Ghosts

Clockwise from top left: Copenhagen Cinema, Variety Picture Palace, Hornsey Palace, Electric Vaudeville, from http://www.islingtonslostcinemas.com

There are those who revere old cinemas and what remains of them. Particularly they like those cinemas from the earliest years who have an unbroken history of film exhibition, especially when they retain some of the original decor – cinemas such as the Notting Hill Gate or The Phoenix in East Finchley. Or much if the building is lost or its purpose changed, they still point to that piece of plasterwork or signage that shows that a little of the cinema still remains.

But I like cinemas that are cinemas no more. Time moves on, the purposes of buildings change, and just as many of the first cinemas in the UK were converted from shops, halls or roller skating rinks, so as their lives as cinemas came to end they took on new lives as other shops, apartment blocks, restaurants, flats, or just became empty spaces where a building once stood. Cinemas that are no longer cinemas – that’s where the real poetry lies.

It is this rich association between past and present purpose that informs a new project, website and exhibition by London artist Sam Nightingale entitled Islington’s Lost Cinemas. Nightingale’s project aims to

unearth, collect, and illuminate the multiple histories and present-day realities of Islington’s cinematic past by developing and presenting an online archive: ‘The Islington’s Lost Cinemas Website’, which includes:

  • photographic documentation of the historic sites of cinema in Islington: both past and present;
  • historical research that combines moving image history with the specifics of cinema development in Islington;
  • the reminiscences of Islington’s own community: through the invitation for those who remember the cinemas to contribute their memories and photographs of the cinemas.

The website has begun with eight ‘lost’ cinemas, hauntingly photographed in black-and-white on the project website, with background histories for each building, and an invitation to Islington residents to participate by contributing memories or images to the site. They include the Cosy Corner Picture Playhouse (opened 1911, now an office block), the People’s Picture Playhouse (opened 1913, now local authority housing) and the Electric Vaudeville (opened 1909, now a sauna and restaurant). More are promised on the site in the future. An exhibition of the photographs, Spectres of Film: Islington’s Lost Cinemas and other Spectral Spaces, is currently taking place at A. Brooks Art in Hoxton Street. It runs until 30 June.

I had happy time a few years ago working on a research project in London’s cinemas (and other kinds of film venue) before 1914. I found arund 1,000 which had existed in London between 1906 and 1914, some of them purpose-built cinemas but most of them buildings adapted for the purose (often shops) or spaces which had other purposes besides showing films (halls, public baths, boxing arenas, arcades etc.). They are all listed on the London Project database and if we had had the time, money and indeed imagination those bare records should have been photographed much as Nightingale has done – and geo-located, and linked to film programme records, and to other London history resources, and so much more. Ah well.

When undertaking the London Project (with co-researcher Simon Brown, who worked on film businesses, while I focussed on cinemas and audiences), I got a sixth sense for detecting buildings that once were cinemas and are no more. There was something about them, some nameless isolation, that made you think – a cinema stood here once. All that activity, light, laughter, music, part of a great change in the leisure lives of Londoners, and here it is now, a block of flats or a fast food restaurant. It’s a particular psychogeographical pleasure, wandering through London spotting where so many cinemas once stood (there were 2.8 cinemas per square mile in London in 1911), inhabiting a London present with a London past and knowing that in time all these buildings will change purpose once again.

The former Biograph Theatre, Kilburn (operated 1910-1917), from Picture Palaces

If you are interested to go in pursuit of London’s lost cinemas, the first place to start is the London Project database, which lists most of the film venues of London 1906-1914, each identifiable according to London borough, and in some cases with information on the status of the building today. Picture Palaces is an evocative site by Terence Nunn documenting twenty London cinemas, some still active, others changed, each photographed and with a short history. The huge Cinema Treasures site is the best guide to cinemas worldwide (including cinemas that are no longer cinemas), with some London and UK buildings, though the emphasis is on the USA.

As for reading, the essential accompaniment to Islington’s Lost Cinemas is Chris Draper’s very fine (but also very rare) Islington’s Cinemas & Studios (Islington Libraries, c.1988). Other books on the cinemas of the various London areas include:

  • Mark Aston, The Cinemas of Camden (Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, 1997)
  • Jeremy Buck, Cinemas of Haringey (Hornsey Historial Society, 2010)
  • Allen Eyles and Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas (Keytone Publications, 1991)
  • Ken George, ‘Two Sixpennies Please’: Lewisham’s Early Cinemas (Lewisham Local History Society, 1987)
  • Cliff Wadsworth, Cinemas and Theatres of Willesden ( CAW Books, 2000)

Finally, there are various Flickr groups that collect photographs of cinemas, in London and worldwide. Former Theaters, however, mostly gets the idea of documenting that which is now lost, though it still likes its building to have some hint of their entertainment past. But no one, so far as I have been able discover, is interested in cinemas transformed completely into something else, so that only the ghost of that cinema remains, in the way that Islington’s Lost Cinemas shows.

Perhaps others may be inspired to take the story further. There is more to old cinemas than architecture and nostalgia.

%d bloggers like this: