19th March 2001, 1111 GMT
history of Bristol cinema
Whiteladies Road Picture House by Bill Sims
Road Picture House has been a part of Bristol life for over eighty
Whiteladies Cinema, or to give it its original name, the Whiteladies
Picture House, holds a unique position in local history. It is Bristol's
oldest working, purpose-built cinema.
From the outside it looks very much the same as it did when it first
opened its doors back in 1921.
The tower, a familiar landmark on Whiteladies Road, is still looking
down on today's cinemagoers as they attend the pictures like generations
of Bristolians before them.
It is still very much a traditional cinema, ushers on every door to
take your ticket and even show you to your seat if the programme has
There is a manager in an evening suit complete with a welcome smile
to oversee you in and then out when the lights come up.
The place offers a taste of how things used to be and how those things
still have a place in the modern movie-going business. Back in 1921
a group of businessmen put up the cash for the cinema and the opening
ceremony was performed by the Duchess of Beaufort.
Several years later, the patriarch of Bristol managers, Emmanual Harris,
owner of the Triangle Cinema took up the reins. The talkies came to
Bristol in 1929 but the Whiteladies held out with silents for as long
as possible billing itself as 'the home of the silents'.
The gargoyles on the side of the cinema contemplate the building's
But Bristolians wanted to hear as well as see their movies and soon
the tower rattled to film soundtracks rather than the tinkle of a
Golden years followed in the 30s as cinema all over boomed and by
the outbreak of war in 1939, thousands each week passed through the
The picture house survived the ravages of war relatively unscathed
but by 1945 audiences had started to decline and would continue to
plummet over the next decade.
The cinema was now an ABC theatre and the flagship of the chain in
the city but audiences were still falling.
Cinema did hit back with technicolor, 3D, stereophonic sound, widescreen
and other visual processes to combat the onslaught of television.
The 60s saw cinema audiences fall to a fraction of what they were
in the 30s. Whiteladies still had first call on all the major releases
each week and this bolstered audiences when many were struggling in
The theatre lost its flagship position in 1966 with the opening of
the New Bristol Centre, a massive screen that was the state-of-the-art
at the time.
Audiences were still in decline by 1978 and drastic measures were
being sought all over. The former jewel in the ABC crown was no exception
as its screens were tripled.
Two small screens went in downstairs with a larger one upstairs. Fortunately
the beautiful ornate ceiling remained in view as current manager,
Chris Armfield explained.
"The ceiling was retained but the proscenium arch surrounding the
old screen was lost, the current one was brought forward, but it's
still behind the present one in the void area," he said.
"Outside the marble staircase remains, as do the pillars but the marble
flooring inside was carpeted over in the foyer as most operators in
1978 were desperate to change the image and probably thought they
were improving things for the age they were in. The classic look was
something not wanted."
The 90s saw the advent of the multiplex theatre and despite the fact
that Bristol seemed to be the last major British city in the country
to get such an amenity, Bristolians embraced the new picture palaces
and audience numbers were again under threat at the traditional cinema.
purpose-built cinema in Bristol, but for how long?
During the 80s and 90s ownership and name changes took place.
Cannon, MGM and back to ABC which is now currently owned by Odeon.
During this time the legendary Brian Lewis was at the helm. He ran
the theatre with a rod of iron but was deeply respected and loved
by all the staff and a fair proportion of the customers.
Chris Armfield, took over when Brian retired in 1998. A time when
the cinema was under threat of closure, a decision reversed by a strong
local campaign which surprised the owners.
The Whiteladies Picture House always did and still does cater for
its local audience which consists of students and the discerning Clifton
resident. A fact that proves that the suburban cinema can still survive.
Chris Armfield is sure that cinemas like the Whiteladies have a place
in the modern industry.
"The multiplex cinema certainly helped in the resurgence of audiences
and the other thing was Hollywood making more films that large audiences
wanted to see," he said.
"The circuits picked up on this and started to market themselves
more, so ideas were bucked up. There is definitely a place for both."
the current manager of the Whiteladies Road Cinema
Now again under threat of closure after Odeon sold the complex, another
campaign is in full swing to save the site. Momentum grew with the
Press backing the cause.
The Whiteladies may be celebrating 80 years of entertaining Bristol
with a threat of death in the wings but the power of the Bristol public
can never be underestimated.
The grand old lady of Whiteladies Road with her tower is determined
to carry on well into the 21st century and I know where I am putting