Pioneering Blackpool cinema had a turbulent past

Historian David Hewitt looks at a town centre cinema which was at the forefront of cinematic technology. But its downfall came following a long list of unfortunate events.

Thursday, 10th June 2021, 3:45 pm

When James Mannock saw the state of his employee, it proved to be the final straw.

The man couldn’t even make it up the stairs. He was surely drunk.

Mr Mannock was the owner of the Clifton Palace picture house on Church Street, and the man in question, who now stood uneasily in front of him, was his manager. ‘You can take a fortnight’s notice,’ James told him.

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Clifton Palace is on the left hand side in this early photo of Church Street, Blackpool
Clifton Palace is on the left hand side in this early photo of Church Street, Blackpool

But it was what he said next that would land him in court.

The cinema stood on Church Street, opposite the present-day Marks & Spencer store. Then, as now, it was painted white all over, and visitors said it seemed to glisten at night, under the street lamps, in the rain.

The building itself was half-a-century old, and it had already seen service as a livery stables, as the town’s first Liberal Club, and as an arcade of shops.

When the Clifton Palace opened up in there, it called itself ‘the latest and best appointed electric theatre.’ It had green tip-up seats and a thick carpet that was also green, and there was elegant wood panelling on the walls.

The building as it is now in Church Street

Patrons would pay threepence for the front stalls, sixpence for the back.

The place had a distinct advantage right from the start. It was the only picture house in Blackpool able to show the exciting new ‘Kinemacolor’ films. It was, in fact, one of only two places outside London where those films could be seen. (The other one was in Nottingham.)

The films claimed to have real colour, or, as an advertisement put it, ‘the Hues and Tints of Nature’.

They would be photographed and then projected through alternating red and green filters. And though the picture might be a little blured, early visitors to the Clifton Palace would be treated to red poppies and blue cornflowers up on the screen, and the auburn hair of the Duchess of Devonshire tumbling onto the shoulders of the pink dress she wore.

The cinema's distinctive architecture remains

A few weeks later, visitors could watch images from the recent funeral of King Edward VII, and see the cortege and the crowds, the gold on the Royal Standard, and the pea-green plume in Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s hat. (They would have to pay a shilling in Nottingham for that.)

By 1924, James Mannock was one of several men who owned the cinema.

He had moved to Blackpool from Oldham, where he had worked in an engineering firm, and he had moved into films at much the same time. He lived on the Promenade, close to Queen’s Square, and his business interests also included the Palace Cinema in St Annes. That place had recently been refurbished by Harrods – which was something else that would end up in court.

The Clifton Palace had been in the news a lot. A man had fallen to his death while re-painting the white façade. Magistrates had instructed audiences not to break into song. And the place had broken all records by showing the latest Harold Lloyd film for five weeks solid, five times a day.

But it was the trial that would make the biggest headlines of all.

It took place in Blackpool County Court, before His Honour Judge Bradley, in the height of the summer season. James Mannock was the defendant, and Thomas Glover, the one-time manager of the Clifton Palace, was the plaintiff.

Mr Glover had an illustrious past. His father had been one of the very first Labour MPs, and Thomas himself had won the Military Medal during the Great War and been promoted in the field. Now, he said he had been slandered by Mr Mannock, and that he had lost money as a result. In fact, he claimed damages of a hundred pounds, which would be worth more than six thousand pounds today.

He had been in the business for years, taking charge of cinemas elsewhere in Lancashire, and in Cumberland and Cheshire as well. Most recently, he had been acting manager of the Regent Cinema, further up Church Street. And when he went looking for work, he certainly wasn’t shy. ‘You Know Me,’ one of his advertisements proclaimed. ‘A Success. A Huge Success. A Genuine Success.’

Thomas had come to the Clifton Palace with the promise of seven pounds a week, but he had been there barely a fortnight when all this unpleasantness began. He admitted that he had taken a drink before he arrived at the picture house. He had called in at a couple of hotels, he said, and had three of four glasses of beer. On reflection, it might have been six or seven glasses. But he hadn’t been on a ‘pub crawl’, and he certainly wasn’t drunk.

In court, the doorman said he had been keeping a close eye on Mr Glover, and that he had seen him come out of the cinema and run into some schoolchildren. He had told the children that he used to be in the Army, and got them to form up in fours. And Thomas conceded that he might even have told one of them, ‘I am going to make you sergeant-major.’ He couldn’t, though, remember going back into the Clifton Palace with a live tortoise he had picked up from somewhere. Nor could he remember dropping the tortoise into the hands of the girl in the paybox, or seeing her run off screaming. He had, it was true, taken a nap on a couch in the foyer, and he was ashamed to say he had left the afternoon’s takings uncounted.

What bothered Thomas wasn’t the fact that Mr Mannock had accused him of being drunk, but that he had done so in front of other members of staff, as customers were coming out of the auditorium. James Mannock, meanwhile, argued that his words had been true. The only explanation for Mr Glover’s conduct was that he was drunk.

The trial lasted all day, but the jury took only fifteen minutes to come to a verdict – Thomas Glover had indeed been slandered by Mr Mannock. He would be awarded £25 damages, plus costs. The years that followed were just as turbulent. A pianist at the Clifton Palace would claim the equivalent of two thousand pounds in unpaid wages. There would be a fire during a matinee, and a false cry of ‘Fire!’ that would cause a stampede of seven hundred people.