History Focus: A Night at The Flicks

“Saturday night at the movies – who cares what picture you see…” With the magic words of The Drifters’ hit song going through my head, I took to thinking about the entertainments my parents and their era had to amuse themselves. And before anyone suggests it, I am not talking about the “Good Old Days” or other such music hall entertainment, I refer to the innovation of talking pictures.

A very early recollection of mine was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, when it seemed half the population of the road was in our front room to watch the event on our new Baird TV set. This consisted of a square wooden tower into which a screen was built, which was about 18” square. My dad enhanced the picture by adding a Perspex magnifying screen, which at least doubled its size. This was the birth of television. But before then, there was another main source of entertainment…

The early days of cinema

Many may remember the early silent black and white films, usually Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, being projected onto a large screen with a pianist or organist playing accompanying slapstick music. Gradually the length of these films increased to over 60 minutes. Colour was added and then the “talkies” arrived. All over the country, the new revolution gripped the population as cinemas opened in every town.

The expression ‘a night at the flicks’ was commonplace. The term ‘flick’ comes from the word ‘flicker’; many associate it with the way the images flick through in those early 1900s film projections. But these films mainly jump because they are projected with technologies they were not designed for. However, the term stuck and is still with us today.

With the birth of the British film industry taking place before our very eyes down by Teddington Lock, it’s no surprise that Teddington had two picture houses – the Queen’s Hall and the Savoy.

The Queen’s Hall in Queen’s Road had taken over an old Salvation Army hall in 1910. It closed for extensive alterations and re-opened to a full house on 31st March 1915 as The Popular Picture Pavilion, with all proceeds going to the nearby Belgian Hostel fund. Unfortunately the engine broke down and the performance had to be abandoned, leading to the cinema eventually closing for good in 1916.

On the other side of town, Elijah Landen built a picture house named The Elmfield, which became very popular. It’s not clear when it was built but by 7 December 1929, The Teddington Picture House, as it was then known, closed for renovation. It re-opened on 6 August 1930; everything apart from the four walls had been removed and rebuilt, with luxurious seating, carpets and curtains. 

Teddington’s Savoy

The new cinema was highly successful. Before long, calls for an enlarged entertainment space caused it to be closed and re-built again. On 11 January 1937, it held its last performance. Now under the ownership of ABC (Associated British Corporation Ltd), the biggest cinema operator in Britain, work was hard driven to reopen as quickly as possible, and on 29 November 1937 this finally happened. 

It was claimed the Savoy represented the most modern in cinema construction, embodying the best in scientific knowledge and engineering skills. The building was entirely fire-proof, with the exits situated so that a full house could be cleared in two minutes. 

The 506 seats in the Circle and 1,068 in the Stalls were specially designed to give maximum comfort, and the carpets and fittings reflected the luxurious interior. This was a palace indeed. 

Thus began a long and happy association with ABC who would later take over the film studios at Teddington Lock. While Teddington now had one cinema, Twickenham had three and Kingston four. Some were ABC cinemas, others were owned by Rank cinemas.

Nearly all cinemas operated a Saturday morning children’s programme, consisting of one or two cartoons, a dramatic serial and a full-length feature film (usually Buster Gordon, a space adventure, Hop-Along Cassidy or The Lone Ranger, or some other western). Saturday mornings played to very full houses, and I was annoyed that my mum always sent me off wearing my school cap (which I removed as soon as I was out of sight and invariably lost!).

Even the luxury of the Savoy couldn’t stem the competition of the small screen; events like the conquest of Everest and the Coronation were hugely popular, and the rise in television sets was growing weekly. The Savoy finally closed on 23 April 1960 after a screening of Carry On Constable. The building was demolished and the AA Building (now Harlequin House) was put up in its place. And that was the end of Teddington’s cinema.

Ken Howe is a local historian and author of several books.


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