Rediscovering Scotland’s cinema glory

Gordon Barr 24 March, 2010 2

Bo'ness Hippodrome

Despite the loss, closure or conversion of most local Scottish cinemas to other uses, there are still a few places where you can see a film in a building with real history, character and silver-screen glamour, as Gordon Barr writes.

Glasgow Film Theatre

Glasgow, once known as Cinema City for the large number of cinemas it supported, now only has one traditional cinema left in the city centre. The Glasgow Film Theatre was the first purpose-built arts cinema outside of London, originally opening as the Cosmo cinema, and has recently celebrated its 70th year showing films.

The cinema was advertised under the slogan ‘Entertainment for the Discriminating’, with the cartoon character of the bowler-hatted Mr Cosmo a familiar sight in newspaper adverts of the time. The stylish, curving lines of the main Screen 1 formed what was the balcony of the original single screen cinema.

The Cameo

Cameo cinema

Edinburgh's Cameo cinema

In Edinburgh, the Cameo cinema has been showing films since January 1914, and it’s now possible to sit in this stunning Edwardian interior, surrounded by delicate carved plasterwork, looked down on by elegant cherubs, while watching a film projected using the latest digital technologies – a perfect combination of the old and the new.

Unusually, the Cameo has a flat roof, which is used as a drying green by the tenements round about – making it possibly the only cinema in the world where the projectionist has to go up and ask kids not to play football on the roof when there’s a film on!

The New Picture House

New Picture House

St Andrews New Picture House

Since 1934, visitors and residents of St Andrews have been enjoying seeing films at the New Picture House; a rare cinema where you can still choose whether to sit in the stalls or the balcony of its main screen.

The auditorium is decorated with a series of painted panels, showing aspects of the town, including the golf course, and the cinema itself. The building is full of historic details, including the remains of its gas lighting system – now no longer used!

The Picture House

Picture House

Campbeltown's Picture House

Further afield, the Picture House in Campbeltown is a unique survivor – Scotland’s second oldest surviving purpose built cinema, opened in May 1913.

The Picture House is one of the few cinemas anywhere in the UK to have an interior built in the ‘atmospheric’ style – a short lived fad where the inside of cinemas were decorated to make it feel like you were sitting outdoors watching a film.

The ceiling was painted and lit to look like a starry sky, with moving clouds projected across it, and small plasterwork buildings on either side of the screen created the ambiance of a Mediterranean courtyard.

The Picture House still retains its unique atmosphere and appeal, and, over 90 years since it opened, and having outlasted and survived bigger, and grander cinema competitors, bingo operations, and numerous threats of demolition, the ‘Wee Pictures’ enters its tenth decade very much looking to the future…

The Bo’ness Hippodrome

Bo'ness Hippodrome

The Bo'ness Hippodrome

In Bo’ness, the Hippodrome was opened on 11th March, 1912. Owner/Manager Louis Dickson was a showman, and wanted his own venue to show films in, including short local topical films he filmed himself, several of which survive to this day.

The name and circular form of the building might suggest it was originally designed as a circus or theatre venue for travelling shows, but the earliest known plans, dated October 1911, show no evidence of this, but are indeed are labelled as a ‘Proposed Picture Palace’. The plans also note that the toilets were ‘to be added later’!

The Hippodrome has a very good claim to the title of the oldest surviving purpose-built cinema building in Scotland. The cinema had closed after a long period as a bingo hall in the mid-1980s, and became sadly derelict.

Unlike many other similar buildings though, this story has a happy ending – the Hippodrome re-opened as a cinema in 2009 after 20 years of dereliction and a multi-million pound refurbishment, as the centrepiece of the regeneration of Bo’ness town centre.

It’s now both Scotland’s oldest – and newest! – cinema, with modern digital projection, and a choice of modern or traditional cinema seating. It has also revived another age-old Scottish cinema tradition – that of children getting into films for the price of an empty jam jar.

The Hippodrome now has monthly Jeely Jar Specials when you can bring a clean jeely jar with matching lid and get two tickets for the price of one! (The toilets were indeed added later).

While the hey-day of a cinema in every town is sadly long gone, the gradual trend away from bland multiplexes to smaller, boutique cinemas does allow the best remaining cinemas of the past to thrive, offering something truly different – a sense of atmosphere and a history from the golden age of the cinema.

Gordon Barr, joint-editor of the scottishcinemas.org website which covers over 1,100 cinema buildings throughout over 240 locations around Scotland, has a passion for trying to stop interesting old buildings from being knocked down and turned into expensive flats. If you have any memories, photographs or other ephemera relating to any of Scotland’s traditional cinema buildings, email him at info@scottishcinemas.org.

All images copyright Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project, except the Bo’ness Hippodrome images, copyright miss mass on Flickr.