An Enquiry into Television Viewing

Source: Robert Silvey, An Enquiry in Television Viewing (BBC, 1948)

Text: In the autumn of 1948, when the post-war Television Service had passed into its third year and TV licences were approaching the 100,000 mark, the B.B.C. set on foot the first of what it is hoped will be a series of enquiries into the nature of the television public and the impact of the new medium upon its leisure habits. A random sample of TV households was selected —1,000 in all— and each was visited by an interviewer. In nearly 900 of these households interviewers were successful in enlisting the co-operation of a responsible adult. The age and nature of the TV set, and data upon which the socio-economic grade of the family could be estimated, were recorded and an enumeration made of the members of the household, their age, sex and education. The informant was then asked to arrange for each member of the household over the age of sixteen to keep a record of his or her activities during the evenings of one week. Special ‘log books’ were supplied in which each evening was sub-divided into quarter-hours. Spaces were provided for showing what programme, if any, had been listened to or viewed, and which of nine types of activity had been pursued, whether coincidently with listening or not. To provide a Control Group, interviewers were instructed to select, whenever they made an effective contact with a TV household, the nearest non-TV household they could find and there to go through the same procedure.

Interviewers paid two more calls on each home—one during the course of the week to see that the logs were in fact being completed, and a final call to collect them. Interviewing was spread over three discrete weeks, and finished early in December 1948. The final report was based on a Television Group of 873 TV households, with a population of 2,724, and a Control Group of 856 non-TV households, with a population of 2,628, while the total number of evening ‘logs’ completed by the adults of the TV Group was 15,869 and by those of the Control Group was 11,434.

It was found that the overwhelming majority of TV households (82 per cent.) possessed separate TV receivers and nearly all of these had sound receivers as well. Only 18 per cent. possessed combined TV and sound receivers (all the Control Group possessed sound receivers). More than half the TV receivers in use had 6 inch by 7} inch screens, 29 per cent. had 8 inch by 10 inch and 11 per cent. 10 inch by 12 inch screens.

The enquiry revealed that television was no longer, if indeed it ever had been, a rich man’s toy. More than half the TV homes were found to be lower middle or working class. Although there was clearly a long way to go before T’V was evenly spread throughout all socio-economic classes, there was unmistakable evidence that television was spreading ‘downwards’ through the social pyramid. Thus, whereas 57 per cent. of those families which possessed TV sets when the Television Service was resumed in 1946 were well-to-do or upper middle class and the remaining 43 per cent. lower middle or working class, the corresponding proportions of 1948 buyers were 39 per cent. and 61 per cent.

Comparison between the TV and Control Groups showed that although these groups were built up of pairs of families living side by side, to the outward eye differing from one another in the single respect of possessing or not possessing a TV set, there were in fact significant differences between them. It was found that neighbouring families do not enjoy the same socio-economic status to anything like the same extent as might have been anticipated. The TV Group, for example, included 21 per cent. who could be classified as well-to-do, whereas among their next-door neighbours only to per cent. could be so described. At the other end of the scale only 18 per cent. of the TV Group consisted of the families of manual workers, whereas the Control Group included 35 per cent. There was, however, far less difference between the educational level of the TV and Control Groups. Indeed it was clear that in the well-to-do and middle class strata television was rather more likely to be found in the homes where the educational level was the lower. This tendency was reversed in the manual working class; there the higher the level of education the greater the probability of finding a television set. For the sociologist the conclusion would seem to be that although population of London and the Home Counties is far from homogeneously housed in terms of income, homogeneity in terms of educational level is much more nearly approached.

Another difference between the TV and Control Groups was that in the middle classes, and especially among the well-to-do, families with television sets tended to be larger than those without them, having more children and old people. In the manual working class, on the other hand, TV tends to be found in those homes where, although there may be rather more old people, there are fewer children and young adults and more adults of full working age. This suggests that the presence of children in a home and the presence of old people each act as a stimulus to acquire television, but that the gratification of children’s wishes to have a television set is more dependent upon the economic circumstances of the family.

Fortunately analysis showed that these differences between the groups with and without TV were not of sufficient magnitude to invalidate comparisons of their leisure habits. It is in fact fair to regard the pattern of behaviour disclosed by the logs kept by the Control Group as a picture of how the T’V Group would have behaved had they not acquired television sets.

This comparison shows that families which had TV did not on that account listen to sound broadcasting materially less between 6.00 and 8.00 p.m. and between 11.00 p.m. and midnight. Their listening in the half-hours before and after the evening TV transmission was, however, appreciably diminished. But during the period of the TV transmission an average of only 14 per cent. were listening—less than one-third as many as would have done so had there been no television set—while 49 per cent. viewed—an audience made up of 32 per cent. drawn from sound, together with 17 per cent. diverted from other activities.

