By Susannah Yeomans
When the long threatened closure of the Savoy came close to becoming reality in 2006 there was uproar. The owners announced that they would be selling the building and Barracuda group made an offer, planning to build a pub on the site. The plans were rejected however and The Savoy is still standing and running as a cinema today. It’s a Heaton Moor icon – a symbol of our community’s ability to both survive and develop.
Ironically, when proposals to build the cinema were originally released back in 1921, local residents protested with similar gusto. Petitioned signatures came mainly from church groups, who would have seen cinema as a threat to local morality! In his book Picture Palace to Supercinema, William Shenton notes “partial and imaginary, the cinema did bring a wider world – especially through the news reels – to a provincial and traditionally minded audience.” There were more practical reasons for its indecorous image too. The darkened interior of a cinema afforded unprecedented privacy to courting couples, leading some proprietors to turn up the lighting! They later backtracked though, realising that darkness was a crucial factor in creating that feeling of total immersion that made up the ‘magic’ of cinema.
Opening in 1923, The Savoy came early in the time line of cinema. Cinemas in fact only came into existence after ‘The Cinematograph Act’ was passed in 1909. The act dictated that any building exhibiting a film must hold a licence; in the main part this was to ensure fire safety, a major concern due to the use of the highly flammable nitrate film. Previously films were shown in theatres, halls or tents by travelling showmen. Now licensed, purpose-built venues started to appear – ‘cinemas.’
In its earliest years the Savoy showed silent films and would have included live musical accompaniment (sound technology arrived in the UK in 1929, and was fitted in the Savoy in 1930). An example of a smaller neighbourhood cinema of the 1920s, it is modest in comparison to grander ‘Supercinemas’ which appeared around Stockport in the 1930s.
The Savoy is one of only two of Stockport’s original cinemas still running (the other being the Regent in Marple), of which there stood 28 in 1946. Cinema began to lose popularity when television arrived in the North West in 1949, a demise which continued throughout the latter part of the century. Business continued for the Savoy however, and in 1970 the building underwent major refurbishment. Signs outside the closed building proclaimed “We start shaping the ultimate in luxury cinema going.”
The renovation echoed a renaissance felt in cinema during the 1970s as blockbusters such as Star Wars and Jaws hit the screens. Epic sound and visual effects reaffirmed the unique experience offered by cinema.
Sadly, the advent of huge multiplex cinemas has created unconquerable competition for the likes of The Savoy, and its survival has looked increasingly unlikely. But many Heatonians would hate to see its demise and it’s rumoured that plans are afoot for a rescue mission – so watch this space!