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The golden age of cinema returns

PUBLISHED: 10:03 14 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:32 15 November 2016

The Rex cinema - a fine example of 1930s Art Deco. It was a shell for many years

The Rex cinema - a fine example of 1930s Art Deco. It was a shell for many years

© Anne Rippy / Alamy Stock Photo

From its early days in the late Victorian era, cinema held a pre-eminent place in our culture. But the introducion of television, and later video, sounded the death knell for many British cinemas. But now the big screen is back – and back in a big way!

Fred and Ginger film shown at the black tie opening night of Broadway cinema, Letchworth in 1936Fred and Ginger film shown at the black tie opening night of Broadway cinema, Letchworth in 1936

Video killed the cinema star

The 1940s were the heyday of cinema-going. Audiences peaked in 1946, with total cinema admissions reaching 1.6 billion in the UK. Cinema attendances began to fall in the late 1940s and early 50s, as television ownership became widespread. Between 1955 and 1970, admissions plummeted by 85 per cent.

View from the upper circle at The Broadway, 1936View from the upper circle at The Broadway, 1936

With the film industry in both Britain and America entering recession, the 70s were stagnant and the 1980s began with the worst recession the British film industry had ever seen. In 1980, only 31 UK films were made – down 50 per cent on the previous year, and the lowest output since 1914.

With the introduction of home video in the early 1980s, cinema admissions reached their lowest point. In 1984 just 54 million tickets sold in the UK. Cinemas, some of them beautiful Art Deco structures from the golden age of film, were boarded up or bulldozed and many towns no longer had a ‘flea pit’.

But, as they will do, things change. What was unfashionable becomes fashionable again. The things that were always glorious about cinema – the anticipation, meeting a loved one (or potential loved one) in the dark, friends in the foyer, popcorn, a giant screen and sound to get lost in, means Saturday Night at the Movies is no longer an anachronism.

Broadway foyer in 1936Broadway foyer in 1936

Boarded up cimemas have been restored and multiplexes now offer anything up to 4DX – with smells and moving seats. In summer outdoor cinemas have popped up in beautiful settings all over the county and film clubs are on the rise.

Architectural beauties

The Broadway in 1956, the year after a new widescreen ‘Curvilinear’ screen was installed to show Cinemascope filmsThe Broadway in 1956, the year after a new widescreen ‘Curvilinear’ screen was installed to show Cinemascope films

Thanks to the dedication of communities and entrepreneurial spirit, Hertfordshire still has Art Deco cinemas. From dereliction, the resurrected Rex in Berkhamsted and the Odyssey in St Albans, as well as the Broadway in Letchworth, which has stoically survived slumps and this year celebrated its 80th anniversary.

Broadway cinema opened its doors on August 26, 1936 for an opening night black tie gala screening of Follow the Fleet, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The massive expanse of brickwork – the building required some 350,000 bricks – was broken by patterned concrete blocks framing the intricate traceried windows. Externally, the building was lit by huge red and blue neon lights. Inside, a stunning peacock and gold colour scheme was complemented by the matching uniforms of the usherettes. Further glittering style was achieved by nearly 200 lights in the ceiling and concealed lamps on every other seat.

The cinema has had the good fortune of belonging to the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, which has given it financial support through tough times when other independents were struggling. Broadway manager Jason Valentine says its flexibility has been its strength. ‘It’s still here today as it has moved with the times. It has screened what audiences want to see, and the team has forged strong links with film fans and other interested community groups and schools.’

Artist's drawing for the original interior of the Broadway in a 'peacock and gold' colour schemeArtist's drawing for the original interior of the Broadway in a 'peacock and gold' colour scheme

Today, four screens give visitors to The Broadway a wide range of films, from blockbusters to art house, as well as its popular live screenings from the Royal Opera House and National Theatre.

A current refurbishment, due for completion early next year, will allow one screen to be converted to a stage for live theatre productions, making the Broadway a multi-purpose venue.

‘There are several things that make the Broadway unique,’ Valentine adds. ‘Its stunning Art Deco architecture, its prime town centre location, how it is owned and operated, and how much it is entrenched in Letchworth’s history and its future cultural offer.

The former Odeon in St Albans before its restoration as the OdysseyThe former Odeon in St Albans before its restoration as the Odyssey

‘It adds to the vibrancy of Letchworth and attracts loyal audiences of all ages from across the region. The Broadway is held in great affection by the community, who recognise its special place at the heart of the town’s history. Communities in general have also realised the value and importance of independent cinemas, with many actively supporting their local cinema to ensure these much-loved venues can be enjoyed by future generations.’

The Rex in Berkhamsted opened with Heidi, starring Shirley Temple, in 1938. The stunning Art Deco cinema ran for 50 years, but in that time its balcony had been boxed off to create two screens in the upper circle, and the huge proscenium arch surrounding one of the biggest screens in the UK was closed and turned over to bingo.

