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.
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.
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.
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?