Well before the invention of cinema, different types of moving and projected images were the height of sophistication for an evening’s entertainment, according to academics.
The Christmas period was particularly popular for visual extravaganza, whether it was family gathered together to view 3D images through the stereoscope, a magic lantern show given to local schoolchildren or the seasonal treat of going to see a gigantic panorama on a huge scroll of canvas depicting adventurous voyages and glorious battles.
The extent and impact of these shows in cities, towns and villages across the South West of England has been documented by Exeter University.
A three-year research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, has explored the weird and wonderful variety of visual entertainment before cinema began.
The project focused on Exeter, Bristol and Plymouth, as well as the coastal resorts of Torquay, Weston-Super-Mare, Penzance, Barnstaple and Sidmouth. Using these places, the project shows how there was an industry of visual entertainment before the South West enthusiastically embraced the cinema after its introduction in 1896. It is the first time that a map of popular visual entertainment in the region from 1840 to 1912 has been documented.
There was always fun to be had at the “pictures” according to English lecturers Dr Joe Kember and Dr John Plunkett.
Dr Kember said: “What we have found is a veritable treasure chest of exhibitions, demonstrating the extent to which there was a thriving industry across the South West of touring and locally produced shows. For example, local football matches were often filmed and shown at the cinema. They were called Local Pictures and the regular slogan up to 1915 was ‘See yourself on screen’.”
Dr Kember said that Plymouth was one of the first cities in the UK to have a cinema and the building was strategically located between the port and the town centre. “Plymouth was one of the most densely populated cities of the period and provided a steady flow of people who could be enticed to see the latest visual and optical novelty,” he said.
“Across the South West, all classes and age groups participated in the rich array of popular, image-based entertainments, whether it was an audience enjoying a peepshow of a gruesome murder at the fair or an oxy-hydrogen microscope projecting a gigantic cheese mite at a charity bazaar.
“Many of the shows and exhibitions reflected the spirit of Empire with shows providing visual travelogues across India and Africa which appealed to the people in the region as places like Plymouth were seen as the pathway to the Great British Empire, via the port.”