The cinema closed in 1988 due to competition from home video and multiplexes. The building then lay derelict for 16 years, with the threat of demolition a very real prospect.

Odyssey cinema nowOdyssey cinema now

In 2004, the dream of entrepreneur and film buff James Hannaway came true when the building was reborn – taken back to its original glory.

It’s been hugely popular ever since, with visitors enjoying the luxurious large seating, a good glass of wine and a plate of snacks while immersing themselves in a great film.

Hannaway says he is keen to keep alive the traditional cinema experience, recognising the beauty of buildings like the Rex is that they were built as single-screen cinemas, and he has stayed true to that vision.

Projector at the Rex, Berkhamsted beams on to a giant screen surrounded by a grand proscenium archProjector at the Rex, Berkhamsted beams on to a giant screen surrounded by a grand proscenium arch

‘When cinema first came to the fore in the 1920s, it was for the audience to be in the dream of Hollywood – the sense that this is magical. We haven’t changed. We still love that magic.’

St Albans’ first cinema, the Alpha Picture Palace on London Road, was built in 1908 by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, the son of a local photographer. It was destroyed by fire in 1927 but reopened in 1931 as Capitol Cinema, becoming the Poly, then the Regent. In 1945 it was bought by Odeon, which ran it until its closure in 1995. The building remained derelict for nearly two decades, under threat of demolition and redevelopment.

For 15 years there had been a steady campaign in St Albans and the surrounding area to protect the building and return it to its former glory. Thousands of people played a key role in securing the site by helping to raise £1m in just eight weeks. A further £1.5m fundraising effort secured its restoration. After his success at the Rex, James Hannaway was key to the project.

James Hannaway at the Rex. He spearheaded its restoration and that of the OdysseyJames Hannaway at the Rex. He spearheaded its restoration and that of the Odyssey

The Royston Picture Palace is another example of a community coming together for the love of cinema. The new 134-seat cinema opened in the town hall in 2013.

‘The town was without a cinema for a decade – the Priory Cinema vacated in the early part of the century,’ manager Simon Mortimer says. ‘In 2009, a specific initiative was emerging to re-introduce cinema to Royston. Introducing 21st century technology into a Victorian, pseudo-Georgian building was something of a challenge.’

The Picture Palace is a community asset run by volunteers from the town and surrounding villages. Its purpose is to provide good value, quality entertainment for local people.

4DX promises to stimulate all five sense with motion seats and 16 special effects4DX promises to stimulate all five sense with motion seats and 16 special effects

‘Personally I pride our cinema on the fact we offer our customers a personal and friendly experience they are so sadly missing elsewhere. I try to keep the operation traditional,’ Mortimer adds.

Multiplexes, pop-ups & clubs

Luna cinema at Knebworth House - one of the many new pop-up screens in Herts during summerLuna cinema at Knebworth House - one of the many new pop-up screens in Herts during summer

When it comes to multiplexes, Cineworld in Stevenage is helping lead the way. First there was a resurgence of 3D (those funny cardboard red/green glasses have been replaced with natty sunglasses-style ones). Now there is 4DX – a revolutionary cinematic technology which aims to stimulates all five senses through motion seats and 16 special effects, including wind, fog, lightning, mist, bubbles, water and scent, which work in synchronicity with the action on screen. 4DX films can be screened in both 2D and 3D format and more than 300 have already been screened in 4DX auditoriums.

Amar Sejpal, spokesman for Cineworld, says, ‘Customer response has been great so far. People have described it as intense, really enjoyable and totally immersive.’

Taking a leaf out of the one-time US love affair with drive-ins, outdoor cinemas have suddenly blossomed in Herts. During the summer, classic film seasons take place with picnics, pop-up food stalls and bars at venues as varied as Hertford Castle, Hatfield House, Hitchin Lavender and Knebworth House all selling out. The development is being pushed forward by companies such as Sundown Cinema and Luna Cinema. The Cinema Sleepover Club even runs 18-plus camping double-feature film nights along with DJs, street food and bars in Northaw village.

The annual St Albans Film Festival runs a filmmaking competition with hundreds of entries from around the world and puts on a wide range of screenings, talks and workshops in the city.

There is also no shortage of film clubs in the county, putting on small-scale viewings in all kinds of venues. Welwyn Garden City Film Society is one of the longest-standing film clubs in the country, having been established shortly after the Second World War.

Theatres are also getting in on the act, with the Spotlight in Hoddesdon running intriguing films, while Bishop’s Stortford Theatre and the Old Town Hall in Hemel have new releases.

Cinema has been written off many times, only to rise again. It’s an eclectic, forward-thinking, diverse scene out there. But what ties it all together is an undying love affair with watching films together.

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