AlJ three sound services—Home, Light and Third Programme—yield up their quota to television. Indeed one of the most significant findings of this enquiry was that the depredations of TV affected each of the three sound services to an equal degree. As to the 17 per cent. who were diverted from other activities, by far the larger proportion (14 per cent.) were people who would have been at home in any case. This category—those ‘at home but not listening’ between 8.30 and 10.00 p.m.—averaged 32 per cent. of the Control Group, whereas among the TV Group the proportion at home but neither listening nor viewing averaged only 18 per cent.

Starting as it does at 8.30, the evening TV transmission has comparatively little effect on the meal-time habits of viewers. (Even in London and the Home Counties, apparently, there are few people who are still eating their evening meal as late as 7.30 p.m.) Television tends to thrust such activities as reading, writing letters and social activities, into the earlier and, to some extent, the later part of the evening, without diminishing their frequency, but it does appear to reduce the total amount of time spent in domestic duties in the evening. When the displaced duties are performed, if they are performed at all, is not clear. They may perhaps be undertaken during the day-time and therefore outside the purview of their enquiry, or it may be that the promise of watching television causes them to be done more expeditiously in the early evening.

If possessing a TV set causes substantial modifications in the habits of those who are at home, it appears to have comparatively little power to keep at home those who would otherwise go out. Thus, whereas the average proportion of the Control Group who were not at home between 8.30 and 10.00 p.m. was 22 per cent., the corresponding proportion of the TV Group was 19 per cent.—only 3 per cent. less. Among the many activities in which those not at home were engaged was cinema-going. This did not in fact account for more than a small proportion, but this is of less significance than the fact that the differences between the Control Group’s and the TV Group’s cinema-going was substantial. Whereas an average of 3.3 per cent. of the Control Group were at the cinema during television transmission hours, the corresponding proportion of the TV Group was only two-thirds of this figure—2.2 per cent.

In all that has been said so far the TV Group has been considered as a whole; but it is of the first importance that variations between the behaviour of one type of viewer and another should be examined; for the television public is growing, and its composition changing, and if, for example, there are marked differences between the behaviour of new and ‘veteran’ viewers, or between that of viewers of various socio-economic classes, the pattern of behaviour of the TV public as a whole will alter as the balance between its component elements shifts.
Analysis in terms of the length of time that viewers had possessed their television sets revealed the extent to which, as the novelty of TV ownership wears off, viewing diminishes and old habits re-assert themselves. For example, among viewers who had had TV sets for less than a year, 51 per cent. were viewing and 11 per cent. listening at TV times, 19 per cent. were at home but neither viewing nor listening and the remaining I9 per cent. were out (including 2 per cent. at the cinema); but among viewers who had had their sets for at least two years, 41 per cent. were viewing, 16 per cent. were listening, 21 per cent. were at home but doing neither and 22 per cent. were out (including 3 per cent at the cinema). Thus viewing had diminished by one-fifth, and listening had increased by half as much again, though still of course remaining far below its Control Group level. The proportion out (including at the cinema) had reverted to a level not far short of that of the Control Group; which, by definition, had never possessed TV sets.

It may be remarked parenthetically that even if, as this evidence suggests, cinema-going habits are only temporarily disturbed by the acquisition of a T’V set, and that in a comparatively short time viewers are going to the movies as frequently as they ever did, viewers are week by week exposed to television for far longer than they are at the cinema. The enquiry shows that even the veteran viewers whose cinema-going habits had almost reverted to normal, were on the average watching sixteen evening TV transmissions for every visit to the pictures. The social implications of this fact are too obvious to need stressing.

Analysis by socio-economic group showed some equally important differences, important because it is to be expected that, as time passes, the lower socio-economic groups will constitute an increasing proportion of the TV public. A comparison of the well-to-do viewers on the one hand and of the manual working class viewers on the other showed that when among the well-to-do 37 per cent. were viewing, 16 per cent. listening, 24 per cent. at home but doing neither and the remaining 23 per cent. were out, among the working class the corresponding proportions were 51 per cent., 14 per cent., 18 per cent. and 17 per cent. Thus viewers in the highest socio-economic class were viewing less, but listening more, were more often prepared, though at home, to leave their radio and TV sets silent altogether, and were also more often out, than were viewers in the lowest socio-economic class. (Analysis showed that the differences described above were greater than could be accounted for by the fact that working class viewers were more prevalent among new than among veteran viewers.

