Month: March 2017

Sitting in the Dark – A History of Lost Cinemas in Colchester

It’s strange how certain items or events can spark a memory that sparks another memory that sparks another and then another and then… Well, you get the idea. And those memories, in turn, spark imagination and fire curiosity.


The recent release of Danny Boyle’s T2: Trainspotting, made me reminisce about waiting in line on a Saturday night outside the old Odeon cinema, in Crouch Street, to see the culture-redefining original some twenty years earlier and that I worked in a shop opposite the old ABC cinema at the time, and that the store I was working in used to be part of the old Cameo cinema, and then I started to think about the other cinemas that used to exist in our fair town, all those palaces of light and thrills which had closed their doors and disappeared before I was even born. So, I pored over a lot of dry statistics, academic texts, architectural and business reports and enlightening local histories to discover a story that is sometimes fascinating, sometimes surprising, sometimes quirky and sometimes sad.

Whilst there is some doubt over the date at which moving pictures were first shown in Colchester (some say 1898, others 1908, though the chances are that Victorian Camera Obscura shows may well have visited up to half a century earlier before The Corn Exchange, in the High Street, took a chance on this new-fangled curiosity), there is no questioning the opening of the town’s first cinema. The Electric theatre opened in 1910 in the former Liberal club lecture hall in Headgate and, though no records remain of what films showed, one can easily imagine Edwardian Colcestrians being thrilled by the first screen appearances of Frankenstein and Ebeneezer Scrooge. The cinema was open from 2.30pm until 11pm and, rather than popcorn and hotdogs, the audience could take their refreshments in the custom-built tearoom. A far more elegant solution than rustling sweetie wrappers and vigorous hoovering of soft drinks, I think you’ll agree.

Children queue for a Saturday matinee, The Empire, 1911. Sadly few photo’s remain of this cinema

Within one year Colchester had its second, and first purpose built, cinema in the shape of The Vaudeville Electric on the St. Botolph’s Junction (that is, before it became St. Botolph’s roundabout). Audiences were in awe of its 24-foot wide proscenium, hardly Imax but… baby steps. Audiences at these cinemas would have witnessed not only the debuts of both Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, Buster Keaton and Mary Pickford and the first ever close-up shot (in D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator) but also footage direct from the hellish trenches of the first World War. One can only imagine the feelings running through the audience, virtually every family would have had a loved one fighting overseas, as cinema brought the war home to them in sometimes graphic detail.

With the war over and life returning to something resembling normality, in 1920 Colchester’s Grand Palace of Varieties installed the equipment necessary to convert it to our third cinema, The Hippodrome, in the High Street.

One of the few remaining photographs of The Electric Theatre in St. John’s Street

Whilst it may seem alien to younger readers or cinema fans, it should be remembered that cinemas still maintained a stage area where live shows could be seen and in 1924 The Electric (now under new management and renamed The Headgate Theatre) saw the debut of Arthur Askey, later to become one of the country’s favourite comedians, radio and movie stars (there’s still a plaque on the building commemorating this event) and just a few years later the first “talkie” to be seen in the town played here.

1929 saw The Vaudeville under new ownership and renamed The Empire and The Playhouse in St. John’s Street opened, primarily as a theatre but within a year as Colchester’s fourth cinema. In the same year that The Playhouse became a cinema The Corn Exchange also became a cinema and, a year after that, in 1931 the count was up to six as The Regal, in Crouch Street, opened its doors for the first time. Take a moment to think about this: Six cinemas within a one mile radius in a town with approximately one hundred and ten thousand less residents than it has today. And it would stay this way until a year after World War II, when The Corn Exchange reverted back to becoming a theatre and concert venue (where bands like The Troggs and The Who would play in the 1960’s). The Corn Exchange closed its doors as a venue for theatre and music in 1972 and is now The Co-Operative Bank.


In 1938, The Regal, with its Mediterranean-style façade was acquired by cinema entrepreneur Oscar Deutsch and made it part of his Odeon chain (the named derived from the ancient Greek for “Enclosed theatre” and not, as Odeon publicists would have it, a mnemonic for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation), though the name change didn’t occur until 1961. It soon became the “go to” cinema in Colchester and was thought, during this golden age of cinema, to be the most visited building in Colchester. It too supplemented its silver screen income with live shows in the Fifties and Sixties, Cliff Richard and The Rolling Stones amongst the top-line acts wowing the young and excitable of the area.

It was a golden age that wasn’t to last, unfortunately. During the 1950’s television became more and more popular (I won’t say affordable, most people rented their set from outlets like Rediffusion, Granada and DER and it wasn’t until the 1980’s that people began to buy and own their own telly’s), staying in became the new going out and cinema was the entertainment industry that suffered the most. In 1959, The Empire closed its doors for the last time, the property remained as a furniture warehouse until it was demolished, in 1971, to make way for the concrete brutalism of St. Botolph’s roundabout. Two years later The Hippodrome, also victim to the march of Britain’s two (count them, TWO) television channels and decided that Bingo was the way forward. The Hippodrome remained The Top Rank bingo hall until it closed in 1985, subsequently to re-open as a nightclub after three years of remaining empty when it was acquired by Big R Leisure.

In 1962, The Playhouse became the ABC after a major refit and remained a cinema until it too succumbed to economic pressures and the lure of little clicking-clacking, bouncing balls in 1981, when it became a Coral (and then Gala) bingo hall. On a purely personal level, the ABC is where I truly fell in love with cinema: Back in the day, there were no such things as dvd’s or streaming services or, even, home video, and so, if you wanted to see an old movie you’d have to wait until it was on one of the three (count them, THREE) television channels or re-issued at the cinema. In the wake of Star Wars, cinemas struggled to find another science fiction epic which would rake in the coin, Italian rip-off movies like Starcrash and The Humanoid weren’t cutting it, so distributors starting re-releasing classic sci-fi, and that’s how I got see and have my adolescent mind blown by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie I still think about regularly.

But I digress.

When Gala Bingo moved to Osborne Street in 1993, the premises were snapped up by J.D. Wetherspoons who, for better or worse, sympathetically refurbished  the former ABC to create one of the town’s first mega-pubs and reverted back to its earlier name, The Playhouse.

On the other side of the road, The Electric, by 1967 owned by the British Film Institute, became The Cameo, Colchester’s premier arts cinema where countless mothers dragged their curious, unruly offspring hurriedly past posters for I Am Curious (Yellow) or W.R.: Mystery of the Organism or Inga or any of the other European sex movies that “Gentlemen” could go watch and pretend to be all beard-strokey about (mostly, they’re a bit dull rather than titillating, but whatever). The cinema sat in an uncomfortable place with its “Arts” fayre, it was making more money from the kind of movies that attracted, what used to be known as, The Brown Mac’ Brigade (a euphemism for dirty old men) than it could from genuinely interesting films which, mostly, got grouped by local opinion amongst the “smutty” movies. In 1972, the BFI sold The Cameo to Star Group, who knew which side of their bread received the most butter and went all out for the money showing British sex comedies, like The Confessions/Adventures of… series, The Lovebirds and Come Play With Me, or exploitation movies like Prisoner of the Cannibal God (as long as there was a bit of boob in there). Though, I do remember seeing Slade in Flame there, so not all bad. The Cameo closed in 1976, just as I was reaching puberty. Sad Times.


The Odeon, on the other hand, seemed to flourish. Yes, sadly, in 1963 the mighty Wurlitzer organ that greeted patrons and played for their entertainment before shows and during intermissions between the “b” and “feature” movies (yes, children, films used to play as a double bill, two movies for the price of one) departed the cinema for fields anew (well, fairways actually, it is now resident at The Singing Hills Golf Club in Sussex, not far from Brighton where concerts on it are still played every Sunday afternoon). But the times, they were a changing. In 1974, the cinema went under a major remodelling and it became a three-screen multiplex. In 1987, another screen was added and, in 1991, a further two. So, it seemed Odeon must have been doing something right to have survived the proliferation of television stations, satellite channels and home entertainment… or maybe it was because they were last man standing. Odeon closed doors on their Crouch Street premises in 2002 when they opened their purpose built 8-screen cinema in the former Post Office building in Head Street, it was the end of one era and the beginning of a totally new one.

Try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to include a photo of the old Odeon in its current state, it’s just too dismal and depressing. So here it is not long after its closure in 2002

Cinemas are part of our cultural psyche. Yes, they’ve changed, gone are the usherettes with their sometimes illuminating, sometimes incriminating flashlights; gone is the ice cream seller with their little tray of vanilla tubs, wooden spoon-things and Kia-Ora orange drinks; gone is the Mighty Wurlitzer and art-deco exteriors. But what remains is what’s always been there. They are where we go to escape, to laugh, to cry, to hide behind our fingers, to be lifted. And yet, cinemas are so much more than this. Those figures up there on the screen live their lives, sometimes they die, sometimes they fall in love, sometimes they dance, always they are watched but they never watch back. How many stories began there in the dark, expectant faces turned to the flickering images? How many first dates? How many stolen kisses? How many begin their lives together? How many of us are inspired to be more than we are? How many find answers? How many find questions? How many find of us find ourselves? Or understand others? How many just go to sit in the dark because there is no better place to be?

Andy Oliver

Get Out


(BBFC 15, 104 mins)


When young, African-American Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) agrees to visit the parents of white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) he has no idea of the horror awaiting him. A perfect, apparently liberal, community hides a very dark and disturbing reality and Chris has just walked into a nightmare.

Dad (Bradley Whitford), a neurosurgeon and the epitome of middle class liberalism (who would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could’ve) and his hypnotherapist wife (Catherine Keener) are nothing if not welcoming to Chris. Less so is uber-creepy UFC-loving brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), but it’s only when he meets the family’s blank and humourless black servants that Chris starts to believe something is seriously wrong.

With his first movie writer/director Jordan Peele (one half of comedy duo Key & Peele) has created something incredibly special: a horror movie that delivers not only edge-of-the-seat thrills and suspense and moments of laugh-out-loud comedy but a savage satire of white suburbia so sharp it cuts. Get Out specialises in pulling the rug out from under the viewer, constantly subverting our expectations, twisting its narrative knife in our stomachs and keeping us guessing right up to its final, terrifying denouement.


With a whip-smart script that doesn’t carry an ounce of fat, Get Out is intelligent, nuanced, thematically dense and makes the implausible seem terrifyingly plausible. Peele knows exactly when levity is required to give the audience much needed relief from the ever-building tension and exactly when to dish out the shocks and reveals. It is a very impressive debut feature indeed, finally a new voice in horror worth listening to.

Speaking of listening: As awful as the sound design was in last year’s most successful horror, Don’t Breathe (the noisiest movie ever made about keeping quiet), Get Out’s sound design is remarkable. It replays over and over in your mind long after the movie has finished like an echo of terror (if you struggle with the sound of cutlery on crockery or the high-pitched whine of bone saws you might want to avoid this movie). The sound design creates an extra dimension of fear, probably the best use of sound in a horror movie since The Exorcist, no kidding.

Less a movie that relies on gore or jump-scares (though there is a smidgeon of both), Get Out travels the less-worn (but equally scary) path of psychological horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives (the influence of both it wears proudly on its sleeve). That it throws into the mix themes as diverse as the loss of identity of black America, patronising liberalism and the shadow that slavery still casts upon modern America (amongst others) just makes it all the more remarkable.

And it’s really, really, fun.

Andy Oliver

Beauty and the Beast

 

(BBFC PG, 129mins)



Disney’s 1991 animated version of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s classic fairy tale, one of those movies whose narrative, songs and aesthetic has imprinted itself upon the psyche of generations of little girls, desperately needed a brand new, live action and cgi version, right? Well, frankly, no. Even if it did, this version of Beauty and the Beast is not it. It’s not a bad movie by any means, in fact it’s very good in parts, the problem is that all those good bits are lifted directly from the five-star animated version. It just feels a bit… unnecessary and uninspired.

Everything is there from the 1991 version: bookish Belle (Emma Watson), tired of her life in a provincial French village offers herself as prisoner to the Beast (Dan Stevens) in exchange for her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) who languishes as the Beast’s captive; the Beast’s retinue – Lumiere (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellan), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her son, Chip (Nathan Mack) – transformed along with him by a witch’s curse for his selfishness (harsh) free Belle from her prison; the vain and jealous Gaston (Luke Evans), who convinces his fellow villagers that the Beast must die; the songs, the costumes, the romance and fun. There’s also a few new songs that don’t quite capture the magic or singalong-ability of the originals and a bit of extended backstory which add an extra forty minutes, but little else.

Emma Watson is perfectly cast as Belle, a thoroughly modern girl trapped in an age that doesn’t cater for her wants and needs. She manages to pull off a tricky mix of strong and yet vulnerable and it would be difficult to see anyone but her in the role. The rest of the cast are good (though the voices of the originals sometimes weirdly ring in your ears), but it’s Luke Evans as the vainglorious Gaston who steals the show, he’s a proper, hiss-able Disney villain who you’ll love to hate.


Whereas Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) made plenty of references to its animated predecessor whilst creating its own story, Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon sticks (more-or-less) rigidly to his source material. There are whole scenes lifted directly, but played with as-much gusto and verve that you (kind of) forgive it and it’s all very efficient, just not very, you know, exciting.

The fuss over Josh Gad’s Le Fou being an openly gay character is pretty much a storm in a (chipped) tea cup. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in the film’s closing number, but that’s it, hardly anything to get your “I Heart Trump” knickers in a twist about; gay people exist; gay people have always existed; get over it.

It’s difficult to say anything bad about Beauty and the Beast, but it’s also tricky to say anything gushing about it, either. What you think about it depends on your relationship with the animated version, though I don’t think you’ll hate it.

*Very young viewers may get a bit squirmy in their seats at the film’s (overlong) running time and there are a couple of scenes (especially the wolf attack) that may be upsetting for them (you are in the best position to know your child’s tolerance levels, if in doubt you might want to see the film on your own first).

Andy Oliver

Colchester Classics – Classical Music Picks for March 2017

OUR CLASSICAL MUSIC COLUMNIST LIZ LEATHERDALE, FOUNDER AND OWNER OF COLCHESTER CLASSICS, BRINGS YOU HER PICK OF MARCH’S CLASSICAL MUSIC EVENTS IN, AND AROUND, COLCHESTER.

Classics

Music-making in March has most certainly sprung into action. Here are just a few of the concerts this month.

In February the Colchester Bach Choir presented An Evening of Mozart in St Botolph’s Church in aid of the Colchester Mayor’s Charities, raising £1,000. Later this month the Mayor, Julie Young, will be hosting a St Patrick’s Day concert. The Children of Lir, an Irish fairytale Cantata by world renowned Irish film composer Patrick Cassidy, will be performed by The Blessington Millennium choir from County Wicklow accompanied by Charles Pearson on the Moot Hall organ on 17 March at 7.30pm in the Colchester Town Hall.

Tickets are £10.00 (01206 282206).

By the way, Patrick Cassidy has composed some beautiful music including the enchanting Vide Cor Meum (See my Heart) first heard during the outdoor opera scene in the film Hannibal.

One of the excellent soloists at An Evening of Mozart was the soprano Gill Wilson.  Gill can also be heard on Wednesday 8 March at 1pm at her recital accompanied by pianist Ian Ray in Lion walk United Reformed Church, Colchester.

On March 11 Gill and also Roderic Knott will be the soloists with Witham Choral and the Colchester Philharmonic in the Last Night of the Proms concert full of favourites such as the Henry Wood Sea Songs Fantasia, opera choruses, Land of Hope and Glory and much more. This concert is on Saturday 11 March at 7.30 pm in the Witham Town Hall.

Tickets £12 (0345 017 8717)

J S Bach’s St John Passion tells the Biblical story of Jesus’ Crucifixion and was first performed on Good Friday in 1724. Rather than expecting the congregation, or, audience to sit back and take in the music, Bach included a number of hymn-like chorales so all could participate in the worship.

If you like your Bach oratorio sung in its original language, this month Colin Baldy will be the bass soloist with the Colchester Choral Society in the St John Passion sung in German accompanied by the John Jenkins Consort with Peter Holman (continuo) conducted by Ian Ray.  Saturday 18 March 2017 in St Botolph’s Church, Colchester (www.colchesterchoralsociety.co.uk)

Next month Colin Baldy will be conducting St Mary’s Church Choir in a performance of the same work in German but this time with five chorales sung in English by the choir with the congregation invited to sing too. This takes place on Good Friday, 14 April at 7.30pm with free entry at St Mary’s Church, Church Street, Maldon CM9 5 JG

By the way, Bach’s St John Passion is often sung in English in the UK and next month’s column will include details of a concert in Clacton and, after a forty-five year wait, information on a new CD of the work sung in English recorded by a Colchester-based international company

Sunday 19 March offers several musical treats such as the Colchester Chamber Choir at St Peter ad Vincula Church, Coggeshall with a programme of 16th and 17th century choral masterpieces including Palestrina and Monteverdi, interwoven with modern jazz improvisations from the internationally-acclaimed jazz guitarist Chris Allard.

Tickets:  £16, under 30s £10 and the concert starts at 7pm www.colchesterchamberchoir.org

Earlier that same day, Anglia Singers under Chris Green will be performing Handel’s much-loved oratorio, Messiah at Our Lady Queen of Peach Church, Braintree at 4pm. Tickets: £8 (01245 350988)

Also at 4pm on that same Sunday, Kammer Philharmonie Europa will be performing at St Mary’s Church in East Bergholt as part of the Stour Valley Arts Music concert series.

For ticket availability and more information please telephone 01206 298426

At 5pm on Sunday 19 March The Pimlott Foundation is hosting a concert in its recently refurbished Barn with a programme of Elizabethan Music by John Cooper, John Dowland and William Lawes and French music for the court  of Louis XIV, The Sun King.  This concert is at 5pm at Old House, Great Horkesley CO6 4EQ. Entry £11 includes refreshments.

Children and students free Tickets and further details; www.pimlottfoundation.org or phone 01206 271291.

World-famous harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock makes a welcome return to Suffolk Village Festival as part of his 70th birthday celebrations. He is joined by his long-term recital partner Jonathan Manson in a programme that brings together some of the greatest Baroque music for viola da gamba and harpsichord with two extraordinary pieces for solo harpsichord. J.S. Bach’s astonishingly bold Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue has been a favourite with virtuoso keyboard players ever since it was written, while Handel’s monumental Chaconne in G is one of his greatest keyboard works.

For further details contact Suffolk Villages Festival, 119 Maldon Road, Colchester, Essex CO3 3AX telephone: 01206 366603, email louise@suffolkvillagesfestival.com  Guess what date this concert is on? Yes, that is right Sunday 19 March at 6pm in St Peter’s Church, Sudbury. Tickets £18 (reserved), £12 (unreserved), reserved seats for two concerts £34.

Colchester Symphony Orchestra returns to St Botolph’s Church on Saturday 25 March, 7.30pm with soloist John Jermy. This concert includes Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto and Beethoven: Symphony No 6 in F major op 68 -The Pastoral. Tickets are £14 and can be reserved via telephone (01206 271128) or more info www.colchestersymphonyorchestra.org.uk

In contrast with the above, if you enjoy choral works the Tiptree Choral Society will be singing Mendelssohn’s Elijah in English– a work for large-scale chorus, soloists including numbers for an octet and women’s trio. The work depicts events in the life of the Biblical prophet Elijah and was composed in the spirit of Mendelssohn’s baroque predecessors Bach and Handel, composers he so admired.

Saturday 25 March at St Luke’s Church, Church Road, Tiptree. Tickets from £10 on the door.

If you have a forthcoming concert of classical music, you would like previewed, contact Liz Leatherdale on 0800 999 6994.

Start your love affair with Classical Music at www.colchesterclassics.co.uk and take a minute to watch their company video: 

Liz Leatherdale

 

 

 

 

 

Liz Leatherdale

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

 

BBFC 12A, 118 mins


Let me chuck this out there right at the start: Kong: Skull Island is audacious, goofy, insane even, and I loved practically every minute of it. It’s a movie that embraces its own ridiculousness, gleefully revelling in action and fun; it’s a Saturday morning cartoon; a theme park ride; it’s the joy of a narrative created by a kid playing with action figures with no regard to which toy-line they belong; it’s Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness channelled through a Guardians of the Galaxy entertainment filter.

It’s 1973 and the United States is facing the humiliation of losing The Vietnam War, the early days of the Watergate scandal and America needs a quick win, something that reasserts their standing on the world stage. A shady government task-force known as Monarch (yes, the same Monarch from the 2014 Godzilla movie, hinting toward a royal rumble?), led by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), suggests that not only do monsters exist but proving their existence and bringing them under control will show the world just how powerful America is. Nobody’s going to make a monkey of the USA (sorry).

Monarch gathers together an uber-tough crack military team, a war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and an ex-SAS captain turned tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and takes them into an uncharted region of the Pacific in search of giants. Not unexpectedly, they find them and then some. Cue chaos and a fight for survival, you know the drill.


I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, suffice to say that Kong is not the greatest threat native to the island, but let’s not spoil the fun or thrill of discovery.

Unlike Peter Jackson’s 2005 or John Guillermin’s 1976 King Kong, which were straight remakes of the 1933 original, Kong: Skull Island instead builds upon the mythos of Kong, minus the gurning sentimentalism. This is Kong as King with a capital ‘K’, unassailable, regal, as benevolent as he is ferocious; he’s primal terror, compassionate protector, the soul of a poet trapped in the body of a beast. Plus, you don’t have to wait an interminable portion of the film’s running time before you get to see him (and you’ll want to see him the biggest screen available to you, trust me).

With only one small, independent movie (the rather glorious Kings of Summer) under his belt, director Jordan Vogt Roberts seemed an unusual choice for such an obvious tentpole blockbuster, but where (with a similar CV) Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Trevorrow failed with Jurassic World, Vogt Roberts succeeds in spades with Kong: Skull Island. Vogt Roberts picks up the “goofiness ball” of the script and runs with it, he never stops to linger over the nonsense it spews, rather he embraces it with controlled abandon and brio. Admittedly, few of the action scenes match the initial heady excitement of the adrenaline-fuelled Kong versus helicopters set-piece, but neither are they dull or incomprehensible and always full of fresh ideas. Everything moves along at one heckuva lick and never loses sight of how much fun you’re supposed to have watching it.


Although slightly under-written for the central characters the script does a good job of fleshing out the support, giving surprising back-story and depth to characters usually consigned to “fodder”, most notably with Shea Whigham’s Cole, a career soldier who takes a laid-back, philosophical approach to life and the extraordinary events he finds himself in. Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery with glee, turning up his Samuel L. Jackson-ness to eleven but it’s John C. Reilly’s World War 2 fighter pilot, Hank Marlow who steals the show. When Marlow, who crash-landed on the island during the war, breaks away from his expository role as guide to the island’s weird evolution and fauna he is a joy: with no experience of the outside world he is constantly asking questions and surprised by the answers, imagine leaving the world listening to Glenn Miller and re-entering to Jimi Hendrix.


The special effects are on point, the soundtrack (full of classic rock songs) soars and you may find yourself temporarily deafened by the roaring of monsters, machine guns and explosions (but that’s what you pay your money for, right? So please don’t complain that it’s too noisy). Some scenes may be too distressing for younger viewers and those with a fear of spiders may want to look away at a certain point but Kong: Skull Island delivers all the thrills and boisterous entertainment you could wish for in exchange for two hours of your life.

Oh, and you might never look at a peanut butter sandwich in the same way ever again.

Andy Oliver