One of the reasons I moved up North was to be close to one of my favourite destinations in the world: the National Media Museum in Bradford. I’m a big fan of the cinema – have been since childhood, in fact, even if the films I watched were on the telly rather than at the talkies as we used to call them – and I love places where film is treated with the reverence it deserves. The NMM has an IMAX screen, two cinemas, permanent exhibitions about the media industry and tv heaven, a place where you can ask to see any number of old television favourites from their catalogue. You can also meet Zippy and Bungle from Rainbow, interact with Daleks and, in the near future, admire Ray Harryhausen’s model work from his iconic films. You understand why they call it heaven….
Every first Saturday of the month, the NMM holds a matinée screening of THIS
IS CINERAMA, a widescreen documentary from 1952. It is projected on to a curved screen, one of the only three left in the world. Just as today the book industry is realigning itself to deal with new media, the film industry in the 1950s struggled to cope with the advent of television. The major studios came up with film formats that would entice the audience back into the cinemas. The most successful of these was CINERAMA, a format adapted from a process used for training purposed during World War II. That format used 11 projectors; Cinerama used three, filling the viewers sight completely.
The first firm to be released in this innovative format was a taster called THIS IS CINERAMA, a smorgasbord of lavish sequences designed to leave the audience wanting more. Introduced by the journalist/adventurer [and one of the backers of the project] Lowell Thomas, the film starts off with a giddying rollercoaster ride and takes the viewer to Venice for a canal ride, to Spain for a bullfight and folk dancing, to Florida for a waterskiing show at the Cypress Gardens, to La Scala in Milan for the triumphant march from Aida and finally on a plane ride across America.
The film makers insisted that every showing be treated as a memorable event. Theatre programmes were printed, reserved seats could be booked in advance and people were encouraged to dress up. It was a runaway success. Before long many cinemas around the world were adapted to show Cinerama. More films were produced, first documentaries then feature films, the best of which is easily How The West Was Won. Cinerama became a byword for breathtaking film. Even my father, who considers film a plot hatched by the devil to lure people away from the church, was convinced to go and see one of the documentaries. This being the cold war, the Russians even came up with a rival version called Kinopanorama.
In the end, though, the cost of filming three strips of film rather than one became costly and problems on the production side were never sold. Soon the system had been adapted to a single camera method and the films were projected on to a flat screen, both of which diluted its mystique. By the end of the sixties, Cinerama was nothing more than a brand, a promise of great spectacle but not much more.
Today, the process is known only to a few aficionados who rally to one of the three cinemas that still have the technology necessary to show Cinerama films for festivals and special screenings. With the advent of new film formats and digitilisation making restoration of the original negatives possible, Cinerama is slowly gaining a new following. If you are ever in Bradford during the first weekend of the month, pop over to the National Media Museum and see what the fuss is all about. Bill Bryson did and wrote a glowing tribute to the experience in Notes From A Small Island. I bet you’ll like Cinerama too. Just don’t forget to take popcorn with you….