They didn’t take it seriously at first in 1918 either.
‘Have you had the new Influenza yet?’ asked the ‘Kinetosities’ gossip column in the Bioscope in early July. The column observed that what with all the pressures of running a wartime cinema, ‘the prospects of twelve extra drills and the twenty hours police duty on the “point”, coupled with our usual duties and income tax,’ a good bout of the Spanish ‘flu would ‘be an agreeable change if it placed us in a recumbent position for a few days and kept people away from us.’
Even two weeks later, the paper could report flippantly that a film agent, well known in the trade, ‘who is always up to date, has had the fashionable influenza’. Nevertheless the seeds of a more sober response were visible on the previous page with the notice of the death from the disease of a Birmingham man in the prime of life (the agent for Ideal), ‘who was to have been married shortly.’ Five months later, with the war over, but the epidemic still at its height, the shift in tone was complete. ‘This ghastly influenza epidemic has claimed another victim,’ reported a correspondent from Manchester, discussing the death of another local trade man (Hornby of Deansgate Arcade), ‘It’s only a few days since I was chatting with him at the Manchester Kinema Exchange, and he was always such a cheery, good natured young fellow that his loss is doubly deplorable.’ The paper is littered with such reports of the ‘influenza scourge’ during the second half of 1918 and into the spring of 1919.
As today, these personal tragedies played out against a background of political indecision, contradictory advice, self-serving business principles, denial, and confusion over the causes of infection and the measures necessary to prevent it. At no point did cinemas close down across the nation. It’s not even clear that there was any mechanism by which that could have been ordered. Under the 1909 Cinematograph Act, cinemas were regulated on a local level, licenced by local authority ‘watch committees’, but even these had no power initially to force a cinema to close if the manager chose to defy them – their only recourse would be to refuse to issue a new licence when it came up for renewal. A couple of local authorities made this threat, much to the outrage of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (CEA).
The early months of the epidemic are the story of a constant struggle between local medical officers and local cinema exhibitors over whether cinemas should be closed. Again and again the Bioscope reports such struggles – in Mansfield, Birmingham, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Dundee, Leeds. The Bioscope reported that in Dundee, where ‘influenza has been rampant’, the cinemas continued to be open, despite the medical officer’s advice. ‘Packed “houses” are the rule each evening. We could never expect more advantageous times. The jute workers are making good money… In the cinema they get their most popular entertainment’. In most areas hit by influenza, though, cinema attendance dropped dramatically, partly because the military authorities banned their personnel from attending. This was something the managers could do nothing about, of course. Similarly, local authorities closed schools down, and here they requested that cinemas refuse to allow children into matinee screenings, although as the Bioscope and the CEA repeatedly argued, they had no power to compel this. Many exhibitors agreed with Fred Weisker, the Liverpool agent for Vitagraph, who argued that ‘though this intimation is at present in the form of a request, it might easily lead to drastic measures against the picture palaces unless willingly complied with.’ Nevertheless, much debate as to the efficacy of closing cinemas to children was aired and numerous individual managers defiantly kept their cinemas open, arguing (as the Bioscope itself did as late as March 1919) that ‘the children were as well at school, or even at the cinema, as running wild in the streets, or playing with other children in houses were someone is either ‘down’ at the time, or has been ‘down’ with the malady’.
Competing arguments about the actions appropriate to combat the epidemic tended to marry dubious theories about how the disease spread with the speaker’s own self interest. A typical example of such reasoning was offered in Aberdeen (where children’s matinees continued despite the medical officers’ advice). The local CEA calculated that only four cinema workers in the whole town had so far fallen ill. This fact, contrasted with the news that 25% of some English police forces were out of action was held to be ‘clear evidence that people were even more likely to catch infection out of doors than inside places of entertainment’. Such reasoning was echoed later at the CEA general conference, where Dr Fowler Pettie argued that,
…the talk about the danger of influenza infection in public theatres was all nonsense. The majority of people who had suffered from the epidemic were persons employed in the open air. It was certainly no remedy to take the germ laden air from the streets and pump it into the theatres.’
The Dr conceded somewhat contradictorily though, that ‘all cinemas had the good sense to employ their ventilating fans when… necessary’.
Ventilation, in fact, became the favoured alternative to closure both among members of the CEA and in official circles. When regulations were finally imposed via a General Order of the Local Government Board under section 136 of the Public Health Act in November 1918, they primarily involved stipulations about ventilation. Each cinema was ordered to close every four hours for a minimum of 30 minutes, in order for the auditorium to be thoroughly ventilated. The original order had stipulated three hours, but had been altered after energetic objections put forward by Frank Goodwin of the London and Home Counties Branch of the CEA, who argued that such a stipulation was
wholly illegal, being in undue restraint of trade, is vexatious to the last degree to the public, and would inflict grave hardship, and indeed in many cases disaster to the proprietors of cinematograph halls within the country.’
The order also granted local authorities the power to impose a ban on children in cinemas in areas where schools had been ordered to close.
Goodwin’s claims may seem melodramatic to us today, but it’s worth remembering that many cinemas operated a ‘continuous programme’ in this period. Every seat in the auditorium was filled at all times via a system whereby patrons queued at busy times, and ushers showed newcomers to seats as soon as they were vacated by departing patrons. Switching to a ‘fixed programme’ may have entailed a considerable loss of revenue. Exhibitors were also alert to the suspicion that the influenza epidemic offered the perfect opportunity for their habitual enemies to rehearse familiar accusations that the cinema was a den of vice, filth and depravity. ‘Exhibitors have two foes to fight’ mused the Bioscope’s Albert Bolton, ‘the ‘flu, and the exertions of certain individuals who are condemning the cinemas as “prolific breeding grounds”.’ In the same issue, a Scottish correspondent wondered
… why it is that the Press never boom the fact that cinemas have to be ventilated and the atmosphere at all times kept up to a high standard of purity? It is time the CEA had a publicity department to prepare a series of slides alerting the audience to the fact. They could also have a slide stating that common newspaper is a recognised carrier of infection, and advising patrons not to buy newspapers. This would get a bit of our own back.
It did not ease the paranoia of the trade to know that other venues where people gathered at close quarters were not subject to any of the same kinds of regulations. At Darwen (Lancashire) a CEA representative pointed out ‘the fallacy of closing down cinemas whilst employees are allowed to work in crowds in mills in an atmosphere far less pure than in the entertainment halls’, while at Nottingham, exhibitors complained that their treatment was disproportionate, ‘especially when they reflected that the leading, but worst ventilated, place of entertainment in the town admitted children to pantomime right through the epidemic, and also were free of any irksome restrictions’. This was a somewhat disingenuous argument though. The theatres were not subject to restrictions simply because its programme never lasted beyond four hours.
As the Bioscope was quick to advise, the best way to retain jittery audiences in times of infection was to assure them of the efficiency and viability of your ventilation and disinfectant routines. The example of The Cinematograph Theatre in Oxford Street was approvingly cited. This cinema had large notices displayed throughout the lobbies and circulation spaces, which announced that
This Theatre is
Sprayed Hourly with
and every Precaution
is taken against the Spread of
The Scala Cinema in Lime Street, Liverpool similarly ‘boomed’ its anti infection precautions – a block of camphor was apparently placed under every seat, and it advertised that it was ‘disinfected all day by a special and unique system which makes it influenza-proof. COME AND SEE IN CAMPHORED COMFORT’. Advertisements for a whole range of disinfectant products began to appear in the magazine’s pages – ‘Prefuma – The Ideal Vapouriser’, ‘Ozona solution’ and ‘Wesdenin: Antiseptic disinfectant’ each advertised themselves as the ideal solution to safeguard the health of patrons, and to ward off the prospect of closure. I’ve found only one example of any concession to the idea of social distancing – a cinema in Liverpool was granted licence to erect a rail at its entrance so that patrons could enter the building only two abreast at a time. Masks are not mentioned at all, except in one public information film, which will be subject of my next blog.
The crisis seems to have reached its peak just around the Armistice – a source of great distress to exhibitors in areas where the restrictions were in place, since in places where restrictions had yet to be imposed the Armistice proved to be a bumper week for cinema attendance. By January 1919 CEA branches were reporting the removal of restrictions in areas such as Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. The CEA annual conference congratulated itself on its swift action in ensuring the leniency of the official restrictions, as local branches lobbied for watch committee meetings to be brought forward so that restrictions could be lifted all the sooner, because as they declared in Hull, ‘the epidemic is over’.
They acted too soon. In February while business was reported to be ‘booming’ in Nottingham and Derby, reports of another outbreak of ‘the fiendish influenza’ were already appearing. Throughout March the CEA regional pages report that the ‘flu was ‘rife’ once again and restrictions were being re-imposed – in Wigan, Leeds, Durham, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby, Lincolnshire, Hull and Scotland (where the correspondent himself was struck down with the disease). In Birmingham and Tyneside though, having imposed restrictions a first time the local authorities decided not to impose restrictions again, despite the fact that their second outbreak was just as serious as the first. In Yorkshire, schools and cinemas closed once again to children in Leeds, although they stayed open in neighbouring Bradford.
It wasn’t until the end of May 1919 that the Bioscope’s Hull correspondent could finally declare that ‘the influenza order has caught the ’flu and died’. Did the experience leave any long lasting effects on the trade? It seems unlikely. It perhaps threw into relief some of the tension between the trade itself and the local authorities who controlled it. A number of watch committees sought to enshrine continuing powers to ban children from cinemas into their standard licencing agreements, and legal wrangles in those areas rumbled into the 1920s. Prosecutions of cinemas who had failed to abide by the regulations occurred in Plymouth and Clapham. Ventilation and disinfectant became a standard feature of the auditorium, but continuous performances returned as soon as restrictions were lifted, and continued to be a standard (although not a universal) method of exhibition right through until the 1960s.
Does the experience have any lessons for us? Well…
NB I have used the fabulous (and eminently affordable) British Newspaper Archive website to access the Bioscope. Where there is a discrepancy between the website’s page numbering and the (more erratic) original numbering of the magazine, I have cited the website’s reference for ease of return.
 Bioscope, 4/7/1918: 58.
 Bioscope, 18/7/1918: 80 and 18/7/1919: 79.
 Bioscope, 19/12/1918: 79.
 Bioscope 11/7/18:6; 25/7/18:19; 10/10/18:104; 31/10/18:89; 7/11/18:18; 7/11/18:85.
 Bioscope 7/11/18:80.
 Bioscope 10/10/18:104.
 Bioscope 27/3/19:104.
 Bioscope 7/11/18:81.
 Bioscope 16/1/19:20.
 Bioscope 28/11/18:7.
 Bioscope 14/11/18:19.
 Bioscope 31/10/18:63.
 Bioscope 31/10/18:85.
 Bioscope 19/12/18:19; 22/5/19:99.
 Bioscope 31/10/18:63.
 Bioscope 14/11/18:59
 Bioscope 10/11/21:67; 27/2/21:21; 27/3/19: 85.
 Bioscope 31/10/18:91.
 Bioscope 17/2/19:72.
 Bioscope 20/2/19:103.
 Bioscope 27/2/19:79; 6/3/19:102; 13/3/19:78; 13/3/19:94; 20/3/19:103; 27/3/19:109; 1/5/19:106; 6/3/19:85.
 Bioscope 6/3/19:107; 20/3/19:103.
 Bioscope 27/3/19:104.
 Bioscope 29/5/19: 110.
 See for instance, the dispute at St Helens, reported in the Bioscope 19/12/18:19; 20/2/19:4; 20/2/19:98; 27/2/19:107, and in Scotland 23/10/19: 105.
 Bioscope 23/1/19:5; 6/2/19: 34.
Further reading concentrating on the situation in America can be found in: