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Bridport’s Electric Palace

A 21st-century haven for the arts has arisen from a dark and derelict building. It is explored by Tony Burton-Page.

Call me a grumpy old man, but I have found the experience of going to see a film less and less of a pleasure over the years. The usual procedure in the 21st century is to pay a large sum of money for your ticket, then an even larger sum for the obligatory fizzy drinks, popcorn, nachos and the rest. You are then shovelled into one of several very small rectangular theatres with large screens and bass-heavy sound systems in order to watch the latest mindless blockbuster – which you probably didn’t want to see anyway, but there was nothing better showing. When the lights go down, you are treated to twenty minutes of advertisements before the actual film and when the feature eventually starts, you have to contend with the noise of sweets being unwrapped, mobile phones going off and children squeezing past you to go to the loo because they’ve indulged in too many fizzy drinks, popcorn, nachos and the rest. If you haven’t got a headache by now, the loudness of the sound system and your proximity to the screen will guarantee its onset. I can hear grumpies all over Dorset muttering to themselves in agreement.

The fact that there are fewer than twenty cinemas in Dorset would seem to make the situation even worse, but fortunately there are some independent-minded spirits in the county who are able to resist the more irritating contemporary trends. One of these is Peter Hitchin, who has bought the Palace Cinema in Bridport and re-opened it, having refurbished it with impeccable taste, complete with art deco bar, foyer brasserie and vast murals. His intention is to show films of a similarly high order of taste and when the building isn’t being used as a cinema, there will be theatre, opera, music, pantomime, dancing – in fact, anything of artistic benefit to the local community.

There has been a Palace Cinema in Bridport since 1912. The original version was the Electric Palace in Barrack Street, a hall which had previously been the headquarters of the Royal Field Artillery but which, according to contemporary reports, was ‘transformed into a thoroughly up-to-date Picturedrome’. To begin with, the films were short – very often footage of recent events, particularly those involving royalty – but very soon longer features arrived. The epic Quo Vadis (with a cast of 5000 people and 30 lions) came to Bridport in 1913 and even the third instalment of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the opera Siegfried, was shown. These were silent movies, remember, and what audiences made of Siegfried without the music is hard to imagine, although some would say a silent version was a distinct improvement!

Cinema as family entertainment became even more popular in the next decade. The films of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino and Cecil B de Mille were among the many attractions from America, although the Bridport News showed touching faith in the home-grown product: ‘We need not fear the future of British cinematography all the time the Broadwest Company continue to furnish us with such admirable films as In the Gloaming, featuring Violet Hopson.’ Here is a theme of hopefulness which stretches all the way forward to Colin Welland’s Oscar acceptance speech for Chariots of Fire: ‘The British are coming!’ (Is it significant that this is actually a quotation from that American patriot, Paul Revere?)

Whatever the provenance of the films, cinema became so popular that the Barrack Street building was no longer adequate and a larger building was needed. In 1926, the New Electric Palace opened in South Street, inspiring much admiration, although a contemporary description of it as ‘a palatial building that ranks as one of the finest in Dorset’ is perhaps overstating the case: few cinemas are particularly beautiful from the outside. But from the entrance hall onwards, this one was certainly impressive, with a spacious Georgian-style interior, lavishly decorated, which could seat 400 on the ground floor and 100 more in the circle. The manager, Sidney Shepherd, who had supervised the move from Barrack Street and would remain in charge until 1959, ensured that the screen and the projector were state-of-the-art. The hall was large enough to be used as a theatre when needed and in January 1927 the first pantomime, The Forty Thieves, was presented. In March, the Bridport Amateur Dramatic Society presented Lord Richard in the Pantry, a current hit; and the year after, the O’Mara Opera presented no fewer than seven operas in their week-long stay.

The talkies arrived in Bridport in 1931, less than three years after reaching London, and the Electric Palace went from strength to strength, celebrating its success the next year by commissioning local hero George ‘Tricky’ Biles, famous for painting inn signs all over the country, to decorate its interior with a series of ten murals depicting pastoral scenes. They survive to this day, contributing greatly to the high-class aura of the place. Biles continued his association with the Palace when he designed and painted the scenery for the Bridport Amateur Operatic Society’s The Pirates of Penzance and other productions – and, in a pleasing link to the present, these backdrops and flats were used in the 2007 production of Cinderella, having been lovingly preserved by local impresario Bernard Gale, the force behind Bridport’s theatrical presentations for many years.

The Palace continued to entertain Bridport during the Second World War, surviving a raid by German aircraft in 1942 in which bombs were dropped on nearby West Street. The first of the Hope-Crosby-Lamour ‘Road’ films was shown, although the portrait of Bob Hope which adorns the circle foyer to this day had been there since the late 1930s.

With the post-war advent of television, cinema-going all over the UK declined through the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1962 the Lyric, Bridport’s other (smaller) cinema, was forced to close. But the Palace soldiered on, although in the end competition from video, cable and satellite was too much and it closed down in 1999.

However, it wasn’t the end: a ‘Save the Palace’ campaign managed to get the building listed, Peter Hitchin bought it and set about bringing it into the 21st century. A digital projector has been bought with help from the British Film Council. A bar in art deco style has been incorporated into the back of the auditorium, which has been decorated with eight massive murals by contemporary artists. Laurence Anholt’s depicts King Kong reaching a mighty hand out of a film screen to grab at the terrified audience, while Peter Sheridan’s pair, designed to look like extra seating in the circle, will be filled by portraits of real people – locals, strangers, celebrities, anyone wishing to pay for a sort of immortality. David Brooke, Ant Belmont, Hugh Dunford-Wood, Claudio Munos and Paul Blow are the other mural artists. In addition, the cartoonist Ralph Steadman, one of the new band of patrons of the Palace, has contributed a 16-feet-long screen for the back of the balcony depicting Alice through the Looking-Glass and several of his donated prints hang on the walls.

Other patrons enlisted by the energetic Peter Hitchin are Sir Richard Eyre of the National Theatre (a formidable film director himself), Astrid Proll (once a member of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, later a picture editor on The Independent), Mike Leigh (director of Abigail’s Party, Vera Drake and Topsy-Turvy), Julian Fellowes (actor and Oscar-winning screenplay writer) and P. J. Harvey (the Dorset-based musician).

One of the most exciting features of the new Electric Palace is the Electric Brasserie, a Parisian-style restaurant in the foyer which is the brainchild of Gideon Hitchin. Gideon has made it unlike any other restaurant in the town: he uses only local produce, ensuring it’s all eco-friendly, and everything on the menu is home-made. The venue itself has a unique charm; the original elegance has been preserved, from the blue glass emblazoned with ‘Electric Palace’ to the tills in the former ticket booth to the sloping floor in one particular area – a feature which could have caused a problem, as no alterations were possible because of the listed building status, so the chairs and tables had to be adjusted instead. Not so much a listed building as a listing building, but the food doesn’t roll off the plates!

There are plans for a cybercafé and an arts bookshop upstairs and the hope is that the Electric Palace will become a laboratory and training ground for the arts and a beacon for film, theatre, dance, photography and music. In 1926, the Bridport News reported that the opening of the new Palace ‘will mark another milestone in the van of progress of which this little town of ours is taking so prominent a part and, moreover, it will provide those who seek relaxation and pleasure with a building handsome in appearance and admirable in design’. Eighty years on, the torch is still aflame!

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