Entertainment Licences

13. County Council Services

Entertainment Licences.

Music and Dancing

THE County Council exercises control over public performances of music, dancing, stage plays, cinematograph exhibitions, boxing and wrestling.

Many years ago Parliament decided that an assembly of people for the purpose of public amusement required a measure of control and, as long ago as 1751,  in the reign of George II, passed the Disorderly Houses Act, prohibiting, amongst other things, the holding of public entertainments of music and dancing, except in premises licensed for the purpose by the justices. In 1875 the Public Entertainments Act slightly amended the 1751 Act, and by the Local Government Act, 1888, the powers passed to the newly-formed county councils, so far as the area within 20 miles of London and Westminster cities was concerned. These powers have been amended from time to time to meet changing circumstances, and the system of control was modified by the County Council’s Act of 1944.

In 1914 there were 539 premises licensed for music and dancing and when war broke out again in 1939 this figure had increased to 874—consisting of church halls, school halls, public halls, village halls, swimming-baths (in the winter time), club-rooms of public-houses and similar buildings, as well as such well-known homes of sport as the Wembley Stadium and Empire Pool and the Harringay Arena. A number of licences lapsed during the war as a result of requisitioning, war damage and other causes, but the figures are rising again.

Stage-Play Licences

In Queen Victoria’s reign, in 1843, Parliament passed an Act prohibiting the holding of public stage-play entertainments except in premises licensed for the purpose. Most of the legitimate theatres where plays are performed are in the London area and there are only a few in Middlesex, including two or three music-halls. A stage-play licence is granted for a period of one year and the fee is £3.

The stage of a theatre must be separated from the rest of the building by a brick wall, known as a proscenium, and it must be possible to close the proscenium opening completely with a fireproof curtain. The stage roof must be high enough to permit of the curtain being raised in one piece, and the latter must be lowered in the presence of the audience to demonstrate that it is in working order.

Cinematograph Licences

The “pictures” date from the early nineteenth century when the” Zoetrope” was invented. This machine produced pictures which apparently moved when a series of still animations, each slightly different from its neighbour, were viewed through a revolving slotted cylinder. It was Mr. William Friese-Green, however, who invented in 1885 a camera to record movement by taking a succession of still pictures, and an apparatus on the lines of the old magic-lantern for showing them. The invention was improved by Mr. Robert Paul, who invented the Maltese Cross”, which is still used to give an intermittent movement to a film, allowing it to pause for a fraction of a second at the lens of the projector. Mr Paul followed this up by the making of films and in 1896 photographed the Derby. Films at this time used to be shown in converted shops, the projector being placed in the window and the picture thrown on to a screen stretched on the rear wall. The seating arrangements were primitive, and consisted of any odd chairs or boxes. The show started when the house was full and payment for admission had been collected, and was accompanied by music provided by a barrel-organ or piano.

At the close of the nineteenth century a disastrous fire, occurring at a film exhibition held as the principal attraction of a charity bazaar in Paris, proved a serious setback to films and forced on the authorities the realization of the necessity for some measure of control over these exhibitions. The cause of the disaster was the ignition of the celluloid film—a danger which, in spite of the many safety devices which have been introduced, has not been entirely eradicated. However, the non-inflammable film, which has been the ambition of the industry for many years, has within the past year or two become a reality and the majority of new films are printed on “safety base”. Some of the older films are still in use for Sunday performances and at certain repertory cinemas, but when safety base films entirely supersede them it will be possible to relax some of the stringent regulations regarding the projection and handling of films.

The first effort to control this new form of entertainment was the prohibition of cinematograph exhibitions in premises licensed by the County Council for other amusements unless a special written permit had been issued by the County Engineer after the apparatus had been inspected and found to have such safety devices as had then been thought out. In 1910 the Cinematograph Act, 1909, came into force, forbidding exhibitions of pictures by means of inflammable films except in premises licensed by a county council. The statutory regulations which were then brought into operation were revised in 1923 and again, partially, in 1950.

Early in the present century roller-skating had been a very popular pastime, and a large number of skating rinks were built in various parts of the County. As this amusement waned in popularity, the buildings were converted to cinematograph theatres a few of which, considerably altered, remain to-day, but these and the converted shops began to give way to buildings specially designed for cinematograph shows. The accommodation steadily improved, and nowadays cinemas accommodating 2,000 persons are not uncommon. The largest theatre in the country was erected in Middlesex in 1937. It has seating accommodation for 4,000 persons, and standing and waiting accommodation within the building for a further 2,000. The small theatre, however, has not disappeared, and the smallest in the County, with accommodation for 330 persons, was completed a few months after the largest.

In 1929 the talking film, which had already been exhibited in a crude form at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and elsewhere as a novelty, came to this country and soon firmly established itself.

The County Council now grants licences for about 120 cinemas, and by regulations and inspection tries to make them safe and comfortable places of amusement. There must be sufficient exits from every part of the house, and these must be kept free from obstruction and constructed so as to open easily. The spacing of seating and the width and position of gangways must conform to fixed standards and hydrants, fire-buckets and extinguishers have to be provided in accessible positions. The buildings must be constructed as far as possible of fire-resisting materials, and the projecting apparatus must be contained in a chamber of brick and concrete. The apertures through which the picture is projected have to be glazed and fitted with metal shutters on the inside, capable of release from the enclosure or the auditorium. After use, films must be rewound in a separate room, and kept in closed metal receptacles when not in use. The projector must have metal spool-boxes to contain the unexposed portions of the film, and be fitted with automatic and hand shutters to cut off the light and its attendant heat from the film in emergency. It is also necessary to provide two systems of lighting in all public parts of the premises, and in the older cinemas this is usually gas-lighting, but in the more modern cinemas one system is supplied by a storage battery in the event of failure of the primary source of lighting from the mains.

Lavatory accommodation has to be provided for the audience, dressing-rooms for performers, and rest-rooms for the staff.

The electrical installation of the modern cinema is intricate and complicated, and is controlled by very stringent regulations. Heating and ventilation are important, and are now combined in a “Plenum” system. Fresh air is drawn in by means of fans, passed through a washer, which cleanses and humidifies it and, after heating, forces it into the auditorium, whilst the vitiated air is expelled by extract fans.

No films may be shown unless passed by the British Board of Film Censors, but film renters may appeal to the Committee against the Board’s decision. The practice has been instituted of referring such appeals for joint attention by the Committees of the County Councils of London, Middlesex, Surrey and Essex and the County Borough of East Ham, which have the advantage of each other’s views before deciding whether or not to endorse the Board’s decision. Films are given a category—” Universal “, “Adult” or “X “. The first may be shown without restriction, but children under sixteen may not be admitted to an “A” film unless they are accompanied by a parent or adult who is in bona fide charge of them. When an “X” category film is being exhibited no person under 16 years of age may be admitted.

Under the Sunday Entertainments Act, 1932, cinematograph theatres are allowed to open on Sundays in districts to which the Act is extended by an Order approved by resolutions passed by each House of Parliament. Procedure is laid down for local government electors to be consulted before “Sunday opening” is extended to a county district, and usually a poll is taken. Cinemas open on Sundays under this Act in every County district area in Middlesex except Friern Barnet and Sunbury-on-Thames where there are no cinemas. A certain percentage of the takings, representing an estimate of the receipts, has to be paid to the County Council, which divides the money amongst deserving local charitable undertakings. No member of the cinema staff may be employed on Sunday, unless he or she has had a day’s rest in the preceding week.

This summary should give some idea of the care taken by the County Council to ensure the comfort and safety of the general public.


It may well prove that television will play an important part in the future development of the cinema. The size of the picture in the early experiments was limited, but, at the Telekinema at the Festival of Britain South Bank Exhibition, a televised picture was shown on a screen approaching normal dimensions. Since then, similar demonstrations have been given at a well-known cinema in London and certain preliminary work has been carried out to adapt one of the Middlesex cinemas for television.

Horse Racing

The Racecourses Licensing Act, 1879, forbade the holding of horse-racing meetings within an area of 10 miles of Charing Cross, without the Council’s licence. There is only one such track in Middlesex, that at Alexandra Park, which is partly in Wood Green and partly in Hornsey.

Greyhound Racing

By the Betting and Lotteries Act, the County Council has some control over greyhound racing tracks. Parliament limited the number of days upon which dog racing might be held and the County Council was required to appoint an accountant and a mechanician for the tracks, to supervise the operation of the totalisators. There are six tracks operating in the County and, to indicate the measure of support this form of entertainment attracts, it may be mentioned that in 1952 alone the amounts staked on the totalisators reached the figure of £9,313,194.


The person seeking a licence to hold public entertainments has the option of submitting the plans of the building which he proposes to erect or alter. This enables him to find out before he starts work whether or not they comply with the requirements necessary to fit the premises for such a licence. The plans are reported upon in detail to the Entertainments Committee by the County Engineer and, if approval is given, it is subject to any conditions the Committee may think desirable. Notice of the application has to be placed on the site or building and given to the police and occupiers of abutting property and any person, upon satisfying the Clerk of the County Council that he has an interest, may lodge an objection and be heard by the Committee. Whether or not the plans have been deposited for approval, application for a licence has to be made in the same manner on completion of the building.

All licensed buildings are visited by the County Council’s inspectors before the licence is renewed each year, and inspections are made from time to time during the progress of entertainments, particularly of cinematograph theatres, to ascertain that the regulations are being complied with. Heavy penalties may be imposed upon licensees for infringements of the statutes or regulations.