A tale of two cinemas
Nick Churchill looks at the respective fortunes of Westbourne’s nineteen-seater and former thousand-seater picture palaces
Published in November ’15
Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times there’s a tale of two cinemas being played out in Westbourne that owes its plot to both. One is a highly visible relic from a bygone age, the other an underground echo of past glories that’s finding its
Time was when even small town suburbs had their own cinemas – the local Roxy, Regal, Rex, Regent or Rialto where screen deities frolicked high above the heads of their audiences in the smoke-filled auditoria. Impossibly glamorous, magnificently monochrome, but for the price of a ticket there they were, writ large on the silver screen. It was the very stuff of dreams.
Received wisdom has it that television did for the movies and by the end of the 1960s the plethora of purpose-built picture houses was diminishing at an ever faster rate. A decade or so later those that lacked the protection – albeit ruthlessly limited – of belonging to a cinema chain were largely gone.
Paradoxically, audiences have grown steadily ever since and modern multiplex cinemas have been credited with reinventing the movie-going experience for the 21st century, arguably even helping establish an emerging appetite for watching films in vintage venues.
All of which brings us to Westbourne, now perhaps more than ever, a fashionably affluent area of the bigger and brasher Bournemouth.
In 1922 when the confidently named Grand Cinema Theatre opened on 18 December with a stage production of Anthony and Cleopatra, Westbourne was positioned very much as the chic West End of post-Edwardian Bournemouth. An early example of the so-called ‘super’ cinema, the Grand’s mix of neo-classical and nascent Art Deco styles incorporated four shops in a façade covered in Carter’s (from Hamworthy) grey ceramic marble tiles. On the day after its opening the first film was screened – A Prince of Lovers, Charles Calvert’s silent biopic of Lord Byron, supported by a Harold Lloyd short comedy.
It’s 40 years since the last regular film (something best forgotten entitled They Love Sex) was shown at the Grand*, the lift and upstairs café have long gone and yet its opulence has survived the daily bingo sessions it has hosted ever since. The painted panels and beautifully crafted original details in the two-storey height auditorium add to the sense of occasion that permeates throughout. A revolving globe once topped the central bay over the entrance. It was illuminated at night, but was taken down during the war lest it become a beacon for bombers, although the reclining figures that suggest learning and education still sit there.
Current owner Simon Bartlam has known the Grand for most of his life, his parents having bought it in 1977. Since 2000 it has been Grade II Listed and is now run as Club Grand Bingo, an independent bingo business.
‘People always say it’s a shame there’s bingo in these old cinemas, but the bingo is there because people stopped going to the cinema and now they’re stopping going to the bingo. The seventies, eighties and nineties were the heyday of bingo, but we’ve been hit hard by the smoking ban, online gaming and out of town leisure park sites. I can see why, people want to park outside the venue for free and have everything on one level. These are converted cinemas, they’re not purpose built.
‘If it wasn’t for bingo a lot of these buildings would have been pulled down 20 or 30 years ago. As it is we have a lot of original features – the Deco mouldings and the flashes on the outside. There used to be a sliding roof that could be wound back in four panels to air the place and let the smoke out. On fine days they used to leave it open but they had so many complaints about the noise of trams outside drowning out the film it was closed most of the time.’
Despite the occasional interest of cinema buffs and architectural antiquarians, precious little is made of the Grand’s cinematic past and there’s certainly no chance of it being revived. Now that bingo is in the doldrums there are obvious concerns for what happens next.
‘Very few people from Westbourne play bingo here now,’ says Simon. ‘Those that do come here are more likely to be from Parkstone or Winton, Westbourne has changed over the years and so have people’s lifestyles. I don’t know what would happen if we weren’t here, although there are other uses for these buildings. The Moderne at Winton was doing bingo but then it was bought by a church and has had a lot of money spent on it. They use it for public meetings and private hires now and there’s a lovely café and restaurant, so these buildings can have a future.’
Which is precisely what the Bournemouth Colosseum appears to be successfully ensuring for Lavish Life, the Victorian shop unit above its basement home in Westbourne Arcade. What could well be Britain’s smallest cinema is the brainchild of Bournemouth man Paul Whitehouse who runs the ground floor café and art gallery with below-decks cinema as a hobby business when he’s not managing property for overseas clients in London.
‘We opened as a café and art gallery and then I saw a television programme about a cinema in a railway carriage that was closing down and it became clear to me what I had to do,’ he explains. ‘I love cinema, but there was a period of time – and I mean years – when I just didn’t go to the pictures so this is partly about me catching up. I’m also a big fan of nostalgia and tradition, which explains the programming of some classic and vintage titles that speak to a certain section of the community who feel more comfortable and familiar with what they know.’
Although screenings are open to the public and bookable in advance the 19-seat cinema is run as a private club – annual membership costs £10 – with films shown most days, sometimes as many as three a day on state of the art home cinema equipment with surround sound. Twice weekly supper clubs are planned as well as the weekly foreign and arthouse film nights. Recent themed screenings with food and music have included Argentinian and Cuban nights, while actress Anita Harris returned to her hometown last November for screenings of her two Carry On films at the Colosseum.
‘We’ve had some bizarre bookings. A couple from London booked the premises for a Valentine’s Night special with food bought in; we’ve had companies book us to show their latest training or motivational film and special interest groups have booked it for talks, so it is more of a community space in that sense. We can screen live sport and children love coming here for parties because they feel they’re getting something special, a bit exclusive; while adults can start a party here then head off into town.
‘The Colosseum is a great deal of fun and I’m so pleased to see it being embraced so enthusiastically by the community. We must have shown something like 600 films and as far as I know there has only been one letter of complaint in the local paper. I live upstairs so I know our customers are very good about keeping the noise down.’
With the art gallery concentrating on film-related memorabilia, the renamed Colosseum Café is due to open in October with a contemporary new health-focussed menu and the cinema is being readied for a reconfiguration of the seating plan to accommodate bigger, wider, more sumptuous ‘luxury’ seating that will see the price of admission rise to £6.95. The capacity though will remain at 19.
‘The cinema has become the greater part of the business in recent months so we’ll be changing the shop name to reflect that. We’re saying we’re the smallest cinema and it has yet to be challenged, but I’ve looked into what actually constitutes a cinema and it has to be a permanent structure that offers a programme of films to the public for payment. A caravan doesn’t count, so we can claim to be the UK’s smallest cinema – at least that we know of. The upgraded seating will make the whole experience that little bit more special.’
Perhaps then, for now at least, this tale of two cinemas can come to an end with a far, far better rest. ◗
*Film made a brief return to the Grand from 26 March 1976 when it began a mixed programme of bingo and movies. The final film (In Love With Sex) was screened on 8 October 1977.
40 Poole Road, Bournemouth, BH4 9DW
Club Grand Bingo
14 Westbourne Arcade, Bournemouth, BH4 9AY