Glastonbury Festival 2014

The history of cinema at Glastonbury

Though the Festival had a cinema in 1981 I my self was not involved with it at that time. I was running children’s film shows in Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury for Arabella Churchill’s charity Children’s World. Several of the staff of Children’s World also worked at the Glastonbury Festival so in they suggested in 1982 that I went along to lend a hand. Back then the person in charge was Mike Orchard. The cinema then was a relatively low key affair. It was in a marquee, which measured about 100 feet by 40 feet and looked as if it was more suited to garden parties. The back half of the marquee had chairs, while the front half had coconut matting on the floor for people to sit on. The projectors used were 16mm bell & Howell TQ3’s which had been borrowed from the AV department at Clarks, the local shoe factory, and operated by Nigel Priest. These gave a reasonable but relatively small picture. The main reason for this was that the tent had four king poles down the middle at 25 foot intervals limiting the distance of the throw and the picture size because the projector and screen had to sit between the first and second poles. The cinema proved to be extremely popular even in those early days.

By 1983 the size of the tent had grown to a proper marquee but the projection system remained more or less the same. The only difference being a slightly bigger sound system than before, very small by today’s standards, but adequate. And I also used my own 16mm projectors.

1984 was the year of the miners’ strike and we actually had striking miners at the Festival. Some of them made a nuisance of themselves by climbing onto the roof of the marquees and sliding down!

1985 saw the first major technical advance. The step from 16mm film to 35mm film. The projector I used back then was an old Westar 2001 on a Western Electric soundhead, which dates from the late thirties. With a Kalee Vulcan lamphouse and an AIE three electrode Xenon lamp conversion chassis slid in the back. Not all the films that year were on 35mm some of the film companies were somewhat nervous about sending films out to be shown in the middle of a muddy field even though it was inside a marquee. So 16mm was still used for some films.

The difference in quality between 16mm and 35mm was like chalk and cheese and was really appreciated by the audience, so I made the decision to change to 35mm 100% for the following year. Also 1985 was an extremely wet year and the humidity levels in the tent were so high that the 16mm got sticky and wouldn’t run through the projector, we lost the first show, but the 35mm wasn’t affected by the humidity and ran perfectly. Apart from using 35mm projectors nothing much changed until 1989 which saw the introduction of the open air screen as the cinema tent’s popularity had now out- grown even the largest of marquees; the screen was a mere 32 feet wide, but enabled a lot more people to watch the films.

This was a perfect spot for cinema as the slope of the hill provided a natural rake allowing the best possible viewing area for the audience, also the picture could be seen right to the top of the Big Ground camping field. But this patch didn’t come without its own special set of problems though, mainly from the  campers that bordered the cinema area. It was highly desirable to be able to relax in your tent by your camp fire and watch the movies. We used to have to post a 24 hour guard of field stewards in the cinema area to stop campers pitching their tents right in front of the screen over-night!

1990 saw the introduction of Dolby Stereo to the open air cinema at Glastonbury for the first time. I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a CP55 from C.S.D. the company I was working for at the time. Dolby Stereo proved extremely popular, one of the reasons being, in the open air the stereo effects coming from surround speakers are far more noticeable due to the total absence of reverberation normally found in cinemas.

In 1992 we decided to reintroduce the film marquee to play art house films. These films were chosen and the tent staffed by members of the Edinburgh Film Guild.

Things ran without any major changes until ‘94, when just two weeks before the Festival the pyramid stage caught fire. Needless to say it was a major blow to the Festival because as well as being a cow shed, the area above the main stage also served as a store. A large amount of Festival equipment including the outside cinema screen was lost in the fire. This meant we had our work cut out making a new screen in time, but in a way it was also a blessing in disguise as it gave us the opportunity to make the new screen bigger, lighter and easier to handle than the previous one. The new replacement measured 56 feet wide by 24 feet high, at the time it was the biggest outdoor 35mm cinema screen in the country.

Also new for ‘94 was the first use of Dolby Digital at Glastonbury, which was to  become the standard, digital cinema sound system used in cinemas through out the world. In order to play the digital tracks properly the PA system had to be up-rated to handle the higher peak levels and improved frequency response. So we got in a 35Kw JBL concert series sound system. And the Xenon lamp was upgraded to from 2 to 4KW.

1995 was basically the same with the addition of a laser show between the films.

For the ‘97 Festival it was felt that due to the congestion caused by the cinema in the market area in the previous years, the cinema should be found a new home. The problems were caused mainly by the huge numbers of people entering and leaving the cinema area when the films changed. So it was decided that the cinema should be given its own field, which meant the film marquee and the open air screen could once again be together again for the first time in nearly five years. This also had the effect of opening up the Festival site in general, and making better use of previously under -used fields towards the western end of the site.

Unfortunately that year it rained heavily just prior to the Festival and whole site turned into a mud bath. The outdoor cinema still proved hugely popular despite the rain,  and due to the greater space available we probably had our biggest crowds ever, somewhere in the order of 6,000-7,000 people with the least amount of hassle. Also in ‘98 the World Cup video screen was part of the cinema field. The films also attract similar sized crowds.

The year 2000 saw the construction of a purpose built projection Pyramid. The idea being that it would be pleasing to the eye placed in the middle of the field compared to the ramshackle pile of storage containers with a portable office perched on top to serve as the projection room, that has been used in previous years. And also provide practical weather proof accommodation in which to house the Projection and sound equipment..

Over the years the timber screen had sections added to over the years until its cinema scope width was 22 metres probably the biggest ridged outdoor cinema screen in the UK. It was retired after the 2000 Festival as it had got too old and weak to be safely used again. For the 2002 Festival we used for the first time an inflatable air screen. Though being significantly smaller it in theory had an number of advantages, it  required a lot less man hours to erect, was safer to use and has a proper PVC cinema screen sheet instead of painted plywood. The 2002 Festival had fine weather and light winds and the inflatable screen lived up to its promise.

However 2003 was a different story, the maximum speed limit for the wind when using an inflatable screen is 29mph but as one approaches this speed the structure starts to bend and wave in the wind making viewing a film on it nearly impossible. Also it started dragging its one ton ballast weights (1000 Litre IBC’s) so the decision was made to abandon the show and deflate the screen. At the time we were showing Harry Potter, And the audience got quite rowdy, with beer cans being thrown through the projection port of the pyramid. That necessitated the deployment of a security detachment to the cinema field! After a very intense quarter of an hour people started to drift off. Later the wind dropped and we were able to resume the program from the next film. But this showed us that the inflatable screen was not a long term solution.

2004 saw the introduction of a custom-designed open air outdoor screen which could withstand wind speeds of up to 60mph before sheet ties would let go allowing the sheet to harmlessly drop out of the frame. Thankfully this feature was never put to the test. And the steel framed outdoor screen was successfully used up to 2009.

2007 saw the first use of a Digital Cinema projector which has now just about totally taken over the cinema industry, like the introduction of 35mm to the Festival 22 years earlier it wasn’t a 100% switch over as back then only a few film titles were available in that format by early adopter film distributors. But it was heralding an unstopable major turning point that was about to happen throughout the industry as a whole, something that hadn’t happened to it since the introduction of sound 80 years earlier.

In 2009 the cinema moved to its current location at the bottom of the Acoustic field and moved back into a marquee. This was brought about by two factors. Firstly the licencing authorities decided we could only show U certificate films because of its public outdoor position, and secondly the field was required for the expansion of the camp site particularly VIP camping. But the up side of it was that we were back in the heart of the site and now truly independent of inclement weather and we could also show 3D films, which would have been almost impossible on the outdoor screen due to its shear size and also because effective glasses management would have been virtually impossible. The system we use, uses environmentally friendly re-usable glasses unlike the commercial cinemas.

And that just about brings us fully up to date.

Check back here shortly for the announcement of the 2013.

Michael Denner
Pilton Palais