When Lewisham had cinemas

Cinema archeology in Lewisham

Overlooking the busy roundabout, the delicate golden friezes and the dull wall are the remnants of the days when cinema was mass-entertainment and when double-bills were the rule. This is what’s left of the Gaumont Palace on Loampit Vale, previously one of the largest cinemas in the UK with its 3,300 seats and which was destroyed in 1991. Now, Lewisham, with its 250,000 inhabitants, is one of only two boroughs  in London without a cinema screen (the other being Waltham Forest). In our first post about the history of cinemas in Lewisham, John Scott, now 73, shares with us his memories as cinema manager. “To be in the cinema trade at that time was quite thrilling and brought a bit of spice into my normally dull life,” John tells us. “At the time, it was still the main entertainment for the masses, TV was just beginning to take hold and, of course, many theatres were converted to bowling lanes and bingo halls, managed by former cinema managers.” John now lives in Australia but it’s during his national service in 1956, “while waiting for Suez to develop”, that his cinema management career began.

“Well, to be honest, my adjutant gave me the projector and a reel or two of film and along with it the task of keeping fellow squaddies amused once or twice a week, natural talent took over and soon we were charging for a few little extras to supplement our 35 shillings a week. The films were reasonably up to date but content does not exist in my mind. Following demob, I went back to my civil service job on the Thames embankment at New Scotland Yard, where I managed to remain interested for almost a year, when I wrote to the managing director of the Rank Organisation, expressing an interest in cinematography as a career path and, to my surprise, I was granted an interview at the South London Regional Offices at the rear of the Gaumont Bromley. A short time later, I was appointed trainee cinema manager at Lewisham’s Gaumont.”

John Scott

“My duties involved every aspect of the operation of the cinema from mucking out the loos with the seven-eight strong team of lady cleaners, to assisting the chief projectionist in the projection box learning how to keep the carbon arc projectors alight once the film had started to making sure the reels were in the right order, correcting the sound and brightness levels and packing up the current films for onward transport at the end of the week. A stint on the front of house from cashiers box (claustrophobics need not apply) to patrolling the foyer, checking the posters had been adequately set up for the movies on show, ascertaining the suitability of clients wishing to enter the cinema and using extreme politeness conveying to unrequired persons the reasons for their refusal of entry, a task not always pleasant to administer nor received. Time in the office controlling the wage sheets, organising advertising campaigns above and beyond the statutory ones from Regional Office. My days started about ten or eleven in the morning and finished with the close of the cinema around eleven in the evening, usually working five to six days a week. Saturdays of course began much earlier to accommodate the Saturday morning kids’ show, which consisted of a couple of cartoons, the serial and, possibly, a western to close up with.”

Cinema riots

“Towards the end of my training, I was sent to Hammersmith to assist them with a new form of kids’ Saturday mornings. The manager had come up with the idea of a live band on stage and dancing in the orchestra pit to replace the cartoons and serial, Regional Office had apparently decided to have management in bulk numbers to control problems. I felt it was just kids behaving badly but it was considered quite a success. After the band had finished, I was despatched to get them up to the manager’s office, I caught up with them packing up and preparing to leave. “What’s up, something go wrong?” But I had no answers, I can still see the look of surprise as money changed hands and they were asked if they could make it next week. Who was it you may ask? Some fresh faced kid called Cliff Richard and some of his mates. This music theme had been a success and showed up on the big screen with The Blackboard Jungle and the many riots in cinemas throughout the world. I was on duty on the Front of House during our screening and saw big white fivers passing hands between pressmen known to the chief of staff and some of the local hoons, and it is assumed that this was what started our riot. Seats ripped from their bolted positions on the floor and hurled at the screen, absolute mayhem in the auditorium. While the police assembled after being called, it was my job to take the microphone on to the stage, house lights up and repeat the following standard speech: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I regret that due to circumstances beyond our control we are unable to continue this performance and ask you to leave the theatre as quickly and quietly as possible by your nearest exits”. After that I had no idea what would happen because it was always assumed that the audience would do as requested, what did happen was three police dog handlers marched down the aisles to the orchestra pit where upon the command “bark!” they did so and the theatre emptied with great haste. Although an enquiry into the press involvement in the riot was held, no blame was officially attached to anyone.”

The Gaumont Lewisham fire

“Jumping ahead to the great fire [of the Gaumont in Lewisham], I had already been promoted to assistant cinema manager and based in Deptford at the Odeon and got up the morning after to read about it and went over to see if anything was needed of me and was amazed at the destruction. A colleague told me that they thought a cigarette had lodged in the back of a settee in the left-hand rotunda and once the flames were established, the soundproofing panels across the back of the theatre, which were dry and dirty, just exploded.”

The Lewisham Gaumont Palace and its proscenium arch, 1932 (photo: Dusashenka-flickr)

“Back to happier events, this gigantic building had to have clean air circulated, in this case a plenum plant sucked the old air into the ceiling through a bath and back into circulation again, this water tank required weekly dredging to remove the muck. The Gaumont Lewisham had one the largest proscenium arches in the UK.”

“My career in cinema management progressed as an assistant manager at the Deptford Odeon, New Cross Gaumont, Bromley Odeon and, joy of joys, I got my own theatre as a full manager, the magnificent Walpole theatre, a chic little theatre of some 300 seats in the backwoods of Ealing, just down the street from the Ealing Music Hall. I spent a productive time there occasionally being called on to help out at premieres in Chelsea – “These are the director’s flat keys give them to ‘that’ starlet in the front row of the circle” – and once at a Royal Performance at the Odeon in the West End where I remember my instructions as being quite simple: “Keep out of the way!” By now I have two children and am about to get a promotion to the magnificent Astoria on Old Kent Road, 3,027 seats, seventeen rooms backstage and UK’s biggest proscenium arch. The past glory of the Astoria had dwindled as the area had but the patronage and staff were the salt of the Earth and I have many fond memories of my time there.”

Update: historical map of cinemas in Lewisham (April 2010)

At the time, it was still the main entertainment for the masses, TV was just beginning to take hold and, of course, many theatres were converted to bowling lanes and bingo halls, managed by former cinema managers.

2 thoughts on “When Lewisham had cinemas

  1. Thanks for the interesting article. I spent many Saturday evenings with my girl friend in the vast circle of this beautiful cinema during the late 1960’s. It was in fabulous condition as the interior had just been completely re-furbished after the fire (mentioned in main article). I can always remember the non-synch music as we eagerly awaited the lights to dim and the film started, it was always a Bert Kampfort record. Eventually we married at St Stephens church opposite. On the wedding photo of us getting into our car, the Lewisham Odeon stands proud in the background.

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