Behind the screen

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Cinema buildings suggest many aspects of inquiry for GCSE projects, says Kate Taylor.

Cinemas make ideal subjects for a GCSE history project, according to Richard Evans, head of history at the Manor School, a York 11-16 comprehensive. The topic contains ample material and has many facets for education. It lies within pupils' competence and is met with an enthusiastic response.

So good was the 199899 study by pupil Tamsin Bush, that it won the Sheldon Memorial prize for a local history essay by a York schoolchild (bagging pound;400 to be split between Tamsin and the school) and was published in the 199899 annual report of the York Civic Trust. Tamsin gained an A* in her GCSE and went on to take A-level history at York Sixth Form College.

Pupils at the Manor School choose two GCSE subjects from art, business studies, child development, geography, history, music or a second foreign language. About 45 per cent pursue history as one of their options, taking the social and economic history syllabus of the Northern Board. For this, two pieces of coursework are required; both focus on the 20th century and account for 25 per cent of the overall assessment. One must be on the General Strike, but schools are free to choose their second topic on local history.

Richard Evans hit on the history of local cinemas as an appropriate topic while browsing in the local studies section of York Library. With the board's blessing, it was adopted in 199798.

Mr Evans and a colleague introduce the project in the first year of pupils' GCSE studies towards the end of the summer term. A six-hour course on the history of theatre, music hall and cinema provides background information and he sets three questions as a basis for pupils' work: what external physical evidence exists to show the building has been a cinema; what changes have been made to the interior and exterior design of the building; and how has people's experience of going to the pictures changed during the past century? Then the pupils have the chance to use the summer hliday for their projects, which they complete by November.

Mr Evans' first two questions require on-the-ground observation and research in York Library. The third demands that pupils design their own questionnaires and interview people from at least three generations.

Pupils gain from the educational experiences of research, information gathering and field work. They use sources in the public library; a 1984 manuscript study on the conservation of cinema architecture with special reference to York and a book on York Memories of Stage and Screen: personal accounts of York's theatres and cinemas (produced by the York Oral History Project) are both popular. They also learn how to examine normally hidden areas of subjects (in this case, the buildings) and the value of investigating around the back rather than simply looking at the facade. York has a surviving Odeon, albeit modernised, and a Warner multiplex, as well as a number of former cinemas now put to new uses. One had been a conversion of a much older building, now listed.

The most committed pupils contact people who have professional knowledge of the cinema industry to discover something of the demographic and commercial forces that have influenced the rise, fall and resurgence of cinemas. They discover how cinema-going habits have varied between generations. For many the project has quickened an interest in their own city.

Most central libraries have secondary sources relating to the cinemas in their area, aided by two national societies devoted to picture house history, the Cinema Theatre Association ( and Mercia Cinema Society (tel: 01509 218393), which has published extensive locally-based research. There are also books on individual circuits, notably Odeon, Gaumont and ABC. Two very readable yet scholarly books on cinema architecture are David Atwell's Cathedrals of the Movies, (1980), and Richard Gray's Cinemas in Britain (1996).

Kate Taylor is a former teacher and is president of the Mercia Cinema Society

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