Besides showing that viewers, even after the first novelty of ownership has worn off, watch TV far more often than they would have listened to sound broadcasting, the enquiry also showed that viewers discriminate between programmes much less than do listeners —and this tendency is just as apparent among veteran as among new viewers. To some extent, no doubt, this is attributable to the absence of any choice, and the limited length of the TV transmission. If the viewer wants to watch television then there is at present only one programme he can view, and the normal period of evening transmission is only an hour and a half.

It seems very doubtful, however, if this is the whole explanation, for another factor must be taken into account. Since television engages the sense of sight as well as the sense of hearing, its capacity to hold the attention of its audience is incomparably greater than that of sound broadcasting, which must perpetually compete with visual counter-attractions. The enquiry was able to express the effect of this in quantitative terms. Only one viewer in twenty intimated that while he watched TV he made an attempt to do something else at the same time; whereas eleven listeners in twenty showed that when listening in the peak hours of the evening they were simultaneously engaged in some other activity. But, whatever may be their relative importance, it seems clear that the absence of alternative TV programmes, the limited period of present TV transmissions, and TVs claim upon both eye and ear, together have brought about a situation which sharply differentiates viewing from listening, namely that viewing, far more than listening, is indulged in as an end in itself. In practical terms this means that, even after its novelty has worn off, people watch TV irrespective of programme content to a far greater extent than they listen with similar pliancy to sound broadcasting.

It would, of course, be very unwise to assume that conclusions drawn from observations on the phenomenon of viewing today are going to be valid for tomorrow. Whatever else is in doubt it is certain that television programmes will not remain the same, and so long as new forms are being evolved TV will in a sense continue to be novel. Furthermore, TV is still so young that viewers who have had their sets only two or three years have to be regarded as ‘veterans’. It may therefore be some years before it will be possible to say with certainty that there are viewers for whom the novelty of TV has entirely worn off. Nevertheless, if viewing continues to be regarded not only as a means to an end but also as an end in itself, then as television becomes more widespread there will be more and more people who are as viewers far readier than they were as listeners to pay heed to programmes which are unfamiliar, and perhaps at first uncongenial, to them. Highbrows and lowbrows may each be expected to view with greater catholicity than they have in the past been prepared to listen—though whether with greater tolerance remains to be seen. It must be left to others to speculate upon the possible future role of television as a catalytic agent in changing the pattern of contemporary culture.

Comments: Robert Silvey (1905-1981) was Head of Listener Research at the BBC. This in-house report, held at the BBC’s Written Archive Centre, was produced in 1948, two years after the fledging BBC Television service had returned following its closure throughout the period of the Second World War. At this period the regular broadcasting pattern was 3-4pm and two hours in the evening from 8.30pm.

Links: Copy at The Birth of TV

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 236-237

Text: 53. Miss …

You asked do films ever influence your life. Well I think that they do especially technicoloured films. I have always wanted to write an article on films and here at last is my chance. I am a great film fan and they certainly influence me. In fact I do not know what would have happened if films had never been invented — I have never been in love yet but I wish I had the chance of playing the role of wife to such stars as Allan Ladd Van Johnson Denis Morgan or Gene Kelly, neither have I been divorced yet, but if it is as nice as it appears on the screen in such films as Escape to Happiness or Old Acquantience (Acquaintance) Great Mans Lady or In This Our Life, O.K., I do not think I should have put (as nice) in describing divorce as it appears on the screen, but it is so thrilling and exciting.

Next on the list is manners. Well I wish above all things to possess such charming manners as Phyllis Thaxter as she appeared in I think her only film ever released Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. But I also like such mannerisms as Vivien Leigh, in Gone with the Wind or Irene Dunne’s such understanding manners in White Cliffs of Dover.

And lastly Fashion. Well nowadays give any girl the chance to wear any of the mordern [sic] clothes that you see on the films nowadays. For instance in Home in Indiana June Haver wore some beautiful clothes especially a Red coat and hat trimmed with Lambs wool and in Pin Up Girl Betty Grable wore a nice cream lace dresse (dress) and a smart white suite (suit), of course you imagine yourself in them so much more if the film is in technicolor (technicolour).

Now to question of films appearing in your dreams. Well they do in mine allright[.] In Doctor Wassell I dreamt I was fighting alongside of Gary Cooper and I imagined that I was a nurse like Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail, and in Stage Door Canteen I was a Hostess. These are just a few and it may seem silly but I do not think you enjoy a film if you are not living with it.

Age 18. Sex. Female. Nationality English. Profession, Cashier.
Profession of Parents. Engineer. Mother none.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’. People were asked to answer two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? Escape to Happiness is an alternative title for Intermezzo (USA 1939). The corrections in round brackets are in the original text (Technicolor is, of course, the correct spelling). All of the films mentioned were American.

Nights at the Alexandra

Source: William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra (London: Hutchinson, 1987)

Text: People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. Shoulders slumped, heads touched, eyes were lost in concentration. My brothers did not snigger in the Alexandra: my father, had he ever gone there, would have at last been silenced. Often I imagined the tetchiness of the Reverend Wauchope softening beneath a weight of wonder, and the sour disposition of his wife lifted from her as she watched All This and Heaven Too. Often I imagined the complicated shame falling from the features of Mr Conron. ‘I have told her you are happy,’ Herr Messinger said.

Comments: William Trevor (1928-2016) was a Irish novelist and short story writer. His bittersweet novella Nights at the Alexandra concerns a young man who becomes involved with an Englishwoman and her older German husband as they build a cinema in Ireland during the Second World War. Urney chocolates were popular throughout Ireland. All This and Heaven Too is a 1940 American feature film.

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), p. 222

Text: Miss…

Personally I find a good movie story enriches my memory and have proved that the cinema has educated the community and films have gained far more recruits for literature than the stage ever succeeded in doing.

Also recently when the whole world looked dark after a particularly trying week of hard work, I dropped into a local cinema to see Cover Girl, I left feeling amazingly refreshed, tackled the necessary household duties, and then — I made over one of my very old dresses (inspired by a dress worn by the star) arranged my hair a la Hayworth, and faced the world with new pep! And thanked my lucky stars I was fortunate to be living in this film-mad generation.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, for which responses were sought via Picturegoer in February 1945 to two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? The feature film Cover Girl (USA 1944) starred Rita Hayworth.

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 181-183

Text: Being a regular reader of Picturegoer I have decided to enter your contest not in the hope of winning a prize but in the hope you can or know of someone who can help me to realise one or two of my ambitions. I have enclosed a photo of myself in the hope it will be returned.

First I will give particulars of my parents and myself. I am 28 years, height 5 ft. 9 1⁄2 in., weight roughly 10 stone, Religion Roman Catholic, Strict T.T., Grey eyes, Auburn hair, Brownish complexion. Slim build, health moderate teeth bad. Not extra strong, could nearly be classed as a weakling. Plain appearances. Quiet disposition, very refined, Politeness a speciality. I could honestly say I speak International English; as we in the province of ….. have always had the reputation of speaking better English than the English themselves.

Profession. Unemployed. Shop Assistant, Grocery and Provision and light Hardware trade. I have done some light farm work too, I have never attended a dance and have no talent in the line of music. I have the gift of the gab as it were I like reading. Pictures, I have played Golf, Croquet, cards, some tennis, the profession of my late parents, Mother, a domestic servant, Father, Grocery, horse van driver.

Ambition No. 1. To get to Hollywood and to get small parts in films even insignificant ones. I would be happy even if I had to draw the dole some of the time.

Film Remarks. The film entitled 100 Men and a Girl starring Deanna Durbin seen by me about 7 yrs. ago have being the result of my second ambition I fell in love with Deanna Durbin and my love has grown for her every day. It is not just calflove or a passing infatuation but its the real thing. I follow all her films and one film of hers seen recently made me sad: Three Smart Girls Grow Up. I felt rotten over the trend of the picture and would much prefer to have sacrificed Jackie Coopers love affair. The entire crowd were disgusted with the finish, I am happy now D.D. is free from Vaughan Paul and it is my ambition and hope that one day I will be able to get to Hollywood and make my love known to her and I hope even though I am only an Irish peasant without financial or other mean to make the grandest star in Hollywood my wife, its all I live for and I would be ever grateful if you would send her my photo and letter. I wish her to know of my two ambitions as perhaps she could influence her Company to give me small parts, also I wish to tell her if ever we are married it will not be one for the divorce court to wreck, but one of happiness. One of honour and we will never double cross our promise to our Creator but will keep our vow until Death do us part. Glamour is not everything but peace, happiness and the love of God. Mutual respect for each other. Moral Religious and Political aspect, so give my love letter and photo to Deanna, I am a sentimentalist and cried sincerely when I seen Men of Boys Town also San Francisco I eat the American style with my knife and not fork, also films no one in particular have been responsible for my present refined manner. I have adopted the manners of the stars. Films and reading have been responsible for a lot of my Education.

2) Films have never appeared in my dreams.

I don’t expect to win a prize but I do hope you will send my letter and photo to Deanna Durbin you can send all this letter and I will be very grateful to you, tell Deanna it is not necessary to marry another star or person of position, love comes to the humblest.

P.S. Nationality of my parents and I is Irish.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, for which responses were sought via Picturegoer in February 1945 to two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams?

Cocks and Bulls in Caracas

Source: Olga Briceño, Cocks and Bulls in Caracas; how we live in Venezuela (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945), pp. 126-130

Text: Everyone is curious to know how we amuse ourselves in South America. What, they wonder, do those strange people do for fun? It’s simple enough. We amuse ourselves like anybody else, admitting the while, parenthetically, that the whole world is short on pastime, with popular imagination in this respect the victim of a pernicious anemia.

Our amusements are those of any other country, but with one peculiarity. Others find their fun outside; we find ours mostly within.

First of all, we have the movies. We are devotees of adjectives, superlatives, and dithyrambs. In certain individuals the harmless mania is particularly marked — in mothers speaking of their children, naturally, and in lovers proclaiming their devotion. Impresarios of public entertainment also suffer from it. This surprises no one. ‘You must blow your own horn’ has come to be, with us, a basic premise. As a result, any statement that is highly flavored with adjectives is automatically reduced by half in the mind of the listener. In the case of impresarios, especially of moving pictures, this drastic reduction falls far short of being enough. One should credit no more than half of half of what is claimed, or better, only half of that! The imagination of these good gentlemen is ultra-supercolossal.

No film is ever advertised in terms consistent with its quality. God forbid! If it were, no one would dream of going to it. After the customary discounting, it would appear an abstract minus quantity.

The time-honored grading of films that is regularly employed in the United States is practically unknown to us. It has been taken up to some slight extent in Caracas recently, but no one has bothered to explain the significance of it, and hence it conveys little or nothing. Venezuela is not grade-conscious like the United States. The only grades we know are the grades a student needs for his degree, the grades of fever shown by a thermometer, and the grades of — say, fervor, which no thermometer can show. The business of grading eggs or milk, for example, is not for us. Not yet.

Never is a film advertised merely by name, dates, and actors. Rather:

‘The most stupendous achievement of the Eighth Art. An unforgettable spectacle that will set you quivering with horror, joy, and anger. A veritable gem of modern moving pictures.’

‘The Downhill Donkey,’ let us say, is one such gay production which might be advertised, in fine print and parentheses, as ‘Grade F’ in North America. The announcement of it will fill a whole page in the daily papers, for in Venezuela, as everywhere else, fame is won by advertising, and impresarios spend real fortunes on publicity. Each strives to outdo the others, and their lives are spent in lawless rivalry, with magazines and papers the major beneficiaries. If all exhibitors were to agree to use a stipulated space, less money would be spent, and the result would be the same. But then the periodicals would be the losers, with sad results for us poor journalists.

When the public buys tickets to a movie, it is torn between the exhibitors’ publicity and its own skepticism. There is no telling what to expect. Hence any film is a surprise. Going to the movies is like roulette — you never know just where the ball will drop. Anyone who has been promised a sensation is bound to be surprised when he finds himself bored; if a sensation is not only promised but delivered, that is the biggest surprise of all.

Movies in Venezuela are not shown continuously. The admission fee buys a view of one film, regardless of grade; there is also a newsreel, but then — good night. This is not quite fair; I was forgetting that there is a fifteen-minute intermission too. At possibly its most exciting moment the film is stopped, the lights come on, gradually or with a flash, according to the impresario’s caprice, and boys come down the aisles to sell chocolate.

For many people the intermission is the high moment of the show. Think of it! Fifteen whole minutes in which to talk with friends, to see who has come with whom, to smoke a cigarette — but that must be done outside — to look at the women’s costumes and see how the men are looking. Fifteen minutes in which to emerge from the anonymity of darkness into the realm of light!

The showings at different hours are not equally important. The first is for children. The vespertina, at five o’clock, is for the formally engaged, who come accompanied by mother, aunt, sister, or little brother; that is also the time for well-bred girls of the old school, white, charming, distant, cool of manner. Altagracia prefers the vespertina. The intermediate showing, which begins at seven, is attended by people in mourning who do not wish to be conspicuous, by couples who may be shady or perhaps just not officially engaged as yet, and by families in good standing but reduced circumstances who have neither new clothes to show nor the five bolivares which are the price of the fashionable performances.

The last, at nine o’clock, is for family parties, the world of fashion, marriageable daughters who are not bespoken, night owls, and the generally emancipated, as well as for the wealthy and those supposed to be wealthy, since it is the most expensive. That is the time to display the new gown, the darling hat just received from Paris, the sweetheart, and financial affluence.

Different films are presented at any one day’s performances. The one shown at nine rates a whole page of publicity; from that peak a film descends to the vespertina, with a quarter page, and finally, in complete decadence, to the common grave which is the intermediate or the matinee performance and warrants only a stingy little epitaph of an advertisement that gives nothing but title and time. Vanitas vanitatum! as the disillusioned Preacher said.

In the smaller towns movies are far more enjoyable than in Caracas. Performances are usually presented out-of-doors, and the weather is always mild. Surrounded by low walls, the movie houses have the finest roof imaginable — a tropical sky of magic beauty, with moon, stars, Southern Cross, and all. One night Altagracia and I watched a raging Arctic blizzard with polar bears, ice-bound ships, seals, Eskimos, and all the frozen seasonings, while the heavens above seemed about to drop from the weight of stars, crickets chirped, and the intoxicating odor of magnolias filled the air. Grown blasé by travel, books, and fashion, we savored the incongruity and smiled in superiority, but the general public, farmers, muleteers, cowboys, travelers, Venezuelans all, exposed the virgin purity of their responsive souls to their emotions, and some even suffered a chill. A few dogs which had sneaked in among the seats barked at the polar bears. Several poor children who were watching, on horseback, outside, were excited by the snowstorm and produced a red one of their own with petals from the roses blooming on the wall; their perfumed shower caressed our faces. Suddenly, beside me, a thick but pleasant voice spoke with a countrified accent:

‘Will the young lady please shove over just a little?’

A farmer who had arrived late was looking for a seat. Frequently, in small-town theaters, the seats are only benches. The fellow must have hesitated a long time before venturing to bother us, but weariness at last had overcome timidity. Hat in hand, he waited for us to shove over and then sat down on the very end of the bench. When finally he had forgotten we were there, he gave free rein to his emotions. We watched him suffer, rejoice, worry, and laugh with the various episodes of the film. For him shouting children, barking dogs, the cries of vendors, stars, scents, had all ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, squeezed into her seat, Altagracia was grumbling about democracy and the absurd idea of rubbing elbows with anyone who came along. But all at once she stopped complaining and began to smile quietly. Her eyes had fallen on a pair of lovers, a half-breed muleteer and a dark-eyed country girl. They were holding hands in silence, and in their faces were reflected the beauty of the starlit night and all the fondness in the world. Southern Cross, rose petals, and magnolias seemed quite in keeping with that idyll unfolding on the bench of a country movie.

Comments: Olga Briceño (1925-1977) was a Venezuelan journalist, travel writer, novelist, lecturer and diplomat, who mostly wrote in Spanish. She was cultural attaché for her country in Cuba and the USA, and co-owner with her husband, Dr. Francis Threadgill, of the Washington modern art Gres Gallery, 1958-62. Her charming book Cocks and Bulls in Caracas, describing family life in her native land, was published in English in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), p. 238

Text: AGE: 64 SEX: M. NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: BRICKLAYER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HELPMATE TO FATHER

I am going to mention the titles of four films. First The Common Touch. I cannot remember ever enjoying a film so much as this as regards a film for what I call a working class audience. To me there were no special ‘stars’ all actors and actress’s were of equal value, it was a very human, sensibly and elevating story, very well acted. The second picture or film is Smiling Through featuring Jeannette MacDonald and other ‘stars’. As I sat watching and listening to this film story I seemed to be taking part in it myself, and each time I saw it (and I saw it many times) I enjoyed it more and more. The singing was superb, the acting was such that it made the story very real, the facial expressions of all taking part was very convincing although I saw it during war time, it made me forget war, and lifted my thoughts to higher levels, this was a clean, decent and elevating film, and time well spent seeing it and also well worth the money paid.

Sentimentally yes, upholding that most beautiful of all things Love, yes, and if these two things were to die out, I think this world, would be even a poorer place than it is to day. Love is ridiculed far too much in some pictures or films and on the ‘stage’ yes I know that I am old fashioned, but let us have more films like these two. And now from the sublime to the most ridiculous, I refer to two films, in which I got up out of my seat to leave the cinema, I was that disgusted, but I saw them through. First The Miracle of Morgans Creek a film that was anything but elevating, in fact, if the producer had been sitting with me, and had heard what some children were saying about it I think his face would have gone very red, a film that was of no use to the world, in fact not even a good moral film. The other film was Cassonova Brown [sic] perhaps, it was with seeing Gary Cooper in such stirring films before, and then to see him in a dud film such as this, another film that I think could have been done without. Yes let us have ‘Decent’ films like the first two I have mentioned. If anyone should have had an Oscar award, I think all the leading ‘stars’ in Smiling Through should have one each. As I am getting on in years, perhaps I shall never have the chance to travel, so I would like to see more travel films, which are a delight, and also good education. Films with Jazz and Swing bands I do not like, they are far too harsh.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and Their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. The films mentioned are The Common Touch (UK 1941), Smiling Through (USA 1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (USA 1944) and Casanova Brown (USA 1944).

Magic Moments

Source: John Sutherland, Magic Moments: Life-Changing Encounters with Books, Films, Music … (London: Profile Books, 2008), pp. 1-2, 5, 8

Text: I could see stories before I could read them. And the first narrative I recall seeing is the film Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. I was around five years old. I’d had my Lacanian moment, in front of my mother’s dressing-table mirror. I knew I was I. Whatever that was.

All that ‘I’ can remember of the narrative of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery – stored haphazardly in the basement level of my sensibility – is a handful of vivid but disconnected snapshots. One such is the pulsing-beeping RKO logo (it carried one back, I now hypothesise, to the womb, and that life-sustaining maternal heartbeat). I had left that foetal haven just sixty months earlier. the only other residue is some scraps from the ten-minute chase scene which the makers of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery tacked on to the end of the movie.

That, alas, is it.

The Colchester Gazettte for that week in 1944 informs me that the film (which ran something under seventy minutes) was shown at the Hippodrome in a double bill with a cowboy film. Whether I sat through that other film, I don’t recall.

The narrative of the Tarzan movie, as I have recently re-experienced it (on DVD, after an interval of six decades), is bizarre …

… What stuck in my five-year-old mind (the only thing that, as it happens, did stick) were deadly sticky Venus flytraps, whose stamens shot up, without warning, nine feet out of the ground, creating a cage with quivering snake bars in which the victim was fatally imprisoned. Cheeta, I vividly recall, escapes by outjumping the deadly stamens. the less nimble Tarzan – Venus flytrapped – is assisted in his escape by his trusty, but bored-looking, pachyderm pals, summoned from their elephant grove by the famous Weissmullerian yell …

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, as I experienced and archived it in my pinched little tabula rasa, squirming excitedly on my one-and-ninepenny seat, was all man-eating, octopoid vegetables, Triffids avant la lettre. the brain is very strange. I would carry those veggy-killers with me through life. Even now, I never look at fried calamari without thinking of them and somewhere deep inside, shuddering.

I remember where I saw the film film in more concrete detail than the flickering narrative itself. It was at the Hippodrome, in Colchester High Street. More precisely, in the downstairs stalls alongside my mother, who intended the outing as a treat for me. Her own treats at the time were more adult, and involved Americans who were carnal rather than celluloid. She, in her Colcestrian way, was a Venus flytrap.

Comments: John Sutherland (1938 – ) is a British literary critic and newspaper columnist, known for the literary puzzle books Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? His father had died the year before in a wartime accident when he was four. His childhood and early adulthood memoir is told through the books and films that made a vivid impression on him. Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (US 1943) starred the former Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. His chimpanzee companion was called Cheeta.

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 198-201

Text: AGE: 20 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: SHORTHAND-TYPIST NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: POLICE CONSTABLE MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I have not the time to be a habitual picturegoer, so when I get the chance to spend a few hours in the cinema, naturally I choose the film I wish to see. I often think that I have more enjoyment this way than if I were to visit a picture-house two or three times in a week.

My animosity against the cinema is not strong – I know what I like and on the whole I am satisfied. Starting with the main feature, I like a good story that is essential and I like the producer to stick to the story, that is if he is making an adaption from a book. I really can’t see any reason for side-tracking into scenes alien from the general text. I can think on one film – Madame Curie – one I looked forward to seeing because I was familiar with her life story and thought it juicy material for the film world to knawe [sic]. I saw Madame Curie, or rather I saw Greer Garson, a dashing glamourised, good actress making me believe that she had known poverty! The film should have been called The Love Story of Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodovska – not Madame Curie. I wanted to see her when she was old, her work during the Great World War No. I – they did not have to employ battle scenes for that part of her life, it could have been portrayed in a field hospital – and it would have given colour (not technicolour) to that part of her life. What I did see of the ageing Madame Curie was a perfect Hollywood make-up addressing a hall of eager students, a perfect Hollywood ending. If the war had not been on, would it not have been a good experiment to make this film with an international film unit. I like a good scientific picture, but they are not good box office unless they are garlanded with Hollywood roses, and this seems to prevent a producer taking a chance. What excellent material these cautious men are missing, but what chances they are giving lesser known independent companies.

I like continental films in their original state, not remakes by our own studios. I like these films because they are sincere no matter how absurd the plot may be or trivial the dialogue. There is good honest down-to-earth work put into these films and I like to applaud their efforts.

I have enjoyed a few good adaptions from best-sellers, one in particular – Rebecca. More than once I have spent an evening in a cinema showing this film, in preference to a third rate at another hall. In my opinion this film was a ‘first’, almost perfect in acting, dialogue and scenery and the music, I must not miss out an important part of the film. They kept to the book as near as they could and I passed over the adaptions necessary in this case they helped the film.

Two films of a serious nature, that seems to be my taste. Comedy? Has to be a very good picture before I can let myself go. Irene Dunne’s pictures seem to be the answer, here I can see wit performed in a sophisticated manner, laughable fun as she canters through not always improbable situations. As for the other comediens [sic] on the screen, I snap my fingers at them, but that is just my taste.

I never did like war films and I still don’t like anything with the slightest flavour of war. My reason? I have no wish to relive the past in a cinema.

I come to the second features, usually what I look forward to. My first choice is James A. Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks. I bow to this man, and I thank him for his work which I am sure he enjoys thoroughly for bringing his country to my eyes. How often has one of his films superseded a highly coloured main feature. Another second feature series – Crime Does Not Pay. We don’t get enough of them and surely crime is just as rampant here as in the States. Couldn’t Scotland Yard co-operate with the English studios and start a series over here. Then on very rare occasions when I am lucky enough to see one, I enjoy the little cameos on medical research where silent acting predominates and the narrator in plain American explains the subject. Westerns I don’t dislike, but feel indifference towards them. The Stooges – a man threesome enjoyed by the children, but not by me. The Marx Brothers I do like, but I can count on one hand the times I have seen them!

Only once have I seen an experimental film made in America. It was badly made and the story was piecey, but there was enthusiasm oozing through the lens of the camera. The Seventh Victim was the title I have yet to find out who the second victim was. This film was trying to break away from the usual run of mysteries, to bring its art to the man in the street and if they failed, it was through no fault of trying. Taking all defects into consideration, I admired the work put into it and the acting of the unknown young actors and actresses who had been given a chance to show what they could do. That chance means a great deal when you are striking out for yourself.

On the whole, I don’t care where a film is made whether it is in China or over here, so long as it conveys to me that here is good material and here is a good film. What I would like is an international studio producing films of the world in general and isn’t there a saying about two heads being better than one, but in this case, it would be much more.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. The films mentioned are Madame Curie (USA 1943), Rebecca (USA 1940), the Crime Does Not Pay series (USA 1935-1948), and The Seventh Victim (USA 1943, a horror film but not experimental as such). James A. FitzPatrick’s TravelTalks was a series of travelogues (USA 1930-1954) characterised by its cheerful but bland tone.

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 233-234

Text: This letter is in answer to your appeal for help from members of the cinema audiences. I am a female, aged 17 yrs. 2 mths. and of British nationality. I am still at school at present, and I hope to enter into the teaching profession in the due course of time. My father is a bricklayer and also Secretary of a Trade Union, my mother is a housewife.

In answer to question one. I have seen many films and I have always liked to watch closely the women’s manner of dress, or hair style. I may say that in many cases I have copied the styles but the most dominant film with regard to fashions were. Hair style. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Dress. Now Voyager.

And with regard to a film I have dreamt about I can safely name The Corsican Brothers, starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Ruth War[r]ick. That film I dreamt about for many nights, and I remember especially that the death scene of Julian the twin brother of Mario was the piece I remembered most vividly.

With regard to dreams I have also dreamt about a serial film that I saw when I was the age of 11 or 12 years. That film was Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. I can quite confidently say that I remember practically all of that film until a few weeks ago and then I saw part of it again as a weekly serial at a picture palace in our town.

It served to refresh my memory on the parts I had forgotten and I am sure I shall think and dream of it for a good many more years.

I think the facts that made it stick in my mind for such a long time was that it was of a strange planet and the costumes were also very strange. The hero and heroine and party did perform many incredible deeds but what did annoy me was the fact that many people in the cinema when they saw the Marsians (Martians) in the film doing things that seemed slightly unnatural to us, laughed!

I regard everyone who laughed at that film as a fool! They have no foresight. They have no understanding, nor did they try to understand.

I think there is a possibility of our, one day, trying to reach Mars by means of a rocket ship, after all they are trying to reach the moon shortly, so why not Mars?

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, for which responses were sought via Picturegoer in February 1945 to two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams?