provided Bioscope Booths at travelling fairs, enabling more people to see moving pictures for the first time. Mobile cinema units travelled around the county. These vehicles carried a self-contained generator and mounted projector which projected on a rear view translucent screen. In his book ‘A Century of Cinema in Dorset 1896-1996’, film enthusiast Peter Dyson describes evidence of such units touring the BV on a regular basis into the 1960’s.

In 1976 Dorset Communities Council supported a scheme which supported preferential booking rates for selected films in a number of village halls. These remained popular and well supported into the early 1980’s.
Today, cinemas had some success in fighting the competition of television, but they have never regained the influence they held in the 1930s and 40s, and audiences have dwindled. In the 1990’s we saw a boom in out-of-town multiplex cinemas, and the few remaining town cinemas invested in digital projection facilities capable of producing screen images that rival the sharpness, detail and brightness of traditional film projection. Only a small number of more specialist cinemas retained film projection equipment.

Now most people see films on television, via satellite or subscription on demand services. Streaming film content on computers, tablets and phones is common, proving more convenient for modern audiences and lifestyles. However, it is still possible to find evidence of the old movie houses in the towns around the Vale. For example, Sherborne once had four cinema facilities. Physical evidence has long disappeared, but posters, old photographs and contemporary personal memories are still shared on social media. In contrast, the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne has survived and flourished to ensure the ‘Magic of film’ lives on.

by Paul Birbeck


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