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No TV, no internet, no games console. What would you do for entertainment? In the 1940s, the answer was to go to the cinema.
Already popular in the 1930s, cinema-going became a national obsession during the Second World War, with attendances rising by 50% between 1939 and 1942. There are two reasons normally given for this increase: people flocked to see the latest news from the War and, paradoxically, to seek escapism from it. High levels of employment and rising incomes also played a role.
Audiences peaked in 1946, with total cinema admissions reaching 1.6 billion, equivalent to every man, woman and child in the UK going to the pictures 33 times that year.
While remaining high by today’s standards, cinema attendances began to fall in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The decline was accelerated as television ownership became widespread. In 1955, a third of households had a television; by 1970, over nine in ten owned one. The cinema could not compete, and admissions fell by 85% over the same period.
This trend continued into the early 1980s as another source of competition was introduced in the form of the VCR. Despite the release of such cinematic classics as Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop, attendances reached their lowest point in 1984, when only 54 million tickets were bought: less than one trip per person over the whole year. Since then, audiences have recovered, helped by the introduction and expansion of multiplex cinemas. Total admissions in 2011 were 172m.
In international terms, cinema-going in the UK is more popular than in many comparable countries, such as Germany and Italy. However, more Americans, French and Australians go the cinema on a per capita basis. Yet even Iceland’s current world-beating 5.2 admissions per person pales in comparison to the popularity of cinema in the UK during its golden era.
As TV and VCR ownership increased, cinema attendance plummeted
The chart shows total cinema attendances in each year since 1935.