Aspects of Cinema History in NI

03rd August 2021 3 Minute Read

Since April, we have been commissioning Dr Sam Manning to explore aspects of Belfast’s cinema history throughout the 20th century.

Sam has been writing about the history of cinema here for the last few years, and was historical consultant on the Queen’s Film Theatre 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2018. His book, Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom, published  in 2019 by the University of London Press, explores in detail the challenges that the cinema industry in Belfast and Sheffield faced as it declined from its peak in 1946. We were delighted that Sam gave us the opportunity to focus on his work, and here's all his articles in one handy place. 

Sam’s articles covered four key aspects: 

The Belfast Blitz of 1941 - focussing on the role that cinema played during the bombing of Belfast by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. Part 1 looks at the period before the bombers came, hearing from contemporary sources about the experience of cinema going at the time. Part 2 tells the story of the April raids, and the damage done to the cinema infrastructure and Part 3 looks at how the city and it's cinemas recovered from the bombing raids.

A Criminal History of Cinemas in Northern Ireland explores the seedy side of cinema life, combing the court proceedings to uncover how the political upheavals of NI life impacted on cinema in Part 1 and in Part 2 the ordinary decent crime that made the life of a cinema manager in the 20th century a stressful one. 

Stars, Celebrity and Showmanship looks at how cinema’s in NI used the razzamatazz of Hollywood to sell tickets and attract the paying public through their door. Part 1 sees Cary Grant on Fisherwick Place as stars appear in incongruous places to delight the movie lovers of NI and Part 2 looks at the more out there gimmicks used by cinema managers. Including Buck Alec and his lion. 

Sam’s last piece, Screening in a Conflict explored the impact of the Troubles post 1968. This was a period of huge damage to the film exhibition sector here as NI was subject to political violence, social upheaval and tragedy. Part 1 looks at the initial impact of closures and destruction on cinemas. Part 2 focuses on the human impact of the Troubles and finally Part 3 delineates how some cinemas survived and how the cinema industry recovered and ultimately thrived in the post Good Friday Agreement NI. 

If we can take one thing away from these articles is that for all the challenges, destruction and decline faced by the cinema industry in NI during the 20th century, the passion of audiences and the commitment of cinema workers has meant the sector has survived into the 21st century and thrives to this day. Given the impact of the pandemic, when the death knell has again been sounded, we should take comfort in the indefatigable need to sit in a dark room together and watch the stories of the world unfold on the luminous screen.

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