Engaging Leicester’s Cinema Audiences
READING TIME : 3′
The European Cinema Audiences project compares 1950s cinema cultures in seven European cities: Bari, Brno, Ghent, Gothenburg, Leicester, Magdeburg and Rotterdam. As a postdoctoral researcher, I have spent the last year studying Leicester’s cinema history, uncovering information about the programming practices of the thirty-plus cinemas that once occupied the city. While this research provides a wealth of information on exhibition and distribution during the 1950s, it does little to tell us how people experienced the cinema and the place it held in their leisure and social lives.
The next stage of the project, therefore, is to engage the people who regularly frequented Leicester’s ‘pictures palaces’, recording video interviews that capture their memories of cinema attendance. Each of the seven cities has hosted a launch event to promote the project and recruit participants. Over the past few months I have worked with project co-investigator Dr Pierlugi Ercole, discussing the best way to launch European Cinema Audiences in Leicester. The first challenge was finding a suitable venue. Though the buildings of several Leicester cinemas remain, they are no longer used for their original purpose. We decided, therefore, to host the event at the Phoenix, a cinema and arts centre located in Leicester’s cultural quarter. The venue already has a close working relationship with De Montfort University – members of the Cinema and Television History research centre often host events at the Phoenix and the university’s film studies students use the space for screenings and lectures.
Another challenge was finding the best way to advertise the event to an audience who may not engage with social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. I created a flyer which was distributed at a range of local venues, including the Phoenix, and Pier promoted the project on BBC Radio Leicester and in the Leicester Mercury. In spite of our promotional efforts, we were anxious that few people would turn up on the day. There is general public interest in Leicester’s cinema history, but were people willing to spend their free time to help our project? We optimistically arranged for thirty seats in the venue and hesitantly arrived half-an-hour before the event’s start time. As the clock ticked towards two o’clock, the room steadily filled up and we quickly provided more chairs for the extra numbers that arrived.
Pier began the day’s proceedings by welcoming the audience and introducing the project with a short promotional video. I then gave a short presentation on Leicester’s cinema history, showing pictures of cinemas and adverts to engage the audience. The mutterings from the crowd indicated that that they were keen to talk and had cinema-going memories to share. For the next half hour, we showed a compilation of archive material provided by the Media Archive for Central England. This included footage of Leicester’s 1953 coronation parade, the subsequent royal visit, the city’s Teddy Boys and its former factories. Several participants recalled the coronation events and one man told of his days as a Teddy Boy, roaming the Leicester streets in an Edwardian jacket and drainpipe trousers. We also played clips of 1950s cinemas, such as a news feature on the exhibition of South Pacific at a Birmingham cinema. This footage encouraged participants to discuss the social habits of cinema-going, such as courting in the back seats and opening fire exits to let children in for free.
Following the screening, we left time for participants to share further memories and to ask if they would like to participate in the project’s video interviews. The response was positive and many people even brought memorabilia with them, including photographs, newspaper cuttings and programmes. We printed ten copies of the Leicester Mercury’s cinema listings to encourage discussion and remind people of the names of Leicester cinemas. The listings for 1 June 1953 included the upcoming coronation activities and Frank Sinatra’s special appearance at De Montfort Hall. We underestimated the level of interest in these listings as many people asked for copies to take home.
We were delighted that so many people were keen to take part in the project and were enthusiastic about sharing their memories with us. I now eagerly look forward to recording the interviews and preserving the many of the memories that were shared during the event.