Preston's 'luxury-of-cinema' experience explored

Part of the display made by UCLan students about Preston cinemas
Image caption The display at the Harris gallery shows some of Preston's old cinemas

"Going to the pictures was more than a night out in the 1920s and 1930s - for a lot of people cinemas were their first introduction to luxury," says Dawn Hicks.

A century after Prestonians enjoyed their first film showing, Ms Hicks is one of five students at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in the city, to have rediscovered how important it was in residents' social diaries.

Their research, as part of a social history project, has shown that at cinemagoing's height, Lancashire boasted one cinema seat for every nine people, the greatest number per head in England.

And, during the 1950s and 60s, Preston had six cinemas in the town centre alone.

The students' interest in the city's cinematic past was initially inspired by a visitor to one of their previous exhibitions.

"A member of the public passionately reminisced to us about the huge number of cinemas which used to exist in the city," student Daniel Fielding said.

"We were keen to see how much society and people's social lives have changed in the past 50 years.

"It turned out to be a really interesting project and we think our display will be of interest to Prestonians of all ages."

The silver screen experience was initially hosted by the Theatre Royal, situated on the corner of Fishergate and Theatre Street. But it was demolished to make way for the new ABC cinema, which was officially opened in March 1959 by the film actor Richard Todd.

Going to the cinema had been a very popular form of entertainment in Britain during the inter-war years and by 1938 there were nearly 5,000 cinemas in operation.

Lancastrian George Formby took part in a charity concert in 1936 at Preston's Palladium cinema as well as using Stanley Street Mill as a film location in 1941.

The students' project mentor, Dr Billy Frank, said the work was an ideal way to help the students create something which would also engage the general public as well as be a valuable social research project for them.

"The best thing for them has been about talking to people and getting their memories of cinema," Dr Frank said.

"Going to the cinema was the focus of a lot of people's entertainment, and those people we spoke to said they really lamented the going of the city cinemas to these out-of-town complexes, these faceless cinemas.

First kiss

"People love going to the pictures. The students heard about people's first dates, first kisses, Saturday night at the movies - it's been such a big part of people's weekends."

The students were also given access into various Lancashire archives enabling them to build a picture of the social lifestyle in Preston.

Student Dawn Hicks added that for some, going to the cinema was a treat: "Plush carpets, ambient lighting, and glamorous film stars earned cinemas the name Dream Palaces. They were a long way from the mass multiplex cinemas of today."

As well as revealing the tastes of early Preston cinemagoers, the display also describes how the industry developed from the arrival of Ealing film studios to the latest Hollywood releases.

The students' display, which forms part of their degree course in History, Museums and Heritage, is at Preston's Harris Library for the next two weeks.

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