We return to the history of the cinema in Wem...

IN THE mid-20th century, Wem Cinema, as part of a small regional chain, usually took the second and third runs of films after the major national chains, ABC, Gaumont, Odeon, took the first runs, for newly-released films.

There was a ‘quota’ that required distributors to take a number of British films. Small regional chains would sometimes take up the slack and newly-released films would appear on the programme.

The 1959 playlist also shows that Wem Cinema was screening recent films Carry On Sergeant with William Hartnell – the first Doctor (Who) – and Bob Monkhouse (1958); The Duke Wore Jeans with Tommy Steele, June Laverick (1958); Gideon’s Day with Jack Hawkins, Dianne Foster (1958); The Wind Cannot Read with Dirk Bogarde (1958).

Enough patrons were coming from the villages for film adverts to be placed at a number of sites.

Locations for posters covered from Cockshutt to Prees Green, from Stanton on Hine Heath to Steel Heath.

There were numerous poster sites in town: Co-op Stores (Station Road), Obertelli’s Fish Shop (New Street), Maund Cycle Stores (High Street), the Vine Vaults and many more.

Light refreshments also provided a steady income stream.

A letter from 1953 shows that the range of confectionary available to customers included Mars Bars, Bounty Bars, Spangles, Popcorn, etc plus various ice creams.

Ice cream was supplied by Eldorado Ice Cream Ltd (Devon Creamery, 54-76, Stamford St, London SE1) purveyors of other iced products, including lollies, HappiKups, choc ices, bricks.

A programme advertisement suggests that customers could purchase their sweets, chocolates, and cigarettes before the show from Pemberton’s (Confectioners) of 36, High Street. It seems unlikely that Edward Taylor would have been aware or pleased with this idea!

In 1959, the opening times were Monday to Tuesday, and Friday at 6.45pm; Saturday, 4.45pm with prices from 10d to 2/6.

One Wemian commented that the finish time was after the last bus to the villages left. If you didn’t live in Wem, you had the choice of walking home or getting a friend to tell you ‘what happened’.

By 1960, Wem was no longer part of the Taylor chain and Frederick Lodwick was running the cinema in Wem Town Hall.

A contract with Wem Urban District Council shows him paying £1/15/- per night to provide cinematograph entertainments, variety turns or theatrical enterprises on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday nights from 6pm to 12am, and Saturday from 2pm to midnight.

The tenant was responsible for order and decorum, and had to employ a caretaker on performance nights.

An extension of the lease was requested in 1964 with the comment that trade was very bad and screenings difficult to obtain but that an attempt would be made to keep the cinema open as long as possible.

The lease was renewed for six months with the rent for June-August reduced to £1/10/- per night.

Along with other small cinemas, Wem Cinema was facing two growing problems: competition from TV and patrons being able to travel more easily to the larger towns where more current films were being screened.

This increasingly easier means of transport and multiplying had a negative and wider impact on small market towns.

By the 1970s, films were only shown monthly on Monday nights. These were not the latest releases, but mainly from the 1950s (Carousel, 1956; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954) with occasional ones from the 1960s (Born Free, 1966).

Gone to Earth (1950) was also shown. This was not a surprising choice since it was filmed in Much Wenlock and used a number of locals as extras.

The arrangement was more akin to the film clubs that operated in many schools and no comparison to the situation in the 1940s and 50s.

In November 1995 fire destroyed Wem Town Hall, leaving only the façade.

Rebuilding commenced using lottery funding. Since 2006, Wem Town Hall Community Trust has worked hard to bring Wem Town Hall back into community use.

Revival of the cinema was one of the ventures.

Harry Futers, who as a young man had worked as a projectionist at the Gaumont in Manchester, volunteered to operate the cinema and worked with Paul Roberts, the manager.

Harry boarded up the walls of the projection room, leaving small portholes because the huge amounts of glass allowed a direct view of the interior and light interfered with the show.

He also did all the adverts. As well as the film projector there was a digital projector operating from a computer that was used to show forthcoming attractions.

Harry and Rod Owen organised around five shows a week. Putting the film together was much more complex than the modern systems.

Sarah Zacherak and Harry attended a lecture at the Odeon in Manchester on digital cinema.

That spelt the end of the age of the film reels as digitised systems spread throughout cinemas in the 2010s.

As a community-centred group, Wem Town Hall often works with other local organisations.

In November 2010, there was a joint event with Wem Civic Society, which included a showing of The Great Escape.

This Hollywood version is based on the true story of allied airmen escaping Stalag III, a Luftwaffe POW camp. It starred Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance and Charles Bronson.

In real life, one of the POWs who escaped was Wem-born Fl Lt Cyril Swain who was recaptured and murdered by the Gestapo, and is commemorated on the town’s war memorial.

This was linked to a talk by Geoff Harriman on ‘Project 104 – the Great Escape’. A guest at the talk was Clair Drever, the daughter of one of the RAF personnel who worked on the escape from the Stalag.

Wem Cinema now has two or three screenings a week with recently-released films plus dementia-friendly sessions using older films.