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BBC Bristol Online: The website that loves Bristol ...
BBC Bristol Online > Features

Monday 19th March 2001, 1111 GMT
The history of Bristol cinema
Whiteladies Road Picture House by Bill Sims
The main building in Whiteladies Road
The Whiteladies Road Picture House has been a part of Bristol life for over eighty years.
The 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.
The cinema tower


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 commenced.

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'.
Gargoyle
Gruesome: The gargoyles on the side of the cinema contemplate the building's future.


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 lone pianist.

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 double doors.

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 city.

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.
A close up of the tower
The original cinema tower


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.
The plaque in the cinema
The oldest 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."
Chris Armfield
Chris Armfield, 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 my money.

BILL SIMS
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