by Gareth Negus
Unless your first trip to the cinema was post-1990, it’s a reasonable bet that some of the buildings where your formative moviegoing experiences took place no longer exist, at least in their original form. That’s certainly true of me. The local three screen Cannon where I spent many Friday evenings in my late teens long ago became a Wetherspoons; the Manchester Odeon, where I saw Pulp Fiction among others, is derelict. The ABC in Hull, which I frequented as a student, is also consigned to history. And those buildings were arguably well past their prime when I was visiting them, soon to be crushed by the rise of the multiplexes.
I have nothing against multiplexes as such; anyone who recalls the sorry state so many UK cinemas had reached by the early 80s will understand why they were welcomed by so many. But there is a wealth of history to cinemagoing in this country that pre-dates their corporate approach, much of which is gone, if not forgotten.
Late last month, I attended the launch of a new heritage app for mobile phones called Lost Cinemas of Castle Park. The app was developed by a team headed by Dr Charlotte Crofts of the University of West of England, and is part of the Cinemapping project that draws on Bristol City Council’s Know Your Place. The team previously created a heritage app specific to the Curzon Community Cinema, which celebrated its centenary last year. The app mixed historical information with the stories and memories of those who knew the building, and The Lost Cinemas of Castle Park takes a similar approach.
Castle Park was once a major commercial centre of Bristol, before it was devastated during World War II. It included a remarkable 15 cinemas, of which only one, the Odeon, is still in existence, albeit in reduced circumstances (the ground floor is now a branch of H&M). The idea is for the app to be used while wandering around the Castle Park area, though if you aren’t in the area, it can also be operated manually.
The idea of using digital technology to share history isn’t exclusive; projects like historypin and hypercities work on similar ideas. But Lost Cinemas is the first time I’ve encountered an app that is activated as you walk around the area, triggering music (organ music as you enter the space once occupied by the 2,000+ seat Regent Cinema, old Pearl and Dean ads elsewhere), as well as information and personal reminiscences of former patrons (though as an android user, I found I had to trigger these manually).
Among the more colourful tales were the murder of one Mr Jackson, then manager of the Odeon. The crime remained unsolved for many years, though at the time the screening of The Light that Failed was interrupted only by a message flashed on screen appealing for a doctor. I preferred the memories of ordinary cinemagoers, such as the gentleman who described the colourful programme of the Tatler, which billed itself as a Continental Cinema. “I used to buy a magazine called the Continental Film Review, which was very detailed analysis of continental films, plus lots of photographs of very attractive girls, and it was sold at the cinema itself,” he tells us. “[The cinema] also survived in a very curious way, that of alternating intellectual and what were then considered quite racy films. For example, you might get one week in there, as I did, Summer with Monika by Bergman, and the next would be a Russian war film, and then you might have a Brigitte Bardot. So it was an extraordinary mixture.” The last film to be shown at this cinema was My Bare Lady, which hasn’t lasted quite so well as Bergman’s oeuvre.
The app also incorporates elements of social history, explaining how the changes to Bristol following the war led to the demolition of some of the surviving cinemas (among other buildings) as the city centre was rebuilt with the car in mind. This left the Kings Cinema cut off from the main centre by a new dual carriageway, which may have contributed to its move into porn in the 1970s.
So while the app will be of most interest to those who are able to use it while visiting the relevant area (though I’d recommend picking a warmer day than I did), it still has plenty to offer those from further afield; not least inspiration. There must be scope for similar projects in cities and towns across the country. They don’t have to focus on cinemas, but while there are other industries whose rise and fall can be used to tell the story of whole communities, many of them will be focussed on particular regions of the country.
Cinemas offer a communal experience that few other businesses or institutions – possibly only schools – can. They tell the stories of our heritage, both through their physical existence as buildings, and through the experiences shared within them. And that’s what got us going to the pictures in the first place – the stories.
Gareth Negus is the former Director of the Curzon Community Cinema. He tweets at @garethnegus