For many of us, our favourite cinema memories are of the cinemas of our childhood, because the old local cinemas, many of them (now lost) Art Deco mini-masterpieces, gave us all our first taste of the magic of cinema, the romance of the flickering screen. For others they are of the fleapit of more recent memory, where old, obscure and downright odd films screened to packed houses of like-minded cineastes. And for some, there are unique little treasures. This collection covers all three. I make no apologies for the length, because some things need to be indulged, especially on a blog – mostly – about film.
The Kinema in the Woods
By Mr Moth
The Kinema in the Woods is like nowhere else. A minute or two’s drive through, yes, woods on the outskirts of Woodhall Spa (a Lincolnshire town known best for the stationing of the Dambusters in the nearby RAF base), the setting is unexpected, isolated and atmospheric. A wooden former sports pavilion, you’d hardly think it was a cinema until you walk through the front doors. It’s something like a museum inside, with memorabilia and gewgaws of cinema’s golden past clustering in the foyer like smokers round a fire exit. Tickets are small slips of pink paper. Silent films are screened on the (insanely rare) back-projected Kinema screen with live musical accompaniment. The foyer serves popcorn in square paper bags, and hot drinks. When I first went, the hot drinks came with a little cup holder on which one paid a 50p deposit and you could go outside to drink it during the interval
Oh, yes, every film has an interval at the Kinema, a fine tradition and one we should all return to immediately. But be careful you don’t grab your coat from one of the pegs along the wall and leave the auditorium too fast – there’s a possibility you might miss Alan Underwood rising gleefully from the stage at the controls of his Compton Cinema Organ and the magical moment when the mirrorball activates.
Sometimes I think it would be nice for someone to invest in the Kinema. Maybe replace the crackling old sound system, put proper seats in. But that path leads to the multiplex, digital projection and 3D. Long may the Kinema in the Woods hold out.
The Exmouth Savoy, Exmouth
By Jim Eaton-Terry
The first film I ever saw in a cinema was The Rescuers at the Savoy in Exmouth. I would have been about 4, and I remember the fish tank in the foyer. Screen one was the most glamorous place imaginable with its red curtains and plush seats.
I saw Star Wars there, too, and Tron, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In my late teens I worked there for a couple of years. The fish tank had gone by then, but the red curtains and plush seats were pretty much the same. By the turn of the ’90s, though, I knew that it was a shabby little fleapit; I was probably the last usher in the UK to have to sell ice-creams from a tray between the ads and the film, and to change the letters on the timing board every Thursday night by hand. We didn’t have enough soundproofing, so the bass from the club next door came into screen one towards the end of the night. You haven’t really seen the end of Ghost until you’ve seen it scored by the muffled bassline of Killer.
I left Devon at 18, and there are other cinemas I associate with other waves of films – I discovered Tarantino at the Brighton Odeon, Altman and Scorsese at the Duke of York, and I’ve lost count of the films I first saw at the Trocadero – but the Savoy is what a local cinema should be. It was cheap and a bit grubby, the projectionist smoked woodbines, the local policeman dropped in every night for a fag and a cup of tea, and no-one really cared about the films we showed. They were product, either successful – I saw the last 4 minutes of Ghost over fifty times that summer – or less so. We did 9 shows of Paul Hogan’s Almost an Angel and never got past the first reel because we never sold a single ticket.
I saw Harry Potter 7(a) there at the weekend. The red velvet curtains in screen one were the same, and in the quiet bit towards the end you could hear the music from the club – now a gospel church – next door.
Mr Armstrong’s Garage , Wymondham
By Lissy Lovett
When the Regal cinema in Wymondham in Norfolk closed down in 1993, Michael Armstrong, a genuine hero, rescued some of the fixtures & fittings and recreated the cinema on a smaller scale in a garage in his garden. Mr. Armstrong’s cinema has a handful of seats in two rows, a proper projector, all the velvet swags you could wish for AND by prior arrangement you are welcome to go and watch a film there.
My Mum and Dad took me for a visit in 2002 and we watched Hitchcock’s 39 Steps. Mr. Armstrong stopped the film halfway through so we could have ice creams and afterwards we went indoors to his house and had tea and sandwiches with his mother. It was brilliant.
