Vivat Rex – Wareham cinema
Nick Churchill celebrates 96 years of cinema in Wareham
Published in September ’16
It is twenty years since British cinema celebrated its centenary and for all the advances of those first hundred years, the rate of change since has been no less marked. Celluloid film prints have all but disappearedw to be replaced by the Digital Cinema Package, a hard drive containing all the necessary files to show a film; while the vast majority of cinema tickets are now booked online with only a tiny percentage bought in cash at the box office just before the film starts.
Wareham’s Rex may be one of the oldest independent working cinemas in the country, but don’t be fooled by its venerable façade – beneath it beats an exuberant, thoroughly modern and, above all, digital heart. There’s still a working 35mm projector in the booth but films are shown digitally these days; there’s also an official Rex Cinema app and, with its handsomely refurbished auditorium, re-covered seats, new carpet, improved seating rake, fresh paint and state-of-the-art LED lighting, the treasured cinema is ready for, if not another century, certainly a good few years yet.
In all, nearly £80,000 has been spent on the spruce-up, which has been a year in the planning. The work was carried out by local tradespeople and the bulk of the cost met by a grant from Viridor Environmental Credits, although the Rex Players, Wareham Lions, Wareham 41 Club, Rotary Wareham, Furzebrook Village Hall, Stoborough WI and Purbeck District Council all made significant contributions, as did the many supporters and volunteers who gave time
‘We didn’t set out to modernise the Rex, we just wanted to make it more comfortable, cleaner, warmer, fresher,’ explains Rex trustee and director Neil Child. ‘Everyone said to us before the work was carried out that they hoped we weren’t going to change things too much. We told them not to worry, the last thing we wanted was for the Rex to lose any of its character, so to have so many congratulate us on what we’ve done is very pleasing.’
Other than the myriad of contemporary lighting combinations that are now possible, perhaps the most significant change to the ‘feel’ of the cinema has been achieved relatively simply. By changing the colour of