familiar and popular Kirkwall
building affectionately known as 'The Picture House', in Junction Road,
is now consigned to the history books having been demolished to make
way for the new Womens Refuge.
The Phoenix Cinema, established by D. B. Peace and Co. (Pictures) Ltd.
in 1955 and acknowledged at the time to be ‘the cheapest and best
entertainment in town’ providing big screen thrills and spills for 43
years, is now but a distant memory.
former owner, Dougie Shearer died in 2002, and it is sad to think
that this last link with the Shearer family is now gone. The Phoenix
was Dougies pride and joy.
Billy Scollie, former Projectionist at The Phoenix was dismantling the
BTH Projectors, which have gone into storage along with the old cash
desk ticket machine, and sadly died before the work was fully
Kenny Thomson managed to snap some photos of Billy at work
‘in the guts of the machinery’ - the projectors which had been so
carefully operated and
maintained, originally by Alex Leisk, and latterly by Billy Scollie
himself. They were originally installed in The Temperance Hall in 1951,
and in all their 48 operating years there was only ever one major
Billy said that it was sad to see the old place
being destroyed as it held so many memories of people – staff and
members of the public - many of whom themselves were real characters,
perhaps more so than some of the stars we were seeing on the screen.
one fixture from the old Phoenix still exists, the clock, now
over 50 years old, is in The New Phoenix, having been given a new glass
face and illuminated in green rather than red.
To mark the passing of this familiar establishment, Kenny Thomson takes
a look back at Orkneys cinematic history.
Entertainment in Kirkwall, even in the memory of our oldest
inhabitants, never lacked sophistication. During the 1890s there were
the convivial assemblies and in the hey day of Gilbert and Sullivan
various groups produced their own operas, which often were laughter
making local parodies on the originals. There then followed a
graduation from fancy dress balls to charades and eventually magic
A new era was beginning and the 20th century mind was devising new ways
of entertaining itself, in an atmosphere of scientific progress.
D. B. Peace, a Kirkwall cabinetmaker, was aware of the craving for
modern entertainment within the generation of young folk who were
growing up around him and he began to look at ways of satisfying the
need. He was aware that in the south, roller skating was all the rage
course youthful exuberance called for an active pastime.
With this in mind, he converted his Junction Road wood store into a
roller skating rink in 1910.
Two professional instructors taught the patrons the intricacies of
their art. Round and round they whirled on the fine maple wood floor,
the graceful and the clumsy, tumbling and colliding, with the
clattering of their roller skates drowned out by the music of the brass
Four years later, while storm clouds were gathering over Europe, a
wonderful ‘new art’ was developing. Visitors to Orkney were telling
marvellous tales about the animated pictures which they were seeing.
Some Orcadians had of course already seen moving pictures on the silver
screen, as during the late 1800s, a mobile cinema operated by a man
named Calder, had come to Orkney generally round about the time of the
Lammas Market and this was continued for a short time by a Mr Bell.
On the big bright screens, the early stars including Charlie Chaplin,
complete with his stick and bowler hat, were waging an irresistably
comic war. Another war was beginning in Europe as the Kaiser was
preparing to invade Belgium and in the midst of it all, Mr Peace was
taking home to Orkney his first movie projector, a ‘Gaumont’ machine.
roller skating rink was replaced by The Electric Theatre, (nowadays
the site of Peaces Car Showroom) which became a wonderland for Orkney
children and the subject of much head shaking discussion by grown ups,
who were upset at the demise of the rink.
For fourteen years The Electric Theatre - with D. B. Peace senior
himself as projectionist, later to be joined in the 1920’s by J. W.
Sinclair (Jimmy Halfo) - was the most popular place of entertainment in
Kirkwall, with unbelievable dramas and tear jerking cinema moralities
flickering over the screen. To the delight of the threepenny seats (a
penny - halfpenny at matinees), cowboys and Indians began to make their
appearance and in simple sagas of good and evil, the children quickly
began to distinguish between the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’.
There was of course no soundtrack to the films as yet, so the musical
accompaniment was provided by pianist Rose Petrie, and Dougie Shearer
once recalled that as time passed, he was promoted to the post of
‘Musical Director’, which involved playing the old wind up gramophone
at each show, at what he described as a good weekly wage of seven
shillings (35p). Even with musical accompaniment for the films, ‘free
comment’ from all over the hall followed the fortunes of the actors.
As time went by, Dougie's Grandfather paid a visit to the film renters
in Glasgow and while he was there he heard about the new Brunswick
Panatrope - an Electric Gramophone, ideal for the Electric Theatre
which had its own electricity supply from a dynamo powered by a gas
The Panatrope was ‘housed’ in a steel case with two turntables, BTH
Pickups, 2 volume controls and a change over switch.
A technician from Glasgow installed the equipment which was ideal for
accompanying the silent films and Dougie would use the music ‘Hearts
and Flowers’ for serious love scenes and if there was a chase in the
Cowboys and Indians films he used ‘The Storm’ from the William Tell
1920’s came and went and Mr Peace decided that the time was right
for him to bring the pictures to the main street. Spectacular
developments were being freely predicted and so in 1928, the
cabinetmakers shop in Albert Street was converted and greatly extended
to house the new cinema.
The public crowded in to the fine new 300 seat Albert Kinema and on the
8th June 1931 for the first time, the audience heard the characters on
the screen talking back.
The first ‘talkie’ at the Albert was ‘Blaze of Glory’. The projection
equipment here was, like The Electric Theatre, Gaumont machines with
BTH lamphouses and Colin Park was one of the projectionists. Alex Leisk
who throughout the war had been with ENSA, joined the Kinema staff as a
projectionist in 1946.
One of the greatest moments in the history of the ‘Albert’ was when it
was chosen to present the world premiere of a film adapted from a book
by an Orkney author and shot in Orkneys famous anchorage of Scapa Flow.
The author Mr J. Storer Clouston and the director Mr Michael Powell
were both present at the first public performance of ‘The Spy In
Black,’ which starred Conrad Veidt.
D. B. Peace guided the fortunes of his cinema for almost 30 years and
when he died in the spring of 1943, his daughter Mrs J. F. Shearer
(along with her sons Tommy and Dougie), took over the management.
Albert Kinema Exterior
Albert Kinema Interior
The ‘Albert’ performed indispensable service to troops and civilians
alike during the war years, with Mrs Shearers tearoom which had been
set up within the Kinema, being removed to make way for extra seating
to accommodate the vast increase in audience numbers attending the
three shows daily - which were helping to counterbalance the grim news
in the Press and on the Radio. Christmas Day at The Albert was always a
family occasion, enjoyed by youngsters and parents alike and this was
the only time of the year when the film start times were governed by
the whereabouts of the ‘ba’ game! If the ba was in Albert Street, the
patrons could not get in – or out of the Kinema.
Just as people were beginning to forget the wild thunder of guns around
the ‘Flow’ and the tramp of army boots in Albert Street, a tragedy
Albert Kinema (1970s)
the morning of Thursday May 8th 1947, flames were seen shooting from
the upper windows of the Kinema by Boots the Chemists storeman Mr John
Cooper and soon half the town was out to watch the fire hoses swishing
back and forth, in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue the blaze. The
crackling of the asbestos roof lining could be heard from as far away
as Kirkwall Golf Course. “It was some blaze” recalled Dougie Shearer,
who had watched the inferno from the upstairs of his home next door to
Such was the ferocity of the blaze that there was fear of
nearby premises catching light. The business of A. M. Morgan had to
move their stock of gun ammunition to safety for fear of explosion. In
an hour or so all that was left of The Albert Kinema was a burnt out
shell and for the first time since 1914, no one could go to the
|Elma Wilson from Sanday
recalled that she had travelled in to
Kirkwall especially to see the film ‘Tarzan Escapes’, but the fire put
paid to her plans.
Kirkwall wasn’t without a
cinema for too long though, as the Temperance
Hall (now Orkney Arts Theatre) which had operated as a Royal Navy
Cinema during the war, was leased and for eight years until May 1955
the management maintained a regular service to its patrons, striving
hard to counteract the difficulties of limited seating and the
disadvantages of a building never intended for a cinema. In the
knowledge that a new cinema would eventually be built, the management
decided in 1951 to equip the Temperance Hall with two new British
Thomson Houston (BTH) Projectors which would eventually be transferred
to the new cinema.
