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The history of Tyneside Cinema

From News Theatre to Tyneside Cinema

Before the pictures

The earliest activity here was back in 1267 when this part of Newcastle was home to a settlement of  Franciscan Monks or ‘Grey Friars’. This explains the names of the streets that the Tyneside Cinema stands on - Pilgrim Street and High Friar Lane. 

By 1580 a grand mansion with gardens and an orchard called the Newe House was built here. In 1647, during the English Civil War, King Charles I was held as a heavily guarded prisoner here for 10 months before his eventual execution.

Dixon Scott and the news

In the early 20th century the only way to get world news was to listen to the radio (if you could afford one) or read newspapers. Newspapers in those days had very few photographs and hardly brought the news to life. The showing of continuous newsreels in cinemas called news theatres was a craze that swept the UK in the early 1930s. Dixon Scott, an extraordinary local film entrepreneur, spotted this opportunity and built the city’s first News Theatre here as a result. The Tyneside Cinema opened as the 'Newcastle News Theatre' on 1st February 1937.

Dixon was the great uncle of Hollywood directors Sir Ridley Scott (yes, the Ridley Scott of Gladiator, Alien, Kingdom of Heaven and Prometheus fame) and Tony Scott (equally famous for directing films such as Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide and True Romance), and his influence in the cinema industry stretched across the whole country.

Dixon Scott travelled widely in the Middle and Far East (he is buried in Cairo) and this influenced the décor for the inside of the News Theatre, which was meant to represent a Persian palace in Newcastle and was awash with gold, greens and purples. Many of these features were brought back to life when the Cinema was restored in 2008.

What you saw for sixpence 

The original News Theatre auditorium, now the ‘Classic’, showed newsreels continuously from 10.30am to 9.30pm each day. Having bought your 6d (sixpenny) ticket you would start watching the 75-minute programme. It didn’t matter if the programme was halfway through; you just kept watching until the ‘loop’ reached the point where you came in.

Since the programme was continuous there was a constant trickle of people entering and leaving the auditorium having seen all or part of the programme.

The fact that some of the items were days, even sometimes weeks, old did not deter audiences. What people wanted was to see moving images of real events and celebrities.  For example, newsreels allowed people to participate in huge sporting events, such as Newcastle winning the FA Cup in 1952. Audiences stayed to watch the whole newsreel programme over and over to witness the glorious moment of victory. 

The Tyneside Coffee Rooms

The Tyneside Coffee Rooms opened in 1938, a year after the News Theatre. As well as this and the main screen, the building's facilities also included a private cinema, a tea club and a men-only smoking room (how times have changed!).

Dixon Scott’s news theatre was so successful that two other existing cinemas were converted into news theatres within a year of its opening. Sadly Dixon died in 1939, just two years after his News Theatre opened but the business went from strength to strength, run by his widow, Virginia, and one of his sons. 

Newsreels changed the lives of many people, allowing them for the first time to see global events and faraway places. Through them we have a window into the greatest achievements and darkest hours of the 20th century, and an invaluable picture of our past.

From News Theatre to Tyneside Cinema 

When the News Theatre opened in 1937 there were around 47 separate cinemas in Newcastle with a total of more than 40,000 cinema seats available every day. Despite the large number of cinemas, almost every film screened was made in America.  This is still true of most multiplex cinemas in the UK today, and just like today, there were excellent films being made in other countries across the world with very few of them making it on to British cinema screens.

However, many people were desperate to see more films and to discover something different and exciting from other cultures. Today the Tyneside Cinema exists to show the very best films being made right across the world. 

Its proud history of doing this dates back to the earliest days of this building. From 1944 film societies began to hire the News Theatre to show European films not screened in the city’s commercial picture houses. By the late 1950s the society had over 1,500 members and was the largest film society in the UK, demonstrating the large and receptive audience for foreign and experimental films in Newcastle. 

TV and the end of the newsreel

The arrival of television into British homes in the 1950s spelled the end of the newsreel business and when the News Theatre finally closed its doors in February 1968, the lease of the building was taken over by the British Film Institute. Since the early 1960s the Institute had been looking for an opportunity to open a branch of its flagship National Film Theatre in Newcastle and they opened the Tyneside Film Theatre.

From the start the aims of Tyneside Film Theatre were clear: to screen the best of world cinema from all periods and all countries of the world; to promote the use and appreciation of film; and to encourage local film production.

Cinema audiences fight back

After five years of direct control from London, and following months of negotiations, on 1st April 1973 control of Tyneside Film Theatre was handed over to a Board of Charitable Trustees. The Board felt that "a major regional asset like this should be operated from the region".  

Audiences had declined and it was argued that there was a lack of local support for the Tyneside. As a result the cinema’s funding was cut and the Film Theatre was forced to close its doors. Following the closure, the audience took matters into their own hands. The Tyneside Filmgoers Group occupied the building and arranged a series of sell-out screenings on four consecutive Fridays during April/May 1975.

Determined to offer a wider choice than the latest big-budget Hollywood films, they collected a 4,000-signature petition within a week to lobby the City Council. This campaign was successful and in  1976 The Cinema re-opened as the Tyneside Cinema.

Nina Hibbin, Tyneside Cinema Director, said: "We want to establish a popular film and TV centre, a place where people can not only see films, but also, if they want to, discuss them, learn about them, make them, or to meet their friends over a cup of tea. And we have always been insistent that our aim is to serve the whole community, from casual filmgoers to the committed film buff." 

An historic cinema

As part of English Heritage’s ‘Picture Palace’ initiative, the public were asked to nominate old cinemas of historic significance for ‘listing’ and protection for future generations to enjoy. The Tyneside Cinema, as Britain’s last remaining News Theatre, was selected and listed ‘Grade 2’. 

The Tyneside Cinema Appeal 2006

Having shown films almost continuously for nearly 70 years, the building was in very poor repair and without a lift its films and its many education programmes could not be enjoyed by everyone. The Cinema had also grown its audiences for the films it showed and for its education and training programmes and the old building with just two screens was struggling to keep up with demand and public taste. In 2006, the cinema launched a redevelopment appeal and, as throughout its history, the support of its filmgoers was crucial.

Over 600 people donated money and support to the campaign and their names are recorded throughout the building. Thanks to them and many public agencies and trusts and foundations, over £7.5 million was raised.

Restoration and redevelopment

Work to restore the cinema and create a modern two-storey extension on its upper floors commenced in November 2006. The site was very difficult to work on as access to it was so restricted along High Friar Lane. During the work the cinema relocated to the Old Town Hall in Gateshead, with the assistance of Gateshead Council and continued to show its distinctive range of movies to appreciative and growing audiences. 

The Tyneside Cinema today

The Tyneside Cinema as we know it now re-opened in 2008. During the refurbishment project, many of the cinema's original features were restored to their former glory. The work uncovered a pair of original stained glass windows and mosaic floor tiling which had been hidden for years.

The number of screens was increased too - the all-new Roxy and the Electra were both introduced, as well as the Tyneside Bar, which went on to become a must-visit venue in Newcastle’s live music scene.

Alfred Hitchcock season

So good to see classic Hitch back on the big screen.

Jonathan Claytor, Tyneside Cinema