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Richard Gray describes efforts
by the Cinema Theatre Association to protect
the best surviving British cinemas.


MONUMENTS
OF THE
MOVIES
Most historic cities, if not many historic towns, still possess a cinema or a building which was built as a cinema. They often stand next to much older structures and they form part of the urban scene, although only relatively recently have they become cherished and suitable for preservation. The decline in film attendances has meant that many fine cinemas have been demolished or altered Out of recognition.
The first two cinemas to be listed were the Granada at Tooting in south London and the New Victoria, opposite Victoria Station in central London, both in 1972. They were seen by the DoE as exceptional examples of the genre and so they are. The Granada is the masterpiece of the Russian theatre director and stage designer Theodore Komisarjevsky, who
was asked by Sidney (later Lord) Bernstein in 1931 to provide a Gothic fantasy interior to rival the fantasy to be seen on the screen. The New Victoria of a year earlier, is more complex with an interior based on German expressionist ideas of the previous decade and has an exterior of pure streamlining.
Since the early 1970s about 80 cinemas have been listed nationwide and they range from humble halls of the silent era such as the Electric, Portabello Road in west London to the magnificence of the gigantic former Gaumont State, Kilburn. The list might have included Erno Goldfinger’s Elephant and Castle Odeon but for the developer’s demolition contractor smashing part of one wall down over a weekend so that it had to be demolished, taking from us the finest cinema of the post war period. There is still a significant number of listable cinemas unprotected and for this reason the Cinema Theatre Association has instigated a project to ensure protection
for those outstanding buildings.
Losses and alterations continue, but why should this particular building type be protected and why have cinemas been overlooked in the past? Some of the most remarkable structures particularly the interiors were created by film exhibitors driven by their desire to attract increasingly larger audiences. The building was seen as potentially part of the entertainment and developed into three basic types. Some employed a classical architectural language; some were built as a reaction to well-tried classical opulence and experimented with non- European styles or in the so called ‘atmospheric’ manner where the architectural treatment of the ceiling of the auditorium was dispensed with and an outdoor effect was achieved internally. In others the architects and promoters saw the cinema as a ‘machine for viewing films’ and stripped embellishment to the minimum. The results were some of the most ambitiously decorative and extraordinary buildings of the first half of this century.
This was not true everywhere there were thousands of mediocre examples. Their designers were not thought of as leaders in architectural development (most cinema and theatre work was undertaken by specialist firms) but the intense commercial aspirations coupled with a craving for novelty produced buildings intended to be remembered. Possibly the reason they have been overlooked in the recent past by serious opinion is that entertainment buildings tend to be dismissed as of only ephemeral interest. This was the case with late Victorian theatres designed by the stylistically wilful Frank Matcham, who was governed by similar impresarios. It is hoped that people will now approach such renegade buildings with less prejudice.
Much has been lost in the last thirty
Rex, Berkhamsted, Herts (Architect: David Evelyn Nye, 1938) the splendid art deco auditorium with fibrous plaster decorations by Mollo and Egan which still survive despite subdivision. Grade II.

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