Tag Archives: 1930s London

Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle

The Trocadero, known locally as the ‘Troc’, opened on the New Kent Road on 22 December 1930. It was a ‘super cinema’, providing seats for more than 3,000 patrons, a large stage for variety acts and space for what was then Europe’s largest Wurlitzer organ.

Named after the famous restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, the aim was to recreate West End luxury for South London audiences – a feat the venue’s original owners, Hyams and Gale, described as ‘Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle’.

Souvenir programme from the Trocadero's opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk
Souvenir programme from the Trocadero’s opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk

The inside of the Trocadero, designed by the architect George Coles, was decorated in Renaissance style, with a vast balcony and curved ceiling. The mirrored waiting rooms were also a selling point, offering shelter from the traffic of what was one of London’s busiest junctions.

‘The Trocadero was famous, it was a beautiful palace. It was a dream palace. People worked hard and there wasn’t a lot of leisure, but you went to the cinema to see a western, gangster, musical comedy … the cinema was part of that magic. You went in and you were transported with chandeliers, gold staircases … looking back it was sheer escapism…’

Bobby Dow, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in Southwark News, 29 August 2013

Trocadero-Interior
The interior of the Trocadero, from the Cinema Museum website

The cinema became part of the Gaumont chain in 1935. It suffered some bomb damage and temporary closures during the war, but survived more or less intact, although there was much devastation to the surrounding area.

In the postwar years, the threat of destruction was more likely to came not from bombs but from audiences. By the end of the 1950s, the Trocadero had become a hang-out for Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls from the area, who were notoriously critical, and occasionally violent, towards visiting live acts (Cliff Richard was apparently pelted with coins when he visited).

Trocadero audiences made national news in September 1956, when screenings of the Bill Haley film Rock Around the Clock sparked riots in the auditorium. This followed a spate of similar incidents in cinemas around London and other parts of the country. On one of the worst nights of what the press dubbed the ‘rock’n’roll’ riots, audiences at the Trocadero slashed seats, while people outside the cinema threw fireworks and bottles at the police.

Poster for Rock Around the Clock (1956), from Wikipedia

‘There was dancing in the aisle to Rock Around the Clock and trying to get out of your seats, and the usherette used to smack you on the head, “sit down”! Outside the older boys and us used to be rocking the cars, to try to tip them over. It really kicked off at the Elephant over that film!’

Bill Leigh, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in the Southwark News, 29 August 2013

Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, 16 September 1956
Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, ‘Teddy Boys Riot When the Clock Strikes One’, 16 September 1956

In 1963, the cinema was demolished, along with much of the Elephant and Castle, in a large-scale redevelopment of the area. It was replaced by a smaller Odeon cinema, designed by Erno Goldfinger, which stood until 1988. There is now a block of flats on the site. The spot’s cinema history is marked by a plaque (unveiled by Denis Norden, who worked in the Trocadero in the 1940s) produced by the Cinema Theatre Association.

Manor Central Heights in 2008, from the SE1 community website
Metro Central Heights in 2008, built on the site of the Trocadero, from the SE1 community website

If you are in London, you can listen to more memories of cinemagoing at the Trocadero and other South London cinemas at the Cinema Museum’s Picture Palace exhibition, 21-22 September 2013.

There’s also more information about the Trocadero in these sources:

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Savoy Hill, 1923-1932

BBC Radio celebrated its ninetieth birthday last week. The BBC’s first public broadcast went out on 14 November 1922 from the company’s studio at Marconi House, on the corner of the Strand and Aldwych in central London. As the beginnings of the BBC overlap with the period of film history that I’m most interested in, I’ve been thinking a bit about the first impressions that radio might have made on London’s cinema world, and vice versa.

It’s often thought (and was sometimes said at the time) that the advent of radio posed a real threat to the livelihood of the film industry. Unlike cinema screenings, radio broadcasts could reach people in the comfort of their own living rooms – as long as the signal was strong enough – and were available daily for the price of a licence fee. Plus, in contrast to films, radio could bring events to people as they happened. In the 1920s, for instance, the BBC transmitted live relays of stage acts and musical performances from theatres and concert halls to wireless sets around the country. John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, summed up the company’s mission as bringing ‘the best of everything to the greatest number of homes’.

But, of course, radio didn’t kill off cinema. In fact, as historians like Jeffrey Richards have shown, the two industries found plenty of ways to work together, sharing stars and stories, and occasionally poking fun at each other’s peculiarities. And one of the first places that radio and cinema could be said to have met on friendly terms was in the studios of the BBC’s second home, Savoy Hill (pictured above).

The BBC relocated to Savoy Hill in April 1923. The building complex, which was also home to the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE), overlooked the Savoy Hotel and offered picturesque views of the Thames. Inside, the atmosphere was equally plush. The author Gale Pedrick later said:

Next to the House of Commons, Savoy Hill was quite the most pleasant Club in London. There were coal fires, and visitors were welcomed by a most distinguished looking gentleman who would conduct them to a cosy private room and offer whisky-and-soda.

The studios themselves were furnished with heavy drapes and thick carpets that sucked up the sound.

Studio 1 at Savoy Hill in 1928, from the BBC website

One of the regular visitors to Savoy Hill was the BBC’s first film critic, G. A. Atkinson. Atkinson, who also wrote film reviews for the Daily Express, was hired by the BBC in July 1923. Throughout the 1920s, he presented a fifteen-minute programme called Seen on the Screen, which went out once a fortnight at around 7pm on Friday evenings.

I haven’t come across any records of what Atkinson’s radio programme was like (although it would be great to find some), but his position as the BBC’s film critic was explained in a 1928 issue of the Radio Times:

More than ever in 1928, the movies are one of the symptoms of the way our civilization is going. No longer a crude device, interesting only for its novelty, or a ‘trick’ entertainment designed by the intelligent, the cinema as an art and as a cultural force has come to stay; and its importance as propaganda and as an industry is attracting the serious attention of legislators all over the world.
The films come pouring out of Hollywood in their thousands, and out of the English and Continental studios in their hundreds. No layman can see them all, but no one can afford to miss the significant ones. Hence the importance of listening to Mr. Atkinson’s expert and witty reviews of current productions in his fortnightly talks.

Atkinson’s Seen on the Screen was broadcast up to the end of the decade. At the same time, Savoy Hill also played host to the twenty-five-year-old film enthusiast, upcoming director, and son of a former Prime Minister, Anthony Asquith. Between 30 September and 4 December 1927, Asquith gave a series of five lectures on The Art of the Cinema. According to the accompanying programme notes published by the BBC, his first talk began by asking:

What is a film? Is it a genuine artistic medium? Or is it, like Broadcasting, just a way of bringing novels, plays or the latest news before a larger audience without changing their character – a sort of visual railway service for the art of literature and drama?

It seems that radio offered Asquith and his listeners another point of comparison (along with literature and drama) for understanding how cinema worked and what it could be. This comparison was surely going to be even more important with the transition to sound films that was then underway, and which would be more-or-less complete by the start of the 1930s.

There were other visitors from filmland, too. In his mammoth history of British broadcasting, Asa Briggs mentions that other ‘big names’ who featured in the BBC’s early output included the film-star cowboy Tom Mix, as well as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. If that’s right, the wires and microphones of Savoy Hill would have given these Hollywood performers a taste of things to come in the era of the ‘talkies’.

BBC technicians at work in the 1920s

The BBC left Savoy Hill in May 1932 to move to their new purpose-built premises at Broadcasting House. The building now belongs to the Institute of Engineering and Technology (the successors of the IEE).

Plaque commemorating the BBC’s time at Savoy Hill

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There’s more information about the BBC’s time at Savoy Hill in the first volume of Asa Briggs’ History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Jeffrey Richards’ book, Cinema and Radio in Britain and America, 1920-1960, gives a bigger picture of the new medium’s relationship with film. The image of Savoy Hill at the top of this post was drawn specially for the Radio Times by Henry Rushbury in 1927.

The Bijou, 1936

Here’s a fictional trip to the pictures. About halfway through Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, Ted, a greengrocer’s assistant played by John Loder, spots a shady character going into the cinema next door. The woman at the box office (Sylvia Sidney), who is also the owner’s wife, throws him a flirty smile and lets him sneak into the auditorium for the price of an apple – he gives the uniformed usher another apple for good measure.

      

The poster outside the cinema advertises a Hollywood Western called Two Gun Love, featuring the fictional cowboy star Tom McGurth. But, when Ted gets inside, the film being projected looks and sounds like a British comedy – perhaps the ‘B’ movie shown before the main feature. As with a later clip from Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin?, the scene that Ted walks in on acts as a counterpoint to the main action. Man (putting a piece of paper into the fire): “Well, all our troubles are over now.” Woman (pointing at the fire in horror): “Oh!” The laughter of the cinema audience provides a backing track to the sequence that follows, bumping up against the growing sense of tension.

The camera follows Ted as he carries on walking past the front row of seats, through a set of curtains, and behind the screen.

In an earlier age, cinemagoers at some venues could pay a reduced rate to watch from behind the screen like this. But not at the Bijou, it seems. And, in any case, Sabotage would be a very different kind of film if Ted really had just wandered in to see the evening’s show.

In fact, Ted isn’t a greengrocer’s assistant at all, but Sergeant Ted Spencer of Scotland Yard, in pursuit of a man suspected of a being involved in a terrorist plot. Masked by the sound of the speakers, he climbs up to a window to listen in on the shady character’s conversation with Mr Verloc, the cinema owner. But he is caught in the act. Stevie, the third member of the Bijou’s resident family, watches from the window as Ted tries to bluff his way out of a room full of conspirators.

A note on the location: in Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, the novel on which Sabotage is based, Mr Verloc is not a cinema owner, but the proprietor of a grubby bookshop. The Bijou is the invention of Hitchcock, screenwriter Charles Bennett, and art director O.F. Werndorff. In adapting Conrad’s novel, the film also shifts the location of the Verloc family from Soho to South London. The Bijou stands on the non-existent Plouthorp Road, somewhere in the SE5 postal area around Camberwell according to Mr Verloc’s headed notepaper. This district had seen at least one Bijou prior to 1936 (the London Project website lists a Bijou Picture Theatre on Denmark Hill that was active before the First World War), and it’s tempting to speculate whether there was a particular real-world model for the cinema in Hitchcock’s film. What matters more, I suspect, is the name in general. Bijou (French for ‘jewel’) had been a popular choice for the first wave of permanent cinema buildings in the 1910s. At the time, it was a way of connoting luxury, elegance and sophistication. By the 1930s, though, this seems to have translated to pokey and out of date. The cinema in Sabotage is a regular ‘flea pit’ – a time warp or dead end (quite literally for some of the characters). Its companion location in this version of the story – another of the film’s inventions – is a run-down ‘bird shop’, north of the river in Islington, where Mr Verloc sources his explosives. The Bijou and the ‘bird shop’ are survivors from another age. In both places, the inhabitants seem well and truly trapped.

There’s a section on Sabotage in Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock (1999), which discusses the cinema scenes. Steven Jacob’s book on Hitchcock’s architecture, The Wrong House (2007), gives a diagram of the Bijou’s layout. For a different perspective, see the second instalment of Jon Burrows’s two-part article ‘Penny Pleasures’ (2004) in the journal Film History, which traces the real and imagined connections between cinemagoing and terrorism in some of London’s earliest film venues.