No plan for new cinemas in Lewisham

Gaumont Palace's remains, Lewisham High Street, 2009

Remains of the Gaumont Palace, Lewisham High Street, 2009

Now being the last London borough without a cinema (Walthamstow saw the opening of a cinema last year), we carried out a brief survey to find out if there were any plans for new cinemas in Lewisham.

We wrote to the Council’s planning department. Not once but several times. We never received an answer. We searched their planning database: with one exception, mentioned below, there is no upcoming projects. We contacted Lewisham Gateway, the borough’s largest regeneration project which, incidentally, incorporated a cinema in its early drafts. Their spokesperson Nicole Benford told us that “though a cinema does not form part of the first phase of work, discussions surrounding the next phase are still ongoing and as such, I’m unable at this time to confirm if a cinema will be included”.

Rumours on social media go wild… “Breaking news …. The Capitol is closing as a pub in the next 3-6 weeks and WILL revert to a cinema,” some claim. We checked with pub chain Wetherspoon, which owns The Capitol. Their spokesman Eddie Gershon confirmed that “Wetherspoon is not selling The Capitol”.

This is perhaps symptomatic of the lack of interest and urgency by the Council to promote popular culture and foster urban regeneration. There is no doubt that the demand exists: Lewishamians travel to neighbouring boroughs to watch films on the big screen. The new Picturehouse in East Dulwich is a welcoming addition to fairly local venues in Peckham, Greenwich and Beckenham. The planned opening of the Deptford Cinema is also to be celebrated, although it will offer a niche programme of art films and experimental films. A local group in Hither Green is campaigning for a community cinema. But, for the foreseeable future, we may have to rely on (excellent) grassroots cinema projects, from local film clubs to free film festivals.


Lewisham multiplex cinema project indefinitely shelved

As we mentioned in an earlier post, a cinema was planned as part of the massive Lewisham Gateway urban development project. As reported on Brockley Central, part of the project seems to be back on track… without the cinema. As Emma Talbot of the Lewisham Council Planning Service tells us…

there is space available within the permitted [Lewisham] Gateway scheme to enable a cinema to be provided, dependent on a willing operator. At this time the developer is in discussion about bringing forward detailed proposals for the first phase of the scheme. The potential cinema space is located in the later phase and while it is not forming part of our current discussions, details involving the content of the later phase are still to be explored.

Lewisham remains one of two London boroughs without a permanent cinema.

Lewisham cinema multiplex put on ice

The disputed Lewisham Gateway development project, which originally included a cinema multiplex, is facing further delays due to lack of finances and the current economic situation (News Shopper of 4 May). It has been announced that the project will not start before 2013 at the earliest. Joost Van Well, from Lewisham Council’s planning department, told us:

You might be aware that it has been a longstanding ambition of Lewisham Council to have a dedicated cinema in the borough again.  (…) With regards to the Lewisham Gateway scheme, we have ensured that there is sufficient space for a multiplex cinema in this development. However, this subject to operators being interested. At the moment, we are not sure if there will be a multiplex scheme as part of the development.  You will hopefully understand that the Council itself is not planning on opening or running a cinema. However, (…) in principle we will look favourable on any such schemes coming forward.

Meanwhile, our colleagues from Hither Green Hall are campaining to bring back the Park Cinema (pictured above) and for a new cinema to be built on the site of the Ladywell Leisure Centre.

But the good news is that right now we have a very active and larger-than-ever group of community-led cinema clubs throughout South-East London offering a diverse selection of films each month+

Update: we’ve been informed that the Park Cinema building has now been sold to a retailer (read more). Thanks to Kate of the South London Press for the information.

Lewisham cinemas if they still existed today

Following the publications of the map of old cinemas in Lewisham and the story of former cinema manager John Scott, here are some photomontages of former cinemas in Lewisham. With thanks to the Lewisham Local History & Archive Centre and dusashenka.

The Obelisk, 12 Loampit Vale. Opened in 1912, closed in 1923.

The Gaumont Palace, 1-5 Loampit Vale. Opened in 1932, later renamed Odeon, closed in 1981 and demolished in 1991.

The Prince of Wales Cinema, 210 Lewisham High Road. Opened in 1922, closed in 1959 and later demolished.

The King’s Hall, 15 High Street. Opened in 1912, bomb-damaged during the second world war.

The Rex Cinema, later renamed Studios 6/7, 15 Lewisham High Street. Opened in 1950, closed in 1986 and demolished in 1988.

Map of cinemas in Lewisham

Following our earlier post about cinemas in Lewisham, we did a bit of digging and have created an interactive map of Lewisham, showing the locations of former cinema venues in the borough.

Map of old cinemas in Lewisham

We are indebted to local historian Ken George, who published two very informative and richly illustrated booklets about the history of cinemas in Lewisham, Two Sixpennies Please: Lewisham’s Early Cinemas and The Big Five: Lewisham’s Super Cinemas. We are also grateful to the Lewisham local history and archives centre as well as other websites and blogs which have helped us in the creation of the map.

And since we are going down memory lane, here is a photomontage of what Brockley would look like today if the Ritz Cinema were still standing:

The Ritz on Coulgate Road, Brockley

The Ritz originally opened on 27 September 1913 as the Brockley Picture Theatre. It had a capacity of 700 and tickets were priced at 3d. (then the cost of half a dozen of eggs) and 6d. The cinema was later renamed the Brockley Palladium, the Giralda, the New Palladium and finally the Ritz. On 2 December 1929, the cinema showed its first talkie, The Broadway Melody. After changing hands several times, it finally closed in 1956 and was later demolished. The site is now occupied by a garage and MOT centre.

A number of cinemas were simply named fater the locality in which they were built and local people tended to think of them as ‘their cinemas’. The Brockley Cinema was no exception to that rule… The Brockley News for October 1913 stated ‘Daintily served teas are provided and everything is done to make visitors comfortable. The result is they go again and again!’ For the patrons’ further delight, the Waldovski string band was engaged ‘at enormous expense’, which was taking a chance, as no music licence had been applied for, or given…

(Extract from ‘Two Sixpennies Please: Lewisham’s Early Cinemas by Ken George)

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.