Cinemas on Stilts: British Pleasure Piers and Pop-up Screenings

Curator's Note

Piers have long been a feature of the British seaside resort, with the country boasting around 100 by the late nineteenth century. While many were built as landing stages for passenger steamers in the 1800s, they quickly adapted to facilitate all kinds of leisure pursuits from ‘floating baths’ to diving competitions. Attractions also included viewing apparatus at the pier head, such as a telescope or camera obscura. The popularity of such proto-filmic devices suggests an early connection between seaside architecture and cinema, one that continued throughout the Victorian era with the arrival of the pleasure pier proper and other seaside venues interested in spatio-visual entertainments. We suggest that this connection has been rejuvenated in recent years due the increasing practice of using piers (and their approaches) as pop-up cinemas.

Despite the UK’s temperamental weather, there has been a clear trend for outdoor cinema in the past decade. Specialist screening companies, such as The Luna Cinema, typically pitch up in the gardens of the country’s numerous stately homes offering a summer programme of tried-and-tested popular ‘classics’ and the occasional box-office-friendly indie film. The watery surrounds of pleasure piers, however, are ripe for the creation of more immersive cinema experiences. As such, films centring on sea adventures hold sway at these venues. In 2016, we attended one such screening and co-organised another as part of a larger project – The People’s Pier – investigating how community-owned piers can utilise popular culture to build relationships with local residents.

Though the two pop-up screenings were markedly different in their set-up (one DIY and one a commercial enterprise) and their film choices (one featuring the popular sea-themed Pirates of the Caribbean and the other premiering a local pier-inspired documentary Re: A Pier), each drew on the sensorial properties of their pier locations. Along with the natural sounds and smells of the sea, their carefully positioned screens ensured that the on- and off-screen seascapes frequently blended (Fig 1).

At Clevedon, in South West England, the happy circumstance of a high tide also created appropriate rocking motions as waves pushed up against the pier legs (Fig 2). The two ‘cinemas on stilts’ appealed to the local population by offering entertainment that went beyond the usual tourist-focussed amusements and, connectedly, inviting new perspectives on the architecture and surrounds of an otherwise very familiar local pier.

Covid-19 inevitably disrupted the use of piers as cinema venues in summer 2020, with their narrow decks not easily able to accommodate the UK’s two metre physical/social distancing rule. However, piers have continued to provide local residents with an important outdoor leisure space and helped day-trippers enjoy their summer staycations. As surprisingly resilient structures, we anticipate piers will survive the current times and that their links with cinema will re-emerge in the near future. 

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