The task of erecting a new building to replace the Albert Kinema was a
frustrating one, as the authorities would not allow the building of a
new cinema on the Albert Street site and so a fresh location had to be
Many sites were considered, including The Keelies just off Victoria
Road Kirkwall (now an allotment) - but most were unsuitable in one way
or another. Finally, Kirkwall Town Council agreed to grant the use of a
site at The Crafty where the ‘new’ cinema opened on Tuesday June 14th
1955, rising figuratively from the ashes of the old. It was almost
inevitable that this new ‘picture house’, far exceeding in equipment
anything which had preceded it in Kirkwall, should be called ‘The
The BTH Projectors were transferred to the new cinema and upgraded, in
order that they could handle the latest development in movie
entertainment - Cinemascope films. High intensity carbon arc lamps with
14.5 inch mirrors were fitted in order to cope with the large screen 29
ft wide by 16 ft in height. Engineers from Glasgow called to ‘service’
the machines every six weeks for their first few years of operation and
these machines ran for nearly 50 years with only one major breakdown in
Temperance Hall Interior
Temperence Hall today as
Orkney Arts Centre
construction photos gallery
The special screen of
curved construction was made from a toughened
plastic material, large enough to accommodate Cinemascope films but
decreased in size for standard films by means of an automatically
controlled black masking curtain. Before each performance, the
beautiful silver – grey eleven drape satin front curtain was raised
gently at the touch of a button in the projection room.
lighting was projected on to the curtain from the stage footlights and
the lighting cove in the proscenium arch, giving a variety of colour
combinations. It was once said by a regular patron that he didn’t care
what film was showing, it was worth going to The Phoenix just to watch
the beautiful illuminated curtain and its sequence of changing colours!
The Phoenix Cinema was
erected by Mr Peace’s son - also named D.B.Peace
(Junior) - in conjunction with the Shearer family, to provide better
film entertainment for Orkney and to keep abreast of whatever the great
art of the cinema might have in store.
The 650 seat Phoenix
Cinema, a ‘Stadium’ style cinema, was part of the
company of D.B. Peace and Co. (Pictures) Ltd of which D. B. Peace Jnr.
was the head, and was officially opened by Provost James Flett of
who described it as a magnificent building, a credit to the management
and to the town.
The project was perhaps the most costly venture ever undertaken by a
private Kirkwall firm at that time.
|| Orkney Builders Ltd.
|| T. Firth, Colwyn, Kirkwall
|| R. Findlay and Sons Junction Road, Kirkwall
|| James Drever, Cliffdale, Cromwell Road, Kirkwall
|Electrical and Plumbing Work
|| J. Rendall and Son, Laing Street, Kirkwall
|| Andrew Tait, Cannola, Old Scapa Road, Kirkwall
|| George Bain, Broad Street, Kirkwall
|Carpeting and Floorcoverings
|| James Tait and Sons Broad Street, Kirkwall
|Clerk of Works
|| John S. Flett, Bignold Park Road, Kirkwall
|| Macrae and Robertson, Albert Street, Kirkwall
|| Foubister and Bain, Broad Street, Kirkwall
the introductions and speeches were over, the lights dimmed, the
curtain slowly lifted and the specially invited audience were treated
to the first film performance, ‘Doctor In The House’ starring Dirk
Bogard. It was a nerve racking time for Projectionist Alex Leisk who
was always a perfectionist at what he did. The copy of the film
dispatched from the distributors in Glasgow was in rather poor
condition and not really suitable for showing at this special opening
However Alex managed to check and splice the film and it ran
without mishap. Notwithstanding, Alex was sick with worry! It was
extremely important that the first public show should proceed without a
hitch. Films were shown Monday to Saturday with two performances daily,
the first ‘house’ at 5.30pm., the second at 8pm and three main
programme changes every week. In addition there were matinees on
Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, with the occasional late show at
10.30 on Friday evenings.
the mid-sixties, the Saturday afternoon matinees were very
popular with the Children and many an Orkney parent was happy to
‘bundle’ the kids off to The Phoenix for a couple of hours while they
went shopping. When the feature lighting on the curtain changed to red,
the kids knew that the performance was about to commence and a gigantic
roar could be heard from the auditorium. Weekly serials such as Batman
and Robin, had the youngsters on the edge of their seats, ending each
episode on a ‘cliffhanger’ so that you had to come back the following
week to see what had happened. You did not dare miss an episode. The
main features for the matinees were generally films made by The
Childrens Film Foundation.
