by Helen Bowman
On the predominantly nineteenth century main thoroughfare in Auchterarder, Perthshire, one of Scotland’s first purpose-built picture houses has recently been listed in recognition of its special architectural and historic interest. An unexpected flourish of Modernism is always a treat and its survival is redolent of an exciting time when a developing art form, and the buildings designed to showcase it, would inform the appearance of Scottish towns and cities for decades to come.
As we move into the 2020s and grapple with immense, daunting challenges, it feels possible to look back to the early 1920s and imagine, conversely, how the beginning of that decade must have felt so appealing. Emerging from the exhaustion of a world war and an international influenza pandemic, the third decade of the twentieth century offered the opportunity to look outwards. But rather than conflict and disease, culture and entertainment became a unifier, and it was within reach of more people than ever before.
In an architectural sense, this meant the exploration of the International style, de-shackling design from over-ornamentation that in the wrong hands can be so crushing. Additionally, there was a renewed reverence for Georgian urbanism which was felt to embody an appealingly stylish, cosmopolitan energy. Importantly, architects could now identify a style to suit the job or the client, rather than work within a strict idiom.
It would of course be an oversimplification to say that the 1920s saw a boom in recreation and leisure activities (particularly film-going) purely as an antidote to the painful trudge of the previous decade. The pursuit of ‘pleasure pastimes’ was popularised by, who else, the (late) Victorians. However, entertainment did become increasingly democratised during the early twentieth century.
The concept of purpose-built picture palaces became a reality in response to the 1909 Cinematograph Act. Hitherto, picture shows were held in existing, makeshift venues – community halls, shops, tents. But the advent of moving film in the late 1890s boosted the popularity of the format and the unsuitability of these venues, often cramped, and the audience in uncomfortable proximity to flammable nitrate based celluloid film, became clear.
The introduction of safety measures effectively legitimised film-going (lessening its hitherto somewhat low-brow image). Of course, the provision of entertainment for the masses was not an altruistic one; for a period it was a fantastically profitable for those who took the risk to become cinema builders/owners. In Scotland, purpose built cinemas were often designed by local architects for independent picture houses and regional chains (as opposed to England where a small number of cinema specialists dominated the field). This resulted in a notable degree of design eclecticism.
Those who sensed an opportunity in the public’s fascination with moving film often adapted existing interests to take advantage of the mood. Returning to the market town of Crieff after service during the First World War, Peter Crerar (1881-1961) successfully developed a number of small businesses (coach building, steamboats) and then alighted on the possibilities of cinema. His first purpose-built picture house, for the Strathearn Cinema Company, opened in Crieff in 1924, on a prominent corner site (today the envelop is, happily, remarkably unaltered; it is currently occupied by a restaurant/bar). Crerar would go on to build more cinemas in Dunfermline, Kirkaldy, Glasgow and (it is suggested) Edinburgh. Sadly, little remains of that legacy and therefore the former picture house in Auchterarder is a valuable survival.
During 1925 Crieff architect Charles Turnbull Ewing (1880-1953) drew up plans for the new cinema. Ewing had been articled to John James Burnett (1857-1938), trained extensively, and for a time worked at the London office of Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930). From 1910, he joined his father’s (George Turnbull Ewing, 1852-1925) practice. Local tradesmen were employed (builder William Gordon of Auchterarder) and the cinema opened in September 1926.
The Dundee Courier (10 September 1926 p3) welcomed the addition, describing it as a ‘thoroughly up-to-date and comfortable cinema…it is a handsome structure. It has a front of white freestone, 60ft wide, a broad portico, a shop at each side…and a large tea-room occupies the whole of the upper floor.’ The cinema offered 500 seats (400 stalls, 100 balcony) with a ‘loft curved ceiling…walls finished in green, mauve, buff and gold.’ Interesting the Courier review also devotes a paragraph to the inclusion of modern safety measure in the building (emergency exits, fireproofing) which is testament to the anxiety caused by previous make-shift picture venues. Rather fortuitously, the opening picture was The Gold Rush, later assessed to be Charlie Chaplin’s tour de force.
By 1930, the cinema was re-equipped to accommodate the arrival of the ‘talkies’ and Auchterarder had the distinction of being the smallest town in the country to be provided with the technology (Dundee Courier, 13 August 1930, p13). The Auchterarder Picturehouse was renamed the Regal in 1946 following its sale to JB Milne Theatres and it continued as a cinema until closing in 1963.
The former cinema is now a listed building. While the fittings that had enabled its function (screen, sound equipment, and seating) were removed when the cinema closed, it still reads entirely as a cinema (most recently it has been occupied by an antiques showroom).
Its frontage remains unashamedly 1920s moderne (it is rational, symmetrical, and its glazing a key feature). There is still plenty of original historic fabric. The foyer area is still largely intact and retains its handsome stair (leading to the now lost tea-room), timber handrail and cast-iron bannisters, their simple, geometric design so evocative of the era.
The auditorium devoid of its seating feels voluminous and importantly retains its very special curved tin panelled roof, something of a rarity in Scotland. The use of pressed tin in cinema design was not necessarily unusual at this time (it was considered less flammable so effectively a sort of safety feature) but its survival on this scale is. There are a very small number of listed buildings in England that still retain this feature, sometimes attributed to a company called Skelionite. The balcony, projector windows, and musicians pit remain in situ. Decorative plaster work (attributed on opening to James Tainsh of Crieff) is observable throughout.
Some buildings survive almost despite themselves. They have long lost their original, very specific function and with it, often, the reason why people valued and enjoyed them. If the building has had a stay of execution and been re-purposed, we may pragmatically conclude at least the building remains in use.
These ‘survivor’ buildings are not especially rare, they quietly exist everywhere. But to find one where you can still see and feel the bones of why it was built, the purpose and integrity of the architect, and to be able to appreciate the sense of excitement the building must have provoked when it first opened, is a little less common. It is special. The former Auchterarder Picturehouse is such a building, a burst of energy in street, encouraging you, in common with all buildings of value, to take a second look.
The Listed Building Record can be accessed at https://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/LB52527