It was into a changing environment that the Empire in Southampton had opened. In its first year, the Empire had a very diverse programme and some productions had fared very well but overall it wasn’t performing to expectations. Firstly, the travellers voyaging to France, New York and further afield were not making stopovers in Southampton, the proximity to London meant that they could hop on a train and within two hours be on board ship or back in the Capital. Ships crews were more likely to frequent the many pubs in the town and maybe a visit to a variety house where they knew they could get a bawdy couple of hours entertainment for the price of a couple of beers. More worrying the locals weren’t becoming weekly regulars to the Empire as they had to the Grand Theatre. This was partly down to the familiarity of the Grand’s programmes and the fact that their productions were of a significantly lower cost, resulting in lower seat prices.
However, the cinema was becoming the major threat. Until now Southampton, with many cinemas, could only boast one hall that could be described as luxurious, the 1920 Picture House in Above Bar which had been designed by the prestigious Frank Matcham. That would change as the 1930s approached and plans for new “Super” cinemas in the town were announced.
The moving picture show, by now an accepted entertainment form and not simply a novelty, found its voice and became a new threat to the live theatre industry. Whilst the ‘movies’ had remained silent some managements had added variety turns to their picture shows to increased box-office takings. Sir Oswald Stoll had turned his white elephant, the London Opera House in Kingsway, into a profitable venture through this, and the Empire in Leicester Square was re-opened with live variety acts as part of the cinema programme. When Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer came to the Piccadilly Theatre in September 1928, it became inevitable the ‘talkie’ would be a thing of the future and there were already British companies working on sound films and a number of artists, including George Robey and Bransby Williams had made ‘talkie’ shorts. The processes were a long way from perfection, but improvements were coming quickly. Then in 1929 the first proper talkie opened in Southampton and ran for 3 weeks at the town’s Gaiety Cinema in Below Bar. Within weeks other operators were wiring their cinemas for sound. Now, for the first time audiences could see and hear their favourite stars in extravagant productions for a fraction of the price of a theatre ticket. This sent reverberations through the industry and what London’s West End theatres experienced in 1928 was felt across the provinces. Moss Empires having some of the largest halls was particularly affected.
Then the biggest impact came as a result of events in the United States. In October 1929, the Stock Market Crash in New York heralded the worldwide Great Depression. The ensuing American economic collapse shook the world: World trade contracted, prices fell and governments faced financial crisis as the supply of American credit dried up. The effects on the industrial areas of Britain were immediate and devastating, as demand for British products collapsed. By the end of 1930, unemployment had more than doubled from 1 million to 2.5 million (20% of the insured workforce), and exports had fallen in value by 50%. During this time there were little to no unemployment benefits, so this mass unemployment led to many of Britain’s population becoming impoverished. Government revenues contracted as national income fell, while the cost of assisting the jobless rose.