Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Abbie Ferguson explores the trends and maintained popularity of the pictures during World War Two, even throughout the blackouts and the bombings.
Patrons at the Regent enjoyed Hollywood films featuring Laurel and Hardy, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the Marx Brothers, as well as domestic British stars such as working-class comedian George Formby. The Second World War brought many changes to the cinema, but the people of South Shields still turned out in their thousands every week. The blackout meant that the inviting lights of the cinema’s exterior were switched off, but this did not deter cinema-goers with the Regent experiencing a wartime average of 12,973 cinema-goers a week. However, during the double summer time of 1941 when clocks were put forward by two hours to increase the hours of daylight, attendances did increase.
South Shields was heavily bombed with 179 high-explosive bombs, 16 parachute mines and 9,312 incendiary bombs dropped on the town over the course of the war. The chance to escape the harsh realities of the war for a few hours must have outweighed the risk as citizens still flocked to the Regent for their weekly film fix. The South Shields Daily News printed an article arguing that cinemas were one of the safest places to be as staff were fully trained in first-aid, gas and fire. Many seemed willing to take their chances, despite the Regent being bombed itself during the night in May 1943. A two week closure followed and upon reopening there was no decrease in weekly attendance figures. The Queen’s Theatre on King Street was also bombed, and destroyed, in 1941.
Pinocchio was released during the war but it failed to impress cinema-goers nationwide. Disney considered it to be a flop at the time, losing over a million dollars. At the Regent, Pinocchio drew in roughly a third of the weekly audience that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) did. Films that did particularly well in South Shields during the war were American musicals such as Betty Grable’s Pin Up Girl. Many propaganda films did surprisingly well also such as This Happy Breed - a cheerful patriotic technicolour affair.
This article draws upon my university dissertation which focused upon the film-taste of patrons at the Regent cinema. The inspiration for this was the discovery of the Regent’s ledger in the Tyne and Wear archives. The manager has recorded in immaculate detail every film shown during the cinema’s life (1935-1966) alongside attendance figures, profit, tax and even the daily weather. Attendance gradually declined following the end of the war as television started to compete for former avid cinemagoers’ time. Following its 1966 closure, the building was immediately taken over by Mecca Bingo. It has been vacant since 2014 and demolition plans are currently being processed. A petition has been started to protect this important piece of cultural heritage which is linked below:
Abbie is a Sanddancer living in Glasgow, studying History at the University of Edinburgh with a dissertation focused on the changing taste of cinema-goers in South Shields from 1935-1950.