The Mass Observation project studied working class life in Bolton from1937-40. Researchers under the direction of Tom Harrisson would record every aspect of day-to-day life. Here Bob Snape head of the Centre for Worktown Studies at Bolton University looks at the importance of the cinema on life in Bolton

In his book The Age of the Dream Palace the film historian Jeffrey Richards described the inter-war years as the ‘golden age of the cinema’, a period in which the local cinema occupied a special place in the life of the community, one where people went regularly to be taken out of themselves and their lives for an hour or two.

Tom Harrisson thought similarly, noting that no study of life in an industrial town, or for that matter in any community in western civilisation, could be complete without a survey of the cinema and its role in everyday life. Conservative cultural critics likened the cinema to a drug, an opiate for the masses. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell more accurately observed that in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap luxuries had increased; although you might be poor and without prospects, indulging in a private daydream of yourself as Clark Gable or Greta Garbo, compensated for a great deal.

Harrisson approached the cinema through an anthropological perspective; what did it mean to Worktowners? In a pre-television era the cinema assumed a central role in Bolton’s cultural life.

The manager of Worktown’s Embassy Theatre told Mass Observation: “I’ve spoken to several of my patrons, all working class, and they don’t think they’ve been anywhere if they haven’t been to the cinema twice a week. You take any dispute concerning working people, in any mill or foundry in Bolton. During that dispute evening takings drop but afternoon takings go up. It proves that however hard up they are they still want the cinema, so they take the cheaper seats in the afternoon.”

Echoing Orwell’s comment he went on to report that Boltonians didn’t want clever films or hidden humour.

“They’re working all day and they come up here at night all dressed like dandies,” he said. “They feel like they’re on top of the earth; you’ve got to make them think they are. If there’s anything crude they like it, they think it’s a smasher. Look at Escape from Devil’s Isle. We were packed out, yet it was the crudest thing going. You could see everything coming.”

Bolton had 47 cinemas at the time of the Worktown project. Many were small concerns but those in the town centre were major entertainment venues. Their importance is reflected in the fact that the opening of the new Art Deco Odeon in 1937, with a seating capacity of 2,534, was a civic event, attended by the Mayor and with a band playing on top of the cinema steps.

Cinemas were also important as employers; in December 1937 the staff of the Odeon comprised a manager, assistant manager, organist, head doorman, doorman, fireman, two page boys, car park attendant and five operators. These posts were all occupied by men.

Women were employed too, with eight full time usherettes, three night usherettes, (plus three more Saturdays and Bank Holidays), two chocolate girls, three cashiers and seven full time cleaners. The manager boasted that it was an unusual thing for the doorman to greet everybody nicely in Bolton and that people liked it.

The Odeon certainly gave people a sense of pride in the town through what one patron described as its “spaciousness and beautiful decoration.”

Demand for the cinema was high. When in March 1938 shops selling Cadbury’s products issued tokens for the free Cadbury film be shown at the Theatre Royal, a queue of 143 people formed outside the cinema at 10am. to exchange their vouchers for free seats.

The Bolton News:

Abandoning its preferred method of hidden observation, Harrisson chose to undertake a survey on the basis that observation would take too long and because it would imply watching the same film several times to compare audience reactions.

The survey received the co-operation of cinema owners, who had an invested interest in what was from their point of view, free market research. A letter in the Worktown archive to mass observer John Martin-Jones of Davenport Street, from the Odeon Theatres London Office on November 1937, states the chain’s willingness to co-operate with the Bolton survey on the condition that scripts of any proposed book would be available for inspection.

The survey was based on the newly-opened Odeon in the town centre; the 1,200 seat Crompton with slightly cheaper prices than the Odeon, and the Palladium a down-market ‘flea pit’ opened in 1919 on Higher Bridge Street with seat prices ranging from fourpence to a shilling [5p.].

The survey was conducted through a prize questionnaire which asked patrons about their cinema-going patterns and providing space for free form comments. Five hundred responses were received. Overall musical romances were the most popular category of film, followed by drama, crime, nature and adventure films; least popular were cartoons, slapstick comedies and war films.

