Building the Everyman Cinema

  • Connie Stafford

Below is an extract from my dissertation written as part of my Architecture and Interdisciplinary Studies BSc. It is an analysis of how the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead has evolved in regards to its architecture and ethos as well as its relationship with its community and patrons. The Everyman Cinema, although part of a luxury cinema chain in the modern day, was opened in 1933 as a repertory cinema by film fanatic James Fairfax-Jones. The building had been used throughout the 20s as a theatre with a reputation on par with many West End establishments and premiered productions such as Noel Coward's 'The Vortex'. The extract is the chapter entitled '1930s: A unique institution facing competition'. It documents the opening of the cinema in 1933 and its initial reception from the community and the competition from the local Odeons which opened at a similar time.

The Everyman cinema was opened in 1933. Prior to that the building was a theatre under the direction of Norman MacDermott. The theatre showed significant success under MacDermott’s direction and patrons Bohm and Norrie compare its reputation with that of the Royal Court (Norrie, I; Bohm, D, 1981). The decade that the theatre was opened was a significant time in the development of Hampstead
’s current artistic and bohemian reputation. The actors were not well paid and the theatre, while receiving significant praise, acted more as a passion project than a thriving business (MacDermott, 1975).
After a number of successful performances, MacDermott made the decision to leave his position in 1926 (MacDermott, 1975) claiming that “The English public want to go to the theatre only to be amused, and that their definition of amusement does not include great mental activity.” (The Times, 1925). This blemishes the Hampstead residents’ high-brow and exclusive reputation. After MacDermott’s resignation, the theatre suffered a severe decline in admissions.
In 1933, James Fairfax-Jones took on the theatre to fulfil his ambition of opening a repertory cinema. Having already set up the Southampton film society in 1929, he wanted to show the type of films shared in these film societies to a general public rather than a select number of subscribers. Architect Alister Gladstone MacDonald was employed to oversee the renovation that installed a cinema auditorium into the basement (Aston, 1997). Graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture, he was prevalent architect of cinemas in London and Scotland through the 30s, including those at Waterloo and Victoria stations as well as the Peace Pavilion at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition in 1938 (MacDonald, 1993).
The basement had been used to screen ‘The new cinematograph sensation’ since the 1890s (Aston, 1997), however, the Everyman cinema was formally opened on Boxing day 1933. Sir Gerald du Maurier hosted the ceremony. The first programme consisted of Rene Clair’s Le Million (J.S. Fairfax Jones, 1937) alongside a Disney cartoon, a Mack Sennett comedy, and a Paramount newsreel (O’Brien, 2018).
Norman MacDermott, reflecting on his time there, notes that “with skill and perseverance he [Fairfax-Jones] built up the Everyman into the most interesting of the specialised cinemas in London which has been kept alive and challenging to the present day [1975]” (MacDermott, 1975). The theatre was not closed in 1933, as a local newspaper writes: “The tradition of the Everyman as a theatre is not, however, to be destroyed. The stage and its equipment will remain intact, and from time to time plays will be presented here.” (unknown, 1933). Records of programmes suggest that performances were still held through the 1940s (Shear, 1942) up until its refurbishment in 1953 (Aston, 1997).
A Wardour Street salesman who called a week before opening said “I give you six weeks” (Fairfax- Jones, 1937). The cinema is often referenced as the first repertory cinema in the UK, so no business model existed. Struggles in the early days were often attributed to programming. There was a regulation which stated that British cinemas were to show 20% British films which conflicted with the Everyman’s policy of showing foreign features (Fairfax-Jones, 1937). The foreign films were their most popular, evidenced by a 1930s programme advertising a Spanish film entitled ‘They shall not Pass!’, claiming it to be an exclusive presentation to the Everyman (Everyman, 1930s). This was shown alongside ‘Kameraschaft’, a French/German film - particularly poignant when you consider the events unravelling in each respective country in the thirties. The fact that Fairfax-Jones regarded the British films quota as a point of hindrance during this time acts as evidence for the clientele considering themselves outsiders or ‘bohemian’. The lack of admissions for British films proves not just the popularity of foreign films, but also an active avoidance of British- made and ‘regular’ programming.
