Five Nights was based on a novel of the same name by Victoria Cross, a popular author of the time, who was said to have chosen her pen name to annoy the old Queen.
It was chock-full of shenanigans.
It told the story of a rich young artist, who woos a Chinese woman in Alaska, then falls in love with his own cousin, gets the cousin to disrobe in front of him, and shoots a Chinese man dead in San Francisco.
And it also implied that the artist and the cousin produced an illegitimate child.
The film came out in the summer of 1915, made in Britain by the Barker company and directed by Bert Haldane. The stars were Eve Balfour, Sybil de Bray, Tom Coventry, ad Thomas H MacDonald. Before long, it would be seen at the Scala in Nuneaton and at the Picturedrome in Newark, which had just been converted from a roller-skating rink.
But it was seen in Preston first of all. That was at the end of August, at the old King’s Palace theatre. And when the town’s new Chief Constable saw the film, he was appalled. It was ‘offensive and objectionable,’ he said, and he told the manager of the theatre that it shouldn’t be shown again.
And yet, Five Nights was shown in Manchester and Liverpool without anyone there batting an eyelid.
It was shown in Stoke as well, at the Majestic, which was painted Wedgwood blue inside.
It could be seen in Mansfield, at the Empire, which had only been open a few months.
And in Derby, the film could be seen not just at the Cosy Picture House on London Road, but at the Midland Electric Theatre on Babington Lane as well. It was 3d or 6d to get into the stalls there, or 9d for the balcony. At the Imperial in Walsall, meanwhile, it was billed as a ‘stupendous attraction’, while in Lincoln, it was proclaimed ‘the greatest and most daring moving picture play ever made.’
Back in Preston, the Chief Constable’s words soon came to the attention of Walter Stott and Fred White. They were the men who had been renting out Five Nights across both the north of England and much of the Midlands as well. They had paid a lot of money for that privilege, and now, they said they had been defamed. The writ they issued against the Chief Constable demanded damages of £5,000 – a sum worth 60 times as much today.
All of this had a chilling effect. Five Nights was quickly banned in Brighton and Bath, Bradford and Leeds. And there was discontent in Leicester, too.
Packed houses had greeted the film at the Grand Electric Palace in Leicester on Silver Street.
It played there on Monday and Tuesday, in both the afternoon and the evening. But then it was banned by the Watch Committee, whose chairman, Councillor WE Hincks, called it ‘unpleasant and unsavoury’, and said any talk of it having artistic value was ‘piffle’. Another ban followed, this time in Nottingham, while in Coventry, all eyes turned to Charles C Charsley. He was a skilled footballer, who had once played for the Small Heath club, and who had been appointed Chief Constable of Coventry not long after he played in goal for England. Once he heard that Five Nights was showing in the town, he decided he must make inquiries.
At the Globe Picture Theatre on Primrose Hill Street, Charsley managed to find a seat in a very crowded house, and he watched Five Nights from beginning to end. Having done that, he pronounced the film ‘highly suggestive and objectionable’, and he told the manager it must not be shown there again.
But while that reaction might have been common in the Midlands, it was by no means universal, and it certainly wasn’t shared by the authorities in Birmingham. Magistrates there saw Five Nights at a trade show, and promptly told the press that they had no concerns.
The people of Balsall Heath were among the first in the city to see the film, when it was shown at the Imperial on Moseley Road.
It then appeared in Bordesley Green too, at the Elite on Crown Road, alongside a variety bill that included Wee George Harris, ‘the Wonderful Boy Comedian’. It would also be shown at the Ashted Row Picture House, whose owner was William Devey. He too was a footballer, who had played for Small Heath alongside ‘Chris’ Charsley. He had also played for Wolves in the Football League, and for Aston Villa not just at football, but at baseball as well.
Ultimately, the Preston Chief Constable won his case against Messrs Stott and White, with the court deciding that his criticisms of Five Nights had been fair comment and nothing more.
But that didn’t pacify the film’s critics. In a sermon delivered at the height of the controversy, SA Johnston, the Rector of St George’s Church in Edgbaston, didn’t hold back. He accused Five Nights of ‘making light of sin’ and being ‘founded upon the lustfulness of adultery’, and he dismissed the whole thing as ‘garbage’.
What followed was a petition signed by Reverend Johnston and more than 60 other ministers of religion, demanding that the film be banned.
And what followed that were more sermons and a lot of heated public debate.
But ultimately, the petition came to nothing. Audiences would go on turning out for Five Nights right across Birmingham – at the Palace in Erdington, at the Saltley Picture Palace on Alum Rock Road, and in Handsworth, at the Elite.
And cinema owners everywhere could now announce in letters two feet tall that the film was being shown ‘despite strong protests from a number of clergymen’.