There are a selection of articles that David Evans has spotted in the huge Gerald Reece collection that have really interested me and are very much worth a share – they are from a very much lost local history book by noted author and historian Ned Williams about local cinemas, and give the most complete history I’ve ever seen of the picture houses of the area – including Brownhills.
Today’s article covers the Regent Cinema, Brownhills which I know many readers remember with fondness, like Mike Stackhouse here.
The following article (and ones to come) are all from a book I’ve never managed to obtain a copy of, and I last saw change hands for upwards of £30: ‘The Cinemas of Aldridge and Brownhills’ by Ned Williams, published in 1984. Gerald had kept copies of the articles and I feature the first here, about The Palace Cinema in Brownhills.
The Regent stood on the High Street where Ravens Court is now.
The book was published by Uralia Press, of 28 Westland Road Wolverhampton with the ISBN of 0 946406 07 3 – do get a copy if you can. I pay tribute here to the immense cannon of work by Ned Williams, a truly remarkable author and researcher.
THE REGENT, BROWNHILLS
As made clear in the chapter on the Palace, Brownhills, the first cinema in the town was provided by Sidney Bray of Dudley, eventually in partnership with his brother-in-law Wally Davies. However, films had certainly been seen in the town long before the opening of the Palace. As in almost every other part of Britain, the inhabitants of Brownhills first saw films as presented by travelling showmen at the fairground. Among the showmen and fairground folk who came to Brownhills Wake were the Jervis brothers: Miles, Edward and Tom.
The Jervis family originally came from Yorkshire and were marketeers dealing in pottery. During the nineteenth century pot-fairs, like horse-fairs and goose-fairs became associated with providing entertainment for town dwellers and it was inevitable that traders themselves dabbled in providing the rides and amusements of the fairs, and the latter became more profitable than the original trade. Films, presented by the “bioscope” and “kinematograph” were a popular fairground attraction from 1896 onwards. As the medium gained in popularity two things happened. Firstly the presentation of the show became more elaborate, and therefore cumbersome to the showman. Secondly, there was a growing temptation to stay in one place and continue one’s success on a permanent basis. The Jervis brothers settled in the mining communities of the Cannock Coalfield.
Edward Jervis rented a market hall in Chasetown and installed kinematograph equipment. Strangely enough he could not bring himself to settle down in one place at this time and he sold the enterprise to his brother Miles (hereafter referred to as Miles Jervis I, to distinguish him from his son and grandson of the same name). The oldest brother, Tom Jervis, did so well in Heath Hayes that he decided to stay — building a proper brick wall around his former travelling show. This received its first Kine licence as a “movable structure” in the summer of 1915. As we will see in the next chapter of this book Tom and Miles Jervis I later took over the Palace, Walsall Wood but they did not venture into Brownhills as Sidney Bray was established there.
By the mid twenties Edward Jervis seems to have come to terms with his wanderlust, perhaps influenced by the success of his brothers. He took over the Palace, Walsall Wood (see later chapter), and cast his eyes on Brownhills. Apparently he may have tried to persuade Messrs Bray and Davies to part with the Palace and may have found them unwilling to sell it. Undeterred by this it seems that he decided to build his own superior cinema in Brownhills in open competition with the Palace. He acquired a site in Brownhills High Street and then set about building the cinema himself.
The mid twenties was a strange time to choose to build a new cinema in such a community. The coal strikes of 1921 and 1926 had both created serious recessions in the town, shops had laid-off staff etc… But one ‘advantage’ of this was a ready supply of labour which enabled Edward Jervis to find skilled assistance in building the Regent, without formerly engaging a contractor. A bricklayer named Mr. Anderson supervised much of the work. Bill Hatton followed Edward Jervis from the Palace, Walsall Wood (see next chapter) and assisted by digging gravel for despatch to the building site by horse and cart. Four loads a day were needed to make enough concrete for the balconette!
The auditorium was set back from the High Street and originally only had a narrow entrance, surrounded by existing shops. The red-carpetted passage from the entrance was just big enough for two queues; one for the stalls and one for the small balconette.
It has been extremely difficult to establish beyond all doubt when the Regent was completed and opened. Bill Hatton who was working for Edward Jervis at the time is sure that it opened in September 1927. On the other hand there is some evidence that it was not until the latter half of 1928. The Regent’s existence is first recorded in the Kine Year Book for 1929 which would mean that 1928 was the latest year in which it could have opened. It was built as a ‘silent’ cinema, but the talkies were on their way. Had it not been for the coming of sound the Palace would have had to concede defeat to the newcomer, but the coming of sound created an interesting situation in Brownhills.
The Talkies, represented by The Singing Fool, made their West Midlands debut in Birmingham at the Futurist on 18th March 1929. The film arrived in Walsall five months later. Meanwhile, local cinemas fought to be first to present sound – by one means or another. At Chase Terrace, Miles Jervis I was quick to pursue the possibilities of sound-on – disc. Ted Jervis at the Regent opted for the sound – on – film system. Ironically the Palace chose the other system and the battle between the two cinemas was turned to their advantage. For a time only short films were available for sound – on film projection while the Palace was able to screen the popular feature-length sound films. In the end the Regent adopted the Marshall sound system. Ironically the acoustics of a wood-lined tin shed were often superior to those of a brick building!
The rivalry between the Palace and the Regent ceased when Ted Jervis sold his cinema to Sidney Bray and Wally Davies. It seems that the wanderlust was affecting Ted Jervis again and he set off to acquire four very small cinemas in North Wales. This happened in 1931, confirmed by Kelly’s Directory in 1932 in which Messrs Bray and Davies are listed as proprietors of the Regent. Jim Hatton, in his own impressive commissionaire’s uniform, and Bill Hatton had both followed Edward Jervis from Walsall Wood to Brownhills but they did not stay at the Regent for long after the change in ownership. Bill Hatton had been the cinema’s bill-poster, but in 1932 this finished when Messrs Bray and Davies presumably put Jack Turner in charge of both Brownhills’ cinemas and began closing the Palace during the summer months and only opening for three days during the winter. Bill Hatton had driven Edward Jervis’s car once or twice and on the strength of this experience, and as a result of several coincidences, he started to drive a lorry for the brickyard, meanwhile working part-time again at Walsall Wood for Enoch Simpson! (see next chapter).
Jack Turner’s brother, Charlie, became the ‘chief operator’ at the Regent for Messrs Bray and Davies. Sometimes he was assisted by Tom Bridgen, who, as described in the previous chapter, had joined the staff of the two cinemas at the age of fourteen in 1936. The ubiquitous Harry Russell also appears in the Regent’s story at about this time. Sidney Bray engaged him to assist Charlie Turner for eight shillings (40p) a week.
Wally Davies and Sidney Bray decided to improve and enlarge the Regent. Plans were drawn by Messrs Cleland and Hayward of Wolverhampton, and it was proposed to turn the small balconette into a proper circle, and raise the roof as part of the auditorium. The Regent was also to acquire a new frontage and, as can be seen from the photograph this was quite impressive, the vertical ‘fin’ bringing the ‘moderne’ cinema style to Brownhills High Street. It seems that the rebuilding took place in two distinct stages, the work on the frontage taking place after the other work had been done and thus making interpretation of the surviving sheets of the plans rather difficult.
Holding 468 patrons in the stalls and 148 in the new circle, the capacity of the Regent would now be 634. (Sometimes this is listed as 700 and 750). The contractor engaged to carry out the alterations was John Felton, who also built the Lyttleton at Halesowen for Sidney Bray. The work was carried out in 1938, and while the Regent was temporarily closed the Palace enjoyed a return to six days a week film shows!
Sidney Bray died in December 1940 and his share in the Regent passed to his son, Bernard Bray. The thirty-year-old Bernard was already managing the Lyttleton at Halesowen and therefore it seemed natural to let ‘Uncle Wally’ carry on looking after the cinema in Brownhills. (I write ‘cinema’ in the singular as I assume that the Palace had closed by the time of Sidney Bray’s death). The Regent was still managed by Jack Turner, but Wally Davies exercised a fairly personal interest in it. Even Mrs. Bray (Wally’s sister) and her son Bernard were seen at Brownhills. For a long time the operator was Denis Toddington. While the War was on he had started working part-time at the Regent. Like most other part-time cinema staff in this area, he worked at Walsall Wood Colliery by day. He began his career at the Regent by taking tickets and graduated to the operating box.
In 1954 Jack Turner, and the operator, Denis Toddington had great reason to be proud of the Regent. They were the first to instal Cinemascope equipment on the Staffordshire side of Birmingham – beating their rivals in Walsall. The existing screen had to be used, and this was modified to the correct ratio by lowering a curtain, but the stereophonic sound, from eighteen loudspeakers was delivered in all its glory. The new equipment cost £4,500 which led to an extra 3d being added to the price of the dearest seats: l/6d! When The Robe opened on 12th July 1954 it was almost the twenty-fifth anniversary of sound arriving in Brownhills. Shortly afterwards facilities were installed for screening films in Vista Vision. All this activity led the Regent to advertise its existence in the Walsall Observer for a few months.
The Regent was in the news once again in the summer of 1956. Bernard Bray and Wally Davies were summoned to appear before Brownhills Magistrates for failing to observe ‘Quota Regulations’ during the year they had installed Cinemascope. The Quota System was designed to protect the British film industry by demanding that cinemas showed a percentage of home-produced films. It was a system that was disliked by the trade, and indirectly by the public, as well as having a quirky effect on both the manufacture and exhibition of films. In 1953/54 the quota was 30%,and the Regent had only shown 23.9% of British films. The defendants pleaded a lack of British Cinemascope films but were fined anyway. Bernard Bray complained to the press, ‘We have been penalised because we were too progressive and wanted to bring the Regent right up to date.’
In February 1959 Bernard Bray died at the early age of forty-nine. Wally Davies was left to look after the Regent at a difficult time, and shortly afterwards the future of the Regent was threatened by the possible redevelopment of that part of Brownhills High Street. To bring the history of the cinema round in full circle the Regent returned to the Jervis family.
The final owner of the Regent was Miles Jervis III, the grandson of Miles Jervis I and the grand-nephew of Edward Jervis who had built the Regent’ When Bernard Bray had died early in 1959 it left Wally Davies with the problem of not only running the Regent, but also of booking the films. Wally Davies was then in his late sixties and was anxious to find help in this matter. Help came from Miles Jervis III, who had been trained in the business by his father, Miles Jervis II. (The latter and Bernard Bray had common interests as independent exhibitors much concerned with finding suitable programmes for their cinemas). Miles Jervis III helped Wally Davies with film booking until finally acquiring the Regent at the end of 1961. Wally Davies then retired to the house in Dudley where Sidney Bray had once lived and where he had built hydroplanes in a workshop! He died in 1972 but most of his effects, including plans of the Regent and photographs of the Palace and Regent survived in that house for almost another decade.
Denis Toddington, the operator, stayed for three months while the new owner established himself. In February 1962, a project was announced to bring the Regent into line with the cinemas at Cannock and Aldridge.
The new manager, Mr. W. J. Jelly, who could boast of thirty-four years in the business, said that a new screen and surround was planned, and that the seating in the circle was being replaced by a more luxurious type. The foyer, which he described as being like a barn at the time, was to be remodelled in contemporary style and a large sales kiosk was to be incorporated. New signs would illuminate the cinema’s High Street frontage.
To encourage the development of the cinema-going habit, Mr Jelly had started a childrens’ club which was already flourishing. Of more importance to adult film fans, he was to obtain films in the future almost immediately they left Walsall’s first run cinemas. Mr Jelly expected all this work to be completed by Easter and it was possible then that the cinema’s name would be changed from the Regent to the New Palace.
The Regent continued to be a well-patronised and profitable cinema, but the threat of redevelopment still hung over it, so the improvements and new name never took place. In the event, Miles Jervis III was only able to operate the Regent for about nine months before it became the victim of a Compulsory Purchase Order. It closed on 29th September 1962 with John Ford’s masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. With hindsight, it is possible to see what a wonderful choice of final film this was. I doubt if anyone in the audience heard the famous line, ‘Print the legend’, and thought of the history of local cinemas, but maybe someone realised that the town of Shinbone featured in the film was Brownhill’s transatlantic alter-ego, and that Shinbone’s Liberty Valance was like Brownhill’s Dick Turpin, who had once sped past the future site of the Regent, creating a legend [Oh dear god no – Bob].
After closure the Regent was boarded up until demolished for redevelopment of the area, which began just over a year later, on 10th November 1963. Today the site is occupied by the Ravens Court Shopping Precinct.
This remarkable material has have been very generously supplied by the great local historian Gerald Reece, and beautifully prepared for posting by the wonderful David Evans for blog readers to enjoy.
I thank Gerald and David for yet another remarkable article – you are a very wonderful and generous gentlemen.
Gerald Reece, like the author Ned Williams is of course a talented and superlative local historian, now resident in Devon, who wrote the seminal work ‘Brownhills – A walk into history’ upon which this blog stands.
If you have any thoughts or questions on the Regent or any other cinema in Brownhills, please do share them – comment here, find me on social media or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Thanks.