08 January 2005

The history of cinema in Canton

Last essay for y'all. This was written for the first year of film and video, as part of our module on early cinema. It's pretty dull. I fucking hated writing it but did alot of research and got an A for the fucker. Just so you know; Canton is the area of Cardiff I live in.

A history of cinema in Canton

In this essay I shall be discussing the history of cinema in Canton, particularly the three theatres that have made this area their homes; The Canton Cinema, The Coliseum and Chapter Arts Centre, which is the only of the three which is still open today. I will be asking the question “has cinema changed?” and bringing to light the personal recollections of one Dennis Pope, owner of Pope’s Photography on Cowbridge road, and co-founder of the now defunct Canton Cinema Appreciation Society.

Canton Cinema first opened in 1913 . It would show second-run films and was a very suave affair. Originally showing silent films, it converted to sound in 1929, one year after the first theatre in Cardiff, Queen’s cinema, did so. Based on this fact it is clear that the owners desired to keep up with the latest developments in technology and obviously had the capital with which to do so. It closed in 1960 and is currently a supermarket. Interestingly it is minutes away from Chapter Arts Centre which, during the Canton’s heigh day, would have been a High School.

It’s rival in the area was the Coliseum, known to locals as “the collar”. Described as a ‘bug house’, it was a more down market affair than the Canton, and was not as popular with the locals. As such didn’t do nearly as well as its competition. It would show mainly B pictures, with the more ‘posh’ films being shown at the Canton. The introduction of bingo to Cardiff in the 1960s led to a large drop-off in cinema going as the game became the entertainment of choice and in the end the Coliseum itself became a bingo hall. It finally closed in 1986 with the owner stating “It is a sad day for me, we can’t compete with the larger halls with the big prizes”. Ironically the building was brought by Castle Leisure who turned the place into a custom-build Bingo hall which is still there to this day.

Chapter Arts Centre opened in 1971 after two years of planning and rallying by two local artists, Christine Kinsey and Bryan Jones, and journalist Mike Flood. It was their dream to create a place where local artists of all disciplines would have the space and resources to practice their crafts. The first Cinema screen opened in Chapter in playing “she’s gotta have it”, the first film by writer/director Spike Lee. For the purpose of this essay I went along to chapter to interview Cinema Programmer Tony Whitehead, and his assistant Matt Beere, to gain some illumination.

Tony Whitehead is the head of the cinema department, an upbeat middle-aged fellow with an obvious passion for cinema. He is responsible for filling the screening programme at Chapter and also for the write-ups that appear in the Chapter brochure. His earliest film memory is of seeing Snow White with his mother when he was three, which he found terrifying, but still found himself seeing it again the following week. When I spoke to him he went to great lengths to state the ‘marketing niche’ that Chapter filled. “We offer an alternative to the multiplexes… we provide reading notes, offering insight into the films we show, which are available to people if they want them… It’s a form of added value.”

When Tony started at Chapter, some seven years ago, there were no multiplexes in Cardiff, only the high street Odeon’s and the ABC. But since their introduction there has been more competition for prints.

“When the UGC opened, which shows a selection of independent and foreign language films, we found there was a drop off in attendance, but this didn’t last and the Chapter core audience came back. There was a novelty factor in seeing those kinds of films in a multiplex but people found a lack of atmosphere. Also, sometimes kids would wander in not realising it was a foreign language movie and would then proceed to talk through the film… Sometimes there has been a conflict of interest. For example, a distributor promised us first run on a certain film, only for us discover that the UGC were playing it on its London release date and not its regional, two weeks before we were. We do not wield as much power as the chains.”

Matt Beere’s role at Chapter is to support Tony, to deliver the cinema programme in a smooth and timely fashion. He is also responsible for trailers and programme notes. He studied “Theatre, Media and Drama” at Glamorgan University and when he . His earliest film memory is seeing “The Care Bear movie” (Arna Selznick, 1985) when he was 7 years old. Asked about his opinion of Chapter he stated “It’s to do with choice.”

Chapter has always been community-orientated, giving talks and tours to local schools, allowing pupils to at least get out of double-math, encouraging them to take an interest in art from an early age. In this way they differ from the multiplexes which, it seems, merely process their customers. “…it’s not a one way street,” as Tony succinctly put it. When asked if he felt that cinema had changed he replied "It's changed alot it terms of means of delivery, I mean, you can now download films off the internet and watch them on your computer and if you wanna watch lord of the rings on a screen THAT big then your welcome to, but I'd argue that your missing something. Overall I don’t think much has changed." I would find this Point-of-view, that Cinema is pretty much the same as it always was, when I interviewed Dennis Pope later that day.

