#HeForShe – Women at the cinema in 1950s Britain

by Sam Manning

The 1950s was a period of decline for cinema as UK admissions fell from 1.4 billion in 1950 to under 500 million by the start of the 1960s. Cinemas were still important social spaces, but greater television ownership, improved housing conditions and new forms of youth culture are just some of the reasons for cinema’s more marginal existence in the nation’s leisure habits. Declining attendance naturally led to closures and many of the first cinemas to cease business were smaller local neighbourhood venues. While many people attended the cinema less frequently, greater amounts of disposable income meant that they were prepared to spend more on individual trips to larger, more luxurious cinemas. As a cinema historian, I’ve drawn on a range of sources—including oral history interviews, press reports and sociological studies—to uncover how different groups navigated and experienced these social and economic changes in British society. My research shows that cinema attendance and leisure habits altered significantly throughout the life cycle as female cinema-goers moved from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood.

A view down a street towards the Alhambra Theatre in Lower North Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 1955. (via Getty 163246084)

Many early memories of cinema-going were linked to a small geographical area and show that children were often confined to the range of cinema-going options available in their local neighbourhoods. These memories often display links to parental supervision and are associated with family and domestic life. For instance, Ann Gorman recalled that cinemas were a convenient space for young mothers to take children and that women often took along babies in their shawls. As children got slightly older, they often attended Saturday children’s matinees at their local cinema. For many young girls, trips to children’s matinees represented their first cinema trips away from parental supervision and this led to different types of behaviour. Many female interviewees recall being at the mercy of misbehaving young boys who fired spud guns and dripped ice creams onto their heads from the cinema balcony. As children moved into adolescence, press reports often linked the cinema to poor academic performance and school truancy. In 1953, for instance, a ‘worried mother’ wrote to the Sheffield Star to complain that her daughter was doing poorly at school and thought only of the cinema. Columnist Christine Veasey advised her not to ban her child from the cinema as ‘this might lead to greater temptation on her part’. 

ABC Minors at the Ritx, Felixstowe, ABC News, September 1950.

As young women made the transition from school to work, they often began to attend the larger, grander and more expensive city centre cinemas. Sociologist M.P. Carter noted that young females especially preferred these cinemas as ‘they had been given the taste by boyfriends who escorted them there, and it was in any case more of an occasion to dress up and parade in town instead of just slipping round the corner’. These venues were often recalled as convenient sites for courtship, providing a space free from prying eyes and parental authority. Social convention dictated that the male would pay for his partner’s cinema ticket. Diana Goodall recalled that ‘if a boy had asked me out he would pay obviously’. But many women also recalled that males tried to evade this responsibility. Ann Slater, for instance, remembered that ‘if you had a date with a lad, they used to say they’d meet you inside so they didn’t have to pay for you to go’. 

The transition to adulthood often brought new domestic responsibilities which impacted on cinema-going habits. Mothers, for instance, often found it difficult to attend evening screenings. Sylvia Fearn confirmed this, stating that at her local cinema the early screenings were frequented by ‘young mothers who wanted to get back to put the kids to bed’. The closure of many local neighbourhood venues in the 1950s also limited parent’s ability to attend the cinema. The extra time and money required to travel to and from city centre venues made it difficult for many women to arrange appropriate childcare. Many other women who moved to new housing estates found that there were no local cinemas and increasingly spent their disposable income on household goods, such as television sets.

The place of cinemas and the importance of cinema-going in British society changed dramatically during the 1950s. The ways that women navigated these changes depended not only on their class or geographical location, but on their age and stage of the life cycle. The 1960s witnessed further changes as cinema attendances declined further and new leisure opportunities emerged for women.

Office staff of the A.B. Pathe Birmingham Branch, ABC News, November 1953

Recommended Reading:

Sam Manning, Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom: Decades of Decline, 1945–65 (2020).

European Cinema Audiences project website

Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Female Spectators and Hollywood Cinema (1994)

About the Author:

My most recent position was as a postdoctoral researcher on the AHRC-funded European Cinema Audiences project. I was previously an AHRC research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, where I researched the fifty-year history of Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast. I have published articles in journals such as Cultural and Social History and Media History, and my first book, titled ‘Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom: Decades of Decline, 1945–65’, was published last year. You can follow me on Twitter @sammanning88

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