Think about your nearest multiplex with its empty freezing air conditioned screens and bored teenage staff. Doesn’t Mr. Armstrong’s garage in Wymondham sound so much better?
Embassy Cinema, Bridgend
Farewell, Embassy Cinema – You may not have had been the largest cinema, you may have only had one screen, but you were my first cinema. And now you are gone. But not forgotten.
There are many children now who have grown up never knowing you as anything other than “that ugly old building in town” but there are still people who knew you in your heyday and remember you that way.
I still remember Mum taking me to you to see “The Water Babies” when I was very young – It was like she had taken me to another world. I had never experienced such things before.
Walking up the front steps to the brightly lit foyer, past the glass counter with the lady selling little boxes of chocolates and plastic cartons of bright orange drink. A far cry from the overpriced hotdogs, nachos and buckets of drink in today’s multiplexes. Into the darkened auditorium where a lady with a torch showed us past row after row until we reach our designated seats. Seats which smelt musty like old coach seats, even back then.
The hubbub of excitement before the film started, quickly turning to a hushed murmur of expectation as the lights dimmed further and the curtains parted to reveal the screen. The magic behind those curtains may well have been Wizard of Oz style trickery but it kept me enthralled and quiet for an hour and half so it was no doubt as magical for mum as well as for me.
When we went to see “E.T.” (My first ‘event’ movie, that everyone was talking about in school) I was allowed to bring a schoolfriend with me. He’d seen it the night before but came anyway and told me all about the supporting cartoon before we’d even got to the cinema.
I saw my first ‘proper grown-up’ film in you, too – Gandhi, possibly as an educational thing and possibly in an attempt to stop me repeating the “Handhi Bendhi Gandhi” sketch from Three Of A Kind.
And then, suddenly, you were closed. It seemed no-one cared either, as your signs outside proclaiming “Castaway” stayed up for months until someone finally took them down. You were used as a Bingo hall and if we wanted to see a film we had to go out of the county until, one day, the Bingo people decided you weren’t good enough for them so they moved elsewhere and you were left to decay at the edge of town. Left until you were just known as “that ugly old building” by kids who’d grown up knowing only the big multiplex cinemas. Now, money has decided your fate and you have been unceremoniously torn down to make way for, of all things, car park. Didn’t Joni Mitchell sing about this?
Farewell Embassy, you will not be forgotten.
The Orpheus, Henleaze
The Orpheus claims to be 70 years old, but it isn’t really. There had been a vast, ornate cinema, also called the Orpheus , on the site in the thirties. It had seating for 1500 people, but it was torn down and rebuilt in the sixties. Most of the site is now a Waitrose, but up some stairs along from the supermarket is the sixties re-imagining of the Orpheus. It’s a lot more prosaic, but in its workaday nature lies its charm. It has three screens. Not one screen, like a toy or club cinema, one of those places that never escapes from its hipster genesis. I go to the Cube in Bristol for example, and I’ve seen some lovely films there. I like it, I like that they have a bar and that I can see thirties French horror, but I never escape the feeling that someone’s going to ask me to leave because I’m not cool enough. The Orpheus doesn’t have twelve or fourteen screens either, because then you’d be out of town, paying 12 pounds a ticket and probably watching The Hangover II. No, three screens is perfect.
It’s not an independent cinema but is part of a small chain, and it shows well-chosen recent releases, usually in English. Their inability to show everything currently on release means that they have to choose carefully and to do so with their usual clientele of students and retired people in mind. This means that the programme is perhaps a little genteel and middle brow, but never crass or annoying. Bristol has plenty of arts cinemas, and too many multiplexes, so when I want to see Bong Joon-ho or Michael Bay’s work I know where to go; but there was only one place I was ever going to watch The King’s Speech or American Beauty, for example, and it’s where I’ll go to watch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
I love the fact that it seems to be staffed entirely by friendly retirees. I enjoy the way the tickets still come from inside the desk, sliding out of a chrome top. I appreciate the absurdity of buying a ticket from one old dear, walking about six feet and handing to another, interchangeable, old dear and gaining admittance. I like that within that six feet I’ve walked past a diminutive snack counter selling, of course, salt and sweet popcorn, but also boxes (BOXES!) of wine gums and Maltesers. A couple of years ago I was there for an afternoon matinee; the film ended, I got up to leave, turned around and saw, sitting in the first row of the gallery (yes, a gallery), a woman in her sixties drinking tea from a Royal Wedding (Charles and Diana, mind you) commemorative mug. You’ve got to love a place like that.