“If the film does not reach a special standard or possess certain qualities or facets of particular interest, then they one and all stay away!” (Fairfax-Jones, 1937). Fairfax-Jones knew that he could count on the discerning nature of the Hampstead residents showing that he knew his audience well.
The ethos of the cinema is outlined in each programme that was issued. “Avant-garde, experimental films have a place of their own in the history of the cinema. Many have been made. Few have been shown publicly.” (Fairfax-Jones, 1936). Similar to MacDermott’s obsession with showing high-brow entertainment, Fairfax’s programmes satisfy the need for Hampstead residents to appear ‘intellectually elite’.
In addition to the cinema and the ongoing theatre productions, the building was also home to the foyer gallery. Lead by James Fairfax-Jones’ wife, Tess, what started as a passion project without any commercial motives grew into a place of cultural importance (Fairfax-Jones, 1937) and existed “to serve the artist and public alike” (Connoisseur, 1962). The exhibition space was originally designed by a student from the Architectural Association (Connoisseur, 1962) and through the 1930s it became the first gallery in the country to host an exhibition of Paul Klee’s work and also displayed work from Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson (Fairfax- Jones, 1975).
A year after the Everyman’s launch, the Odeon on Haverstock Hill in Belsize Park was opened – a ten-minute walk away from the Everyman. This had a much larger capacity at 1544 compared to the Everyman’s 245 seats (Aston, 1997). The Odeon, which was to be the flagship site, was opened much to the dismay of the local Hampstead community. In an attempt to calm the neighbourhood objections, The Mayor of Hampstead, at the opening of the cinema, claimed that it would be an asset to the community (Aston, 1997). Another Odeon in Swiss Cottage, designed by Basil Herring and H. Weedon, was then opened on the 4th September 1937. Subsequently, Fairfax-Jones issued a Manifesto to Patrons alongside the 1937- 38 season programme.
‘SURROUNDED AS WE ARE BY ODEONS! – We shall nevertheless continue to give the most interesting and original programmes in the district!’ - (Fairfax-Jones, 1937)
Although Hampstead was not yet a wealthy area, the residents had already become accustomed to a life that rejected the mainstream and mass- media in favour of their ‘village’ community with institutions such as the Everyman on their doorstep. Brushing shoulders with ex-Bauhaus members and the ghosts of John Keats and Turner doesn’t leave you with the greatest urge to accept a common, cheap cinema into your community when already you have a cinema that shows classic film programmes. “We are especially fortunate in being able to compose experimental programmes [...] knowing that they will be responded to by a clientele which understands and appreciates such experiments and special arrangements of films.” (Fairfax- Jones, 1937). Although the sentence is followed up by another assuring the reader that Fairfax is not merely trying to ‘carry favour’ with the patrons, he knows his customers well enough to know he has achieved just that.
Yet Fairfax-Jones did express a certain level of panic with his Manifesto. Publicly admitting competition with the Odeons meant he risked exposing the cinema as insignificant despite his unique policies. The direct and focused tone of Fairfax’s communications creates an interesting contrast to the marketing employed by the present day Everyman cinema. Admitting competition today could result in customers having doubts about the quality of the service, and Fairfax-Jones direct, imperative tone would be considered impertinent. The language of the 1930s suggests a relationship between the patron and the cinema that was a lot more honest and open, unlike the expected service today of being treated like an honoured guest. In 1937, it can be assumed that flyers such as this contributed to the survival of the cinema in the face of competition; further highlighting that the independent nature of the cinema and it’s repertory programme were cherished by the Hampstead locality.
This first decade embodies what the ‘idea’ and the ‘history’ of the Everyman is. Although, as mentioned in the next chapter, the ethos and policy remained largely untouched through the twentieth century, competition from other cinema chains and the home video market meant that the way the cinema portrayed this ‘idea’ begins to get mutated. In the present day, however, when customers and employees speak of the ‘history’ of the cinema and express ideals that are considered very ‘Everyman’, it is Fairfax-Jones’ original policy and environment that they speak of. An independent cinema in the basement of a once successful theatre opened with the sole purpose of showing intellectually driven films, in a community chosen for its creative integrity and reputation. It is a combination of the mentality of Hampstead residents, the Fairfax-Jones family and the building itself that created this ‘idea’.