Magazine article History Today

Screen Saving

Magazine article History Today

Screen Saving

Article excerpt

ENGLISH HERITAGE'S GENERIC SURVEY of surviving cinema buildings last year resulted in a proposal to list thirty more examples as being of special architectural or historic interest and to invite the public to submit further cases for consideration. Now the selection goes to Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to make the final decision on whether they should be added to the 124 cinema buildings already listed.

Yet is the whole exercise happening far too late? Of the thirty, buildings chosen, only seven are still operating as cinemas. They range in style from the Gate, Notting Hill, with its auditorium of fruity Edwardian plasterwork, to the streamlined, colourful Art Deco of the Regent in Lyme Regis (1937). There is also the Phoenix in East Finchley which opened in 1910 but was extensively rebuilt in 1938. The Tvneside in Newcastle (1937) was the News Theatre when it opened, and showed newsreels and shorts only.

In addition to the new listing, it is proposed to upgrade eight of the cinema buildings already listed. Only two of them still show films: the Electric Palace in Harwich (1911), and the ABC (formerly Granada) in Walthamstow (1930). The Granada, Tooting (1931), now a Gala bingo hall, and generally recognised as the most spectacular cinema built in Britain, is being put forward for the highest status of all, Grade I.

Where listed cinemas still show films, it is possible to gain some sense of the traditional experience of `going to the pictures' in which the surroundings were part of the attraction. Of course, much has changed in recent decades. No longer are we guided to seats by usherettes, entering at any time during continuous performances. No longer do shows last three hours or more with two features and a newsreel. The projection beam cutting through the cigarette smoke of a crowded cinema is also a memory.

In addition, it is now almost impossible to see a film in a really large auditorium. With the advent of extended runs and the wide choice at the modern multiplex, the large single screen cinema is an anomaly. The unlisted Odeon Leicester Square with its 1,974 seats, now partially restored to its 1937 glory, is the exception, but its viability is helped by the addition of five mini-cinemas alongside. Yet in the heyday of picture-going there were more than 200 cinemas in Britain that seated over 2,000 people. The large cinema buildings that survive are now mostly bingo halls -- including the biggest picture palace built in England, the 4,004-seat Gaumont State in Kilburn (1937), now a Mecca bingo club. Some are live theatres, like the Gaumont Palace, Hammersmith (1932) and, London's New Victoria (1930), both of which are Apollo theatres. Many cinemas had already been adapted for bingo or other uses when they were listed, but often consent has been given for extensive `reversible' alterations. In bingo halls, the stalls floor has usually been levelled or stepped, the orchestra pit floored over, the stage opened up as an extension of the main floor, the walls redecorated in bright colours and the level of lighting raised.

It is the smaller cinemas seating under 1,000 that have survived in greater numbers. Three of those proposed for listing -- the Gate, Phoenix and Tyneside cinemas -- are run as `art houses' where the period features are appreciated by their more sophisticated audiences. …

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