Address: 12-15 Skinner Street
Now: Local Authority Housing
The People’s Picture Playhouse prided itself on perfection – well at least to start with. The advertisement that ran announcing the opening of the new cinema on the 25th January 1913 boasted: ‘Come and see the latest and most perfectly projected pictures in the world, in one of London’s most comfortable and up-to-date theatres‘. But not content with just ‘perfectly projected pictures’, the advert also claimed the cinema was: ‘Perfectly Heated!‘, ‘Perfectly Ventilated!‘ and ‘Perfectly Seated!‘.
The ‘perfect’ People’s Picture Playhouse was a moderately sized 750-seat purpose-built cinema situated in Skinner Street, south Islington; in an area that originally came under the district of Finsbury. The cinema laid claim to continuous performances from 2pm in the afternoon till 11pm at night. During those hours you could visit the cinema, pay your money and stay as long as you wanted; you would find a programme of short films playing that would include different styles of film such as, narrative fiction, news, sport and actuality (a non-scripted documentary of everyday life), for example. The idea was that there was no official start or end time to the programme and once the last film was reached the programme would start all over again.
Over the years People’s Picture Playhouse changed its name a couple of times, first to the Globe in 1920 and then again towards the end of its life in 1951, when it became known as the Rio. At some point in the 1920s the cinema also started showing other forms of entertainment such as children’s talent shows.
Like Avenue Picture Palace on Rosebery Avenue, the People’s Picture Playhouse fell within the area known as ‘il quartiere italiano‘ (Little Italy), which was bordered by three main roads: Rosebery Avenue, Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road. Film academic, Dr Pierluigi Ercole has suggested that the placement of the cinema meant it appealed to the local Italian community, both for reason of convenience and safety; Ercole quotes the former Italian cinemagoer of the then Globe, Pino Maestri, stating that the cinema was frequented by ‘immigrant youngsters’ as it was considered as being within the safe boundary of the Italian area*.
The days of striving for perfection seem to have slipped by quickly for the People’s Picture Playhouse, and certainly from the way Pino Maestri remembers it. His memories of when it was the Globe are not very complementary, saying that the place was commonly referred to as the ‘Flea Pit’ or ‘Bog ‘Ole’ or in Italian: ‘la pi-pi‘. Another report is even more damming:
‘The inside was like a large square barn, one storey and rather tatty, probably needed a regular fumigation against vermin. I can only recall one attendant, plus a lady selling tickets. The atmosphere inside was almost humid, even in winter it was stifling. In the interval the attendant used to spray some concoction of water and scent into the air. This was always welcomed by the audience.‘^
Plans were submitted a number of times over the years to extend and carry out improvements to the cinema but sadly it seems nothing substantial ever happened to enable the People’s Picture Playhouse to return to the days of having the ‘most perfectly projected pictures in the world, in one of London’s most comfortable and up-to-date theatres‘. Following closure in 1955, the building stood empty until it was demolished to enable the re-structuring of Skinner Street and the building of the Finsbury Estate in 1968.
* Information relating to cinema in Islington and the local Italian community is thanks to a paper by Dr Pierluigi Ercole: ‘Migrant People, Moving Images: Italian Immigration, London’s Little Italy and the Role of Cinema in the Early Twentieth Century’. See Further Reading.
^ Quotes from other cinemagoers cited in Draper (1989). See Further Reading.
People’s Picture Playhouse (Rio) in 1952. © Colin O’Brien, Photographer