In the projection box was Alex Leisk (whose career in films was to span
some 30 years), Mac Johnston and Dougie Shearer, with Billy Scollie
joining the team in 1963 as ‘apprentice’. In 1964 Billy took over the
Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon film shows in Stromness Town
Hall from ‘Bunt’ Knight, operating the service with two Ross projectors
which had been made in the 1930’s. Billy showed the films, which the
week previous had been screened at The Phoenix, independently with full
permission from the Phoenix management.
At the cinema cash desk was Rene Shearer, with her sisters Liane and
Ella running the shop. Edgar Cook was to be found on duty at the door,
along with D. B. Peace Jnr., later to be followed by Bob Craigie and
Bill Raeburn amongst others, with Margaret Roxby, Vina Macgillivray,
Bertha Archbold and June Bews as usherettes. Jock Mears was employed as
cleaner and night watchman.
The ordering of films was a task usually carried out by Dougie Shearer,
who received film travellers from such distributors as The Rank
Organisation, Warner Brothers, British Lion, Columbia Pictures, MGM,
Twentieth Century Fox plus some others. Some years ago he recalled with
a smile, the time when he had six of the travellers to see in one day.
Only the ‘unflappable’ Dougie Shearer could handle such a situation!
The arrival of Grampian Television in 1966 had a significant effect on
audience figures and to try and counter this, Tuesdays and Fridays were
given over to Bingo, which really went against the grain as far as
D.B.Peace Jnr. was concerned. The Bingo evenings literally ‘saved the
day’ at least for a while and were supervised by Mac Johnston who acted
as Bingo Caller and who had agreed to help out temporarily until
someone permanent was found. Mac held this ‘temporary’ post for
Films were therefore cut to 4 days each week, Monday, Wednesday,
Thursday and Saturday.
With the advent of colour television in the seventies, the cinema
audiences were further depleted, although films such as ‘Grease’,
‘Saturday Night Fever’, ‘Jaws’ and ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’ did
excellent business, proving that if the product was good, the people
would turn out. Video had appeared on the scene by the early eighties
and was almost the final nail in the coffin when film performances were
further cut to two nights weekly.
This unfortunate downturn continued, leaving the Shearer family no
option but to sell the Phoenix in October 1985 to Orkney Islands
Council, effectively ending their 73 year association with cinema in
It seemed apparent at the time, that this was indeed the end of
‘picture going’ in Orkney in general, but a new company was formed
called Orkney Entertainments Limited, who indicated their interest in
leasing the Phoenix from Orkney Islands Council for the purpose of
running film shows twice weekly. The Council supported this proposal
and film shows re-commenced during November 1985. At this point it was
considered necessary to install a large stage for concerts and this was
added in the auditorium at the expense of 100 or so stalls seats. Some
time later, the cinemas sound system was upgraded to ‘ultra stereo
surround sound’ which significantly enhanced the audio enjoyment for
the public. Apart from this, very little changed over the years, the
original chandeliers in the foyer were replaced with fluorescent strip
lighting, the illuminated flower boxes above the cash desk and shop
kiosk were removed and in the projection room, the slide projector
which enabled messages to be flashed up on the screen was removed along
with a 16mm film projector on which were run the local newsreels filmed
by Dougie himself.
There were plans to convert the Phoenix into a theatre and transfer the
cinema to the Arts Theatre in Mill Street, but this never got off the
When Satellite Television came on the go, the commercial viability once
again was severely tested and in 1992 Orkney Islands Council Education
and Recreation Department itself took control of the film shows and
with Billy Scollie as Projectionist / Manager, a regular service
continued. Billy had many fond memories of The Phoenix and was
especially pleased to be projectionist for the film ‘Venus Peter’,
which premiered at The Phoenix on Midsummers day 1989 as part of The St
Billys favourite films included the 1970’s Sun Classic films starring
Dan Haggerty as ‘Grizzly Adams’ and the epic movies such as Ben Hur
along with the old westerns and magnificent musicals, all sadly gone
from the screens these days.
