As part of their rather wonderful Making a New World exhibition (running until 31st March 2019) the Imperial War Museum in London have a number of immersive installations which focus on Armistice Day in 1918 and on the nature of the silences ceremoniously incorporated into Armistice Day celebrations since. Their ‘Moments of Silence’ exhibit introduces you to an inky black space where you listen to recordings of different silences, from as early as the 1920s to modern examples from school assemblies and football matches. In another room – the ‘Room of Voices‘ – you can listen to recordings from their sound archive of people describing their experiences on Armistice Day itself, and these link to profiles and fuller recordings online. Here you can listen to Dolly Shepherd who ‘wept because the silence was so awful‘ , and Ernest Argall who was so disillusioned with the war that he threw his service medals into the sea.
This exhibition set me recalling some research I did a while ago about the ways in which many people celebrated Armistice by going to the cinema. In fact, from the evidence of the reports in the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly, the cinemas experienced a boom during Armistice week, as people rushed out to enjoy themselves. Lighting and fuel restrictions were temporarily lifted, and cinema managers cashed in on the week by booking relevant topicals and feature films. Below are some of the accounts Kinematograph Weekly gave of the week’s events in towns and cities around the UK. Pity the poor exhibitors of Edinburgh who were unable to join in because local precautions against the Spanish Influenza epidemic meant that their establishments had to remain closed…
The wonderful news which came so dramatically to London on Sunday morning caused a greatly-to-be-expected cessation of business everywhere, except in places of amusement, which have been packed to the utmost extent of their capacity. London – and not only London but the whole of the kingdom – is en fete, and it will be some days before there is anything like a return to the normal. But what is the normal going to be? We had got used to living in an atmosphere of war, and restrictions had become part of our lives – while the war lasted. But what now? Already a little relaxation has been made. The lights are unmasked and the prohibition against opening places of amusement after 10.30 has been lifted – for a week. There are, of course, reasons why we cannot return to our pre-war ways yet – there is so much to be undone and so much to be replaced and repaired. But after that, will the burden of restriction under which we have labored – the prohibitions and orders and limitations on every hand – be tolerated? It is to be hoped there will be no question as to their removal in due course, for they have been burdensome, even though we are a long-suffering and patient people.”
[I’m illustrating some of these accounts with pictures taken from the wonderful Cinema Treasures website (links as the venues are mentioned)]
FROM THE AREAS pp. 93-101
MANCHESTER – A compliment must be paid to Mr Lauder of the Deansgate for having gauged the desires of the people by introducing the picture showing our boys marching into Ostend, in the trenches, in the battery and above all marching home. Monday, November 11 was a time of rejoicing. In the various theatres, notably Oxford Street and Market Street, Mr Plumpton and Mr Wright the respective managers had the pleasure of greeting enthusiastic audiences. Some usually staid renters were to be seen careering up Market Street, waving hats and banners. All the theatres were packed and record business followed.
SOUTHPORT – With the news of the signing of the Armistice the kinemas filled up as if by magic. The joy was infectious – more so than ever the ‘flu was supposed to be, even by the wildest alarmists. Advantage was taken of the temporary relaxation of the lighting restrictions.
BLACKPOOL – Needless to say, the dawn of peace was welcomed alike by Blackpool exhibitors and the public. The scene in Talbot Square on the Monday afternoon would have made a fine ‘topical’. The programs were victory ones, whatever the subject but councillor R. Fenton, the licensee of the Hippodrome, might have known what was coming for he had booked the Griffith spectacle HEARTS OF THE WORLD for this historic week. He had full and enthusiastic houses of course.
BIRMINGHAM – Birmingham celebrated the signing of the armistice in a manner befitting the second largest city in the UK, the pictures playing no mean part in the celebrations. And it is interesting to note that, despite the numerous counter attractions – bands, processions, fireworks, illuminations, the lighting up of the streets etc – the kinemas all played to capacity business. Both the New Street Picture House and the Scala were besieged with visitors all the week. At the last mentioned hall manager Charles Williams, the very second the restricted lighting order was suspended, had a 2000 candlepower half-watt lamp suspended over the entrance. Needless to say more patrons were attracted to this theatre, like moths to light.
NOTTINGHAM – Looking back over the crowded events of the past four years, the kinema trade in Nottingham may be heartily congratulated on its present flourishing condition. The first six months was marked by a general slump, then after a spell of good business, darkened streets and air raid fears dealt the business another nasty blow. This also passed and the last twelve months have been marked by phenomenal records…
Peace rejoicings have caused a falling off in the patronage of the picture houses in the city. The people have been too busy celebrating the Allies’ victory but the slump is but temporary and there is sure to be a big rush to the kinemas when the public resume their normal routine again.
DERBY – As much as elsewhere the picture houses of the town were the venues of joyous scenes on the announcement of the signing of the armistice. With folk taking up the holiday spirit the halls were packed on that memorable night, and everybody seemed to have forgotton the ‘flu. The temporary relaxation of the lighting restrictions gave exhibitors a chance to show some enterprise in illumination, and the White Hall in particular excelled itself with five large arcs and the dome lit up, while the numerous flags of the Allies made a grand display. It was a strange thing to see picture house signs all ablaze.
BARNSLEY – The kinemas of Barnsley have done war service of practical and valuable character. Barnsley as all the world knows is located hard by one of the richest mineral valleys in the world, and is the capital town of the Yorkshire coalfields, and the home of that great trade union, the Yorkshire Miners’ Association. With the coal, glass and linen trades enjoying locally record wages and the ranks of the toilers swelled by shell makers and women munition workers, the amount of money expended on necessary recreation has reached a height which has made the weekly receipts at the places of entertainment eminently satisfactory.
As a relief against the natural axietities of war time and a tonic to tired nerves and muscles, the Barnsley kinemas have provided just the medicine needed to keep indispensible workers up to scratch. That the movies are popular with the miners is abundantly evident by their constant and regular patronage of the shows which usually speaking are put on in Barnsley with discrimination and taste.
ROTHERHAM – One hardly realised there were so many kinema houses in Rotherham until ‘Peace Night’ where, with all exterior lights on full they helped to dispel the night gloom of the streets to which we have become so accustomed. Huge crowds were in evidence at each place, and the national airs provided by the orchestras were sung with much heartiness.
DONCASTER – The news of the signing of the armistice set the town in a whirl, and the kinema houses did a roaring trade. In celebration of the event A.L. Rhodes of the Picture House had open house, and the magnificiently appointed screen palace was packed all the afternoon and evening by cheering throngs, while special musical numbers were given during the day by the orchestra. The building was handsomely decorated with flags and bunting and the good work was carried on in a collection in aid of the sorely tried Royal Infirmary which resulted in £26 being handed over. With his usual generosity Mr Rhodes has arranged a big infirmary day for December 5th, when the house will be given over to the institutions, the whole of the proceeds being devoted to that very deserving establishement. In additions prizes are to be given to those who most nearly estimate the total takings.
BRISTOL – What a week! When the news that the armistice had been signed reached here on Monday the long pent up feelings of the people burst forth like a flood. Bristol streets were filled with a packed mass of happy people, laughing and singing, for to the public the armistice meant practically the end of the war… City kinemas did well, the order for the exclusion of soldiers was suspended much to the delight of the men in khaki, to home [them?] the pictures are a continual source of leisure, and for the time being other restrictions were relaxed. Naturally the crowds found their way through the doors of the picture houses and with lighter hearts than they have had for over four years settled down to enjoy the movies, which have been such a solace and comfort during the dark days which we have passed. War pictures and portraits of the leaders of the Allied cause were cheered to the echo when they appeared on the screen, while in several halls the audience joined heartily in the singing of popular songs. The Premier had a particularly appropriate film in ‘The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin” p. 103.
PLYMOUTH – The Plymouth kinemas had a great time on armistice day. Every house was packed and the dominant note was that of rejoicing. Patriotic music stirred the exuberance of the most loyal of loyal audiences, with their strong naval and military elements, and demonstrations were as fervid as they were sincere. Fortunately all the houses had first class programs and consequently exhibitors and public alike had every reason to be pleased with themselves.
Curiously enough the two principal houses had as their chief features propaganda plays, at St Andrews ‘Enlighten Thy Daughter’ made a great appeal and throughout the week there was no falling off in the interest it aroused. Large audiences were able to judge for themselves the justice of the claim that the film tells the truth without offense and the general verdict was that the theme is handled skilfully and with delicacy, and its tendency is all to the good.
GLASGOW – In Glasgow victory night and the night following will ever be remembered by the exhibiting side of the trade. Nobody was more surprised than the managers themselves at the effect which the ‘finish of the war’ had upon the kinemas. It was thought during the day that the people would be too unsettled in their rejoicings to dream of entering a kinema, but instead of empty houses the opposite was the result. Needless to say, special topicals were dug out and put on the screen, while the slides of the various leaders of the allied armies were also brought into action. As soon as these were switched on, the cheering of the audiences was terrific. It was a great night and business in the majority of places was top-hole. Similar conditions obtained throughout the larger part of the week, and in the country districts the kinemas came in for a fair share of holiday makers’ patronage. During the celebrations more than one picture theatre was rushed by wild youths, but in most cases the managers had anticipated this and very wisely obtained the services of special constables who were given a free picture entertainment until they were required. Taken all over, last week was a memorable one for the Trade.
EDINBURGH – It was the very irony of fate for Edinburgh managers that peace week should have arrived with the influenza restrictions still in force. This is not to suggest that Edinburgh managers are such material wretches that they would have liked the war to continue till the ‘flu epidemic was past, taking its restrictions with it, but there was a feeling that it was the hardest of hard luck that what should have been a record week was one of several which will rank as one of the most disastrous in the history of every house. For, far from the conditions improving and the public recovering from the scare which the public officials have very effectively inspired in them, things have gone from bad to worse and unless the restrictions are soon removed or the pubic begin to realize that picture houses are not more, but rather less, dangerous than many other places where crowds assemble it will save a lot of money to shut down altogether.
PAISLEY – The end of the war brought with it bumper houses. Every night was like a Saturday and the crowds were so eager to be entertained that they did not mind being charged holiday prices. (flu restrictions lifted too)
BELFAST – Belfast and Ulster, following the glorious news of Monday November 11, spent the whole week practically giving vent to their delight in memorable fashion, the scenes in the Ulster capital being far ahead of any of those witnessed on previous events. A great week, indeed, and certainly the film industry – particularly the exhibitors – achieved record figures in the matter of receipts. In every picture theatre throughout the city and province, the managements took full advantage of the historic occasion in beflagging the interiors (and exteriors) of their houses with the colours of the Allies, pictures of noted military and naval chiefs being flashed on the screen during the performances, the audience displaying remarkable enthusiasm. In the writer’s experience of almost 20 years association with Belfast, the scenes, subsequent upon the signing of the armistice by the Germans, impressed, and seemed altogether inconsistent with the reputable stoical indifference of the Ulster folk. Withall such occasions do not present themselves every day and in view of this fact the ‘running amok’ (protem) of the people’s pent up feelings and enthusiasm may be readily understood and overlooked.
NB all the pictures used here are taken from the Cinema Treasures website, and are subject to the Creative Commons licence.