27th February 1910. The Silver Screen.
Today in 1910 the London Bridge Picture Palace and Cinema Theatre opened on a Sunday, resulting in the owner being prosecuted under Section 2 of the 1909 Cinematographic Act.
The London County Council (LCC) said the cinema had contravened the provisions of the Licence.
The owners argued that the 1909 Act was concerned with safety, but the LCC on appeal, (which they won), argued it established a precedent that the purpose of restriction on cinemas did not have to be just for fire precautions.
The 1909 Act had brought cinemas under Local Association Control which had to satisfy themselves on safety before granting a licence to ‘such persons as they thought fit.
However the Act though concerned with safety issues had not specifically barred Sunday openings and was amended by the Sunday Entertainment Act 1912 which permitted opening and use of such places.
The 1909 Act unintentionally became the legal basis for censorship of the British Board of Film Censors in 1912 which aimed to protect the young and now began to oversee film output, classifying as either ‘Universal’ or ‘Not suitable for Children’.
The Sunday opening controversy reared its head again in 1931 when Millie Orpen a solicitor’s clerk brought an action against a Sunday opening of a cinema, as contrary to the Sunday Observance Act 1780.
This action was brought under the ancient ‘Common Informers’ Act’, termed as a ‘popular (qui tam) action’, an act not to be repealed until 1951.(1)
On July 18th 1931 The Times reported that Orpen had brought another action: Orpen v Haymarket Capital Ltd, but this was rendered null by the 1932 Act which removed the anomaly of the Sunday Observation Acts 1625-1780 thus making it legal for Sunday openings for cinemas. (2)
Restrictions on cinemas, apart from opening and safety, were always concerned with output deemed unsuitable by the Censors or Local Authority, but it was the restrictions on who could view what that demonstrates the growth of the ‘Nanny State’.
From 1912 to 1932 we had ‘U’ and ‘A’ (Universal and Adult); between 1932-1951, we had ‘U’ and ‘A’ (some councils required an adult with a child), and ‘H’ (Horror), which some councils ruled should be for over those 16+.
The years 1951-1970 saw the same regime, except for those ‘X’ rated, to be viewed by those only 16 plus. Matters started getting complicated from 1970-1982 when we had four categories with new Logos.
Then came the explosion of the 1982-85 period with five categories; 1985-1989, six; 1989- 2002, seven; 2002-2009 eight.
However from then remarkably, the categories went down to seven, as the lowest category could be now watched by the youngest without any restrictions.
The irony is that whilst the censors were concerned with mind-baffling categories, all the time a myriad of unsuitable material on video and computer was available any time of the day for all ages.
(1) The Common Informers’ Bill was introduced by Sir Lionel Heald in a Private Members’ Bill. It received the Royal Assent 22nd June 1951.
(2) She claimed £25,000 (1.6m in 2003), but was awarded £5.000 with costs awarded to the Company.
The Provisions of the Sunday Observance Acts were excluded under The Sunday Entertainment Act 1932.