There were however variations within these; more women than men rated musical romance as their favourite category and at the Palladium crime was easily the most popular category amongst men, especially those from the 15-20 age group. The three things people wanted to see more of were humour, beautiful things and action; the three least were killing, politics and religion.

The greatest influence in choice of film was the trailers; almost a fifth of the respondents reported advertisements in the Bolton Evening News as important to their decision-making.

Like sport, the cinema was part of everyday conversation. Over the period of the Worktown project George Formby and Gracie Fields were the two most popular stars in Britain.

When Mass Observation visited a Bolton cotton mill they heard conversational references to George Formby and Gracie Fields. Both were significant figures in the cultural world of the Lancashire cotton industry. Both portrayed an imagined Lancashire identity and in Fields’ case, one grounded in the cotton industry in which she had worked as a spinner in Rochdale.

The Bolton News:

Described by Jeffery Richards as ‘the indomitable, eternal “Lancashire lass,” Fields resonated with cotton operatives through songs and a stardom which appealed to mill girls. One of her most well-known films, Sing as we Go was filmed in Bolton.

George Formby, born in Wigan, adopted an exaggerated Lancashire persona through humorous and sexually suggestive songs which played upon the everyday experiences of working class people. Mass Observation’s survey testified to their popularity, one respondent noting that ‘As far as humour goes in the British films I think that George Formby, the Famous Lancashire Comedian, just about tops the bill’, while another believed Gracie Fields boosted morale.

Both Formby and Fields spoke with a south Lancashire accent and exhibited a performed Northernness that was not only culturally homogeneous with Worktown, but also distinct from the ‘other’, which prevailed beyond the boundary of Lancashire and the ‘north’.

There was in the 1930s a fear of Americanisation - a supposed erosion of English culture by mass-produced American culture in the forms of jazz music and dance, pulp fiction and the cinema. Evidence of this in Bolton was the adoption of American words and phrases such as “dollar” and “Mae West” in conversations recorded by Worktown observers.

Mass Observation asked Bolton respondents which were the best films, British or American , where 60 per cent thought American; only 19 per cent thought British with the remaining 21 per cent seeing no difference.

The Bolton News:

Responses to the survey were measured and thoughtful, suggesting that that regular filmgoers were not passive dupes but were active and engaged consumers able to express reasoned judgment of films. A 20-year-old man from Daubhill for example, felt that British studios gave insufficient attention to detail, with actors who “seem too stiff, as if they were members of a very inferior dramatic society”, for example the landlady in ‘Everything is Rhythm’ who spoke her lines as they were written and so lost all chance of being as a cinema-goer expects - natural”.

A further respondent stated: “In my opinion the American films are far superior to the British films, the majority seem to be stunted and too artificial. The players themselves in American films have a knack of living the part they are acting, and the players in British pictures, mostly seem to be ‘acting’ the part they are supposed to be living.”

Other responses included: “I’m sorry to say British films are rotten, but they are and The Odeon is the home for them; you certainly push them thick and fast, and believe me, it’s too much trouble for British Film Stars (if you want to call them that), to open their mouths to speak properly.”

“I definitely do not like American films. I do not like their accent and I do not like these sex appeal films. What I do enjoy is a clean British film, one a man can take his wife and family to see without being uncomfortable at any suggestive remark or action.”

Several respondents cited the newsreels as an important element of a visit to the cinema as, in the words of a young woman from the Crompton survey “ the only way of keeping touch and realising what is happening every day”.

Irrespective of where they were made, Worktowners were quick to express displeasure with any film failing to reach their expectations. As Tom Harrisson noted, cinemas like those up Deane and at the Crompton got only second round films and changed them twice a week because they rely on local people. When observer Frank Townsend went to see ‘Camille’, starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor at the Crompton Cinema the audience booed the film off; it was quickly replaced the following day by Trader Horn, advertised as “by public demand” and with three daily showings at 2.30, 6.30, 8.40.

The importance of the cinema to Worktowners can hardly be over-stated. In a time of economic uncertainty it provided a cheap form of entertainment for all social classes and a topic for daily conversation.