Dennis Pope (71) is the proprietor of Pope’s photography on Cowbridge road, which he inherited from his father in 1965. “My father was the best black and white developer in Cardiff,” he admitted modestly.

His interest in film was nurtured by his parents, who would take him to the cinema regularly as a child. He was also the co-founder of the now defunct Canton Cinema Appreciation Society. I was encouraged to go and speak to him by Tony Whitehead who said he harboured a long love affair with the movies. I interviewed him at the back of his shop, surrounded by projectors and VHS tapes. A typical 70 year old, he shunned political correctness, and puffed a cigar all through the interview. I asked him about the importance of cinema during WWII.

“Things were bleak and there was nothing else to do. There were the traditional theatres in town but a lot of local people wouldn’t go in to town. It was really the only source of entertainment that got you out of your house. They had you.”

His earliest cinematic memory was of seeing “The Hunchback of Notre Damme” (William Dieterle, 1939) with his family. He remembers his mother making him duck down when Charles Laughton (who played Quasimodo in this adaptation) was taken away to be flogged.

“We would generally go to the Canton, which was much more plush than ‘the collar’… If you were taking a girl you went to the Canton… You didn’t book tickets back then but we would always sit in the same place. Upstairs, front row.”

The Canton Cinema Appreciation Society was formed in 1960, showing films in a small cinema behind the shop. There were never more than 10 members and they would show seasons of films of specific directors/actors, going to the trouble of writing to them, asking for lists of their favourite works. In response the individuals would often send back letters, or occasionally tapes, to be read/played by the group. In addition they would become ‘associates’ of the society. This list of associates is impressive including such luminaries as; Stan Laurel, Edward G. Robertson, Alec Guiness, and Fritz Lang.

Dennis recalled an Anecdote for me concerning Edward G. Robertson.

“We wanted to do a season of his films so he made us a list, but half of them simply weren’t available. We received a letter from an associate of Edward’s saying: “I was sat in a restaurant in Hollywood when Edward G. Robertson came up to me and told me that there was some guy in Cardiff called Pope who wanted to do a season of his films and could he (the associate) have a word with the British distributors?” I have trouble believing the whole thing, he was a very nice man.”

Mr Pope has many anecdotes concerning his correspondence with Hollywood players. He traded letters with Stan Laurel for many years and they would always stay in touch.

“Fritz Lang was nice. He chose some from his German period and some from his later period. He wrote a tribute for Edward G. Robertson because he appeared in some of his films… I wrote to Henry Fonda asking for a tribute to Lang to be read to the group. We got a letter back from his agent saying that he would have to decline the request… He couldn’t stand working with Lang.”

He would go on to tell me about his run in with Charlie Chaplin, and his interest in documentary, “My favourite one is “The Forth Estate” (Paul Rotha, 1939/40) which was banned by the Ministry of Information because it showed Britain at peacetime, which you really couldn’t do during the war… I also greatly admire “Triumph of the Will” (Leni Riefenstahl, 1934) despite it being Nazi propaganda, it’s a very powerful film…” His interest would go so far that he would produce his own documentary ‘sitting bull’, about the native American leader, which now rests in the BFI archive.

Our conversation bounced around from topic to topic, anecdote to anecdote, revealing a rich tapestry of experience and insight. Finally, I asked him if he felt that cinema had changed over the years.

“Cinema is a very broad thing, it covers all kinds of avenues, and you’ve still got that broad range but the films have generally got bigger and more flashier. We all think the cinema has progressed, but it hasn’t. We forget that Griffith used thousands of extras and no CGI. They’ve lost to a certain extent the art. There is no subtly anymore. The effect of a film can be lost in the big multiplex. I wouldn’t knock the modern cinema at all, it’s just developed. Cinema is entertainment, forget art, I hate critics of the cinema. You go to the cinema to enjoy yourself. You go for one of two reasons, to be entertained, or to be educated. For example Laurel and Hardy, all they did was make people laugh.”

This reflects the predominant opinion of film that I have found through my research: nothing much has changed, merely the scale. Cinema is still mainly a source of entertainment and escapism for the masses, the most popular art-forms, second only to music. Cinema has constantly reinvented itself to present new novelties but ultimately has remained the same. Certainly, the sense of occasion and novelty that came bundled with going to the ‘pictures’ in those early days has subsided, but this is merely a result of the integration of the art into consensus consciousness. It is something you do when you need release from the drab everyday, an Entertainment, albeit one with artistic undertones, that appeals to everyone.


Ribbon of Dreams by Gary Wharton
90 years of cinema in Cardiff by Brian Hornsey
Wales and the cinema by David Berry
Western Mail and Echo archives

With special thanks to Tony Whitehead, Matt Beere, and Dennis Pope.