Dougie Shearer, whose favourite film of all time was ‘Singing In The
Rain’, maintained an interest in and was a regular visitor to the
cinema even after it was sold to Orkney Islands Council. The Phoenix
had screened over 5,000 films in its 43 years and topping the charts as
the number one film was Grease which attracted an audience of 4,220 on
its first run in September 1978, beating the previous best for Jaws in
Over the years many well known personalities have graced the Phoenix
stage: Robert Wilson, Jimmy Shand, Jim Macleod, The Corries, Bridie
Gallagher, Ruby Murray, Edwin Heath (Hypnotist), Boxcar Willie, Susan
McCann, Philomena Begley, Hank Locklin, Manson Grant and The Dynamos,
Colorado, the 114 strong National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Boxing
and Wrestling Matches, plus the ever popular Miss Orkney Talent
Contests, and in more recent years, Del Amitri, The Indians, Billy
Connolly and Barbara Dixon, but to name just a few. Many local bands
made their first appearance at The Phoenix and went on to greater
Records produced a number of discs in the 1960’s including
‘Owre The Ferry’, ‘Orkney Goes Dancing With The Vikings’, ‘Billy Jolly
Sings’ etc etc. The recording engineer was Bert Stockan and the actual
recordings were made in the cinema itself. The record sleeve
photographs were the work of the multi talented Dougie Shearer who
combined the art of photography with a keen interest in sound recording
as well. A point worthy of note is that Dougie was actually following a
family tradition, as his Grandfather D. B. Peace Senior, used to make
sound recordings back in the old days, on an Edison Bell machine with
Dougies skill as a keen photographer, led him, along
with his nephew Donald, to create a photography business which was
called Phoenix Photos, concentrating on commercial, wedding and
newspaper photography. Their famous photograph of a Loganair Islander
aircraft flying past The Old Man of Hoy, featured prominently on
Loganair publicity for many years. The photography business expanded
and two darkrooms were created in the cinema, one beside the projection
room and one at the stage end of the building where most of the colour
work was processed.
The Phoenix, with all the character of a 1950’s style cinema sadly came
to the end of its working life on 28th November 1998. Many people will
have their own memories of favourite films, or concerts, perhaps even
bingo. For a goodly number of Orkney folk, it has always been there and
was the most northerly working cinema in the U.K.
Special ‘nostalgic’ events took place during the cinemas emotional
final week of operation in November 1998 and this included a bingo
evening on Tuesday 24th November, and a concert, ‘Farewell To The
Phoenix’ on Friday evening 27th November, featuring a host of local
talent. The last picture shown was the war time drama ‘The Land Girls’
on Saturday 28th November and once the final image had flickered from
the screen, Dougie Shearer, the former owner of the cinema who had been
invited along by the staff for the evening, closed the doors of what
had been his ‘pride and joy’ for the very last time.
Prior to the final show, Dougie Shearer on behalf of The Phoenix Staff,
presented the Projectionist / Manager Billy Scollie with a framed
photograph of the cinema auditorium taken by Mr W. Marr prior to its
opening in 1955.
Phoenix Cinema Demolition Gallery
An additional gallery of interior pictures during demolition can be found here, courtesy Kevin Kirkness.
New Phoenix Cinema
|In the spring of 1999 a
“New Phoenix” rose up from the old in the shape
of a fully equipped modern cinema at the new Pickaquoy Sports Centre –
The New Phoenix Cinema ensures that the work of D.B.Peace Senior,
D.B.Peace Junior, Dougie Shearer and Billy Scollie will carry on and
that Orkney still has a cinema of its own. This in itself is a tribute
to those who have given most of their lives to providing thousands of
Orkney folk with ‘a night out at the pictures’.
At the farewell concert James Oliver Alexander paid a very fitting
tribute to the Phoenix:-