The Astor Cinema, Eden Quay, Dublin.
By Paul Duane
What joy it was to be seventeen in 1983, in possesson of the first Violent Femmes album and Suicide’s second LP, and on my way to a double bill of films by the (then) ultra-hip and obscure American comedian Steve Martin at the glorious Astor Cinema on Dublin’s north quays.
From reading the NME I knew that I was probably the only hipster in Dublin copped-on enough to bag all three of these cultural signifiers in one day.
Of course, the fact that the Astor was a porn cinema most of the time only added to my outsider self-image, and the way the cinema’s clientele breathed asthmatically through The Jerk or counted their winnings from the slot machine emporium next door during Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid only added to my – no, be honest. It made me feel uncomfortable. And when the obviously mentally incomplete man in the seat in front kept turning to leer meaningfully at me every time Steve Martin re-adjusted Rachel Ward’s breasts, I moved seats. Then the elderly couple behind me dropped an entire plastic bag of coppers all over the sticky floor and spent the rest of the movie picking them up from under my feet.
The Astor became a video rental place (distinguished by its Video Booths, where you could take a rented video and watch in privacy, for whatever reason), then a godforsaken comedy venue before being demolished. I miss it.
The Lexi, Kensal Rise
By The Belated Birthday Girl
“This place is great – why haven’t we been here before now?”. That was my reaction in November 2010 the first time we went to The Lexi cinema in Kensal Rise. The Lexi opened its doors in October 2008. I was vaguely aware of it, from listings in Time Out, but I had never got around to going there. One visit, and I was hooked.
The first thing that struck me was the unusual feeling of going to somewhere actually part of a community. The Lexi bills itself as “The UK’s first social enterprise independent boutique digital cinema” and donates its profits to The Sustainability Institute, a South African eco-village and charity which promotes sustainable development. It is an 80 seater single screen, in an old Edwardian theatre, with digital projection, and surround sound provided by Munro Acoustics who also do the sound at the Curzon cinemas (as well as the Kremlin State Palace). It also has a bar which serves decent drinks in proper glasses – which can cause a bit of a problem, as the cup holders in the seats aren’t designed for stemmed wine glasses. I’ve seen it described as an “arthouse” cinema, but its policy seems to be more at the interesting end of mainstream, and it generally is showing current releases, often a week or two after opening weekend. They also take part in the NT Live screenings of theatre. I think in fact they will show whatever their audience wants them to show.
The Lexi’s founder is Sally Wilton, an entrepreneur who started out in fish farming, and went on to found etc.venues. When she moved on from there, she set up The Lexi, to both benefit her local community and to help fund sustainability in South Africa.
The Lexi is a lovely cinema to visit, and it is a welcome change from chain multiplexes. Staffed largely by volunteers, it really does feel like a part of a local community. Sally Wilton has said that she intends to build the brand across the UK – they already also run the Nomad pop-up cinemas – and if that happens and the same principles are followed, that can only be a very good thing. But while there’s only one, I’d recommend you get down there, have a nice glass of wine, and enjoy the show. And you can know that you are doing good by doing so, too.
MrMoth is a writer, a tweeter and a liar.
Jim Eaton-Terry tweets, from time to time, and writes music reviews for Mostly Film.
Lissy Lovett is, like everyone in the world, on Twitter. She still doesn’t like films very much.
GigerPunk is tat-monger in chief at A Bit Broken, keeps chickens and, yes, tweets.
Caulorlime is a fine, upstanding member of the teaching profession and doesn’t tweet, as if to prove me wrong.
Paul Duane has been respectable for several years now, as his tweets almost prove.
The Belated Birthday Girl is a mystery.