1

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.

1