ESSAY Angela Evans

NWR Issue 117

All Life is Here

One collapsible top hat, one fez, one St Paul’s school blazer, two journals of film reviews, one frayed Union Jack flag, one marriage contract, two ‘Sunny Memories’ photograph albums.... For more than forty years my parents have taken care of these fragments of lives long past, even though there is no family connection. They came across them and other miscellaneous items in the attic of a house they bought in Bargoed in the Valleys during the 1970s. Since then the collection, such as it is, has accompanied them on three house moves. The hats and blazer have had occasional outings, useful additions to eclectic fancy dress outfits, but the material has spent most of the time in a couple of dusty, overlooked boxes.

The provenance of these items was not entirely mysterious. We knew that they (and the house in which they had been found) had previously belonged to a family – the Withers – who had owned multiple Valleys cinemas from the early 1900s. We suspected that there might be an interesting, possibly colourful, story waiting to be revealed. The sheer incongruity of the material piqued our interest. It spoke loudly of money and privilege, and yet had been found in Bargoed, a town that, even at its most prosperous, was largely working class. It was akin to a tropical sea turtle washing up on Barry Island. A caption written on the back of a photograph of the Withers’ car [pictured], taken in around 1920, ‘Little A, our only friend in Bargoed’, suggests there had been a cultural gap, maybe even clash.

As evocative as the material was, its investigation remained on a ‘to-do’ list for more than three decades. When I did find the time to probe into the Withers’ history, I found the ingredients compelling – two brothers from a comfortable middle-class London family, one a flamboyant showman, the other a quiet, scholarly figure, who together came to own almost fifty cinemas in south Wales and the south-west of England; a partnership and friendship with the Welsh financier Julian Hodge; eye-catching promotional stunts such as hot air balloon rides and exotic animal cavalcades; vanity projects ending in bankruptcy; court battles with regulatory authorities and chapel leaders; an unsuitable marriage match; the destruction by fire of their flagship venue; and the eventual demise of the business with the advent of television.

To better understand the context for the brothers’ incursion into film exhibition, I searched for relevant literature, academic and popular, and was struck by how very little has been written about the people who owned and managed cinemas. So domineering is the image of the cinema industry as a global phenomenon, driven by corporate giants such as Odeon, ABC and Gaumont, that the role played by small-scale cinema entrepreneurs has been all but airbrushed from history. And yet early cinema depended on the entrepreneurial spirit and unflagging energy of thousands of independent owners, and in some parts of the country, such as the south Wales valleys, independent ownership prevailed until well into the twentieth century.

Without properly interrogating the idea, I had assumed that the Withers brothers were an intriguing historical anomaly. However, the further I looked into early cinema, the clearer it became that they were not so very different to the hordes of small-scale investors and entrepreneurs that crowded into film exhibition in its early days. I expected to encounter theatre proprietors and publicans, since those were seasoned entertainment procurers, but many investors were ‘respectable’ professionals such as solicitors, accountants and architects. Working-men’s institutes were also quick to jump on the film exhibition bandwagon.

Cinema’s huge appeal was due not only to its novelty but also to its cheapness, accessibility and informality. Women could attend without their husbands or boyfriends, often just slipping a coat over their workaday clothes. Children didn’t require adult supervision, and where better was there to go with friends when the streets were cold and wet. The number of times cinema crops up in Welsh autobiographies of the time suggests its social pervasiveness. It fed the imagination and opened up new worlds – and provided a distraction and refuge from difficult realities. Walter Haydn Davies, in his book The Right Place: The Right Time (Llyfrau’r Dryw, 1971), argues that it is difficult for those who haven’t experienced the era of the silent film to appreciate the extent of its influence...

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