Mapping Film Exhibition in Scotland before Permanent Cinemas

By Velez-Serna, Maria A. | Post Script, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Mapping Film Exhibition in Scotland before Permanent Cinemas


Velez-Serna, Maria A., Post Script


A central idea in current film historiography is that "the experience of cinema does not exist outside the experience of space" (Allen "The place" 16). This is reflected in the wealth of studies about the places of exhibition which has transformed the once text-centred perspective of film studies, its sources and methodologies, by understanding cinema-going in localized terms, as part of the fabric of everyday life.

This essay is based on the first stage of my research into the development of film distribution and exhibition in Scotland. The tension between the reproducible text and the historically-situated audience is played out in the networks and practices of regional film supply in a way that is highly responsive to a geographical approach. I use the locations of exhibition as a lateral way to find out about distribution. This is necessary since specialized sources regarding distribution are scarce and, in any case, for the pre-1905 period the compartmentalized view of the film industry is unhelpful. Material from local newspapers and archives, as well as the trade press, sheds light on the local and regional contexts of early film exhibition, foregrounding the commercial networks that had sustained 19th century practices of fairground showmanship and lantern lecturing. (1)

These existing institutions were themselves undergoing profound change, as part of the broader historical processes associated with the second industrial revolution. Scotland around 1900 was an industrial hub of global significance in shipbuilding, steel production, coal mining, and textile manufacture. Most of this economic activity was located within the central Lowlands, to the extent that by 1900 three-quarters of the total national population of 4.5 million lived in that area (Flinn 306). The Highlands, on the other hand, were being depopulated; emigration was peaking, and there was much overcrowding and poverty in the booming cities. The present approach to a non-metropolitan exhibition culture aims to understand how such local contingencies shaped the emerging film trade and informed the Scottish experience of cinema.

THE SCOTTISH FAIRGROUND ROUND

Between 1897 and 1914, fairground showmen were amongst the most influential film exhibitors in the UK. Our understanding of the role of fairground showmen in popularizing moving pictures and sustaining the incipient film industry has been considerably augmented since the publication, in 1994, of a pioneering work by Vanessa Toulmin, in which she argues that "the moving picture industry was shaped in its initial years by the traveling showmen" (236). Following this hypothesis, this section will look at the pattern of fairground traveling in Scotland and the social relationships that it fostered, arguing that these forms of mobility can be understood as part of the informal distribution channels of early film--which led in turn to more formal modes of cinema exhibition.

Scottish fairground families formed a distinct community, although they had strong links with the North of England and with Ireland, and they traveled on broadly stable but flexible routes. (2) The sequence of fairs that a particular family would visit each year was in part determined by tradition and contacts, in part by commercial reasons, and in part by the viability of transport, which was always a challenge. The standard setup for film exhibition on the fairgrounds, usually called "a Bioscope show" after one of the earliest practicable projectors, consisted of a canvas tent, wooden forms for seating, the projection equipment, and a decorative front. Up to 1905, most Bioscope shows could be packed into two or three horse-drawn wagons, but as the fronts grew more ornate, and incorporated mechanical organs and electrical generators, this became more difficult. In some cases, the wagons were adapted to travel on the railways; although the rates were high, the secretary of the Showmen and Van-Dwellers' Association reckoned in 1896 that more than four thousand vans traveled weekly on the British railways ("Showmen and Van-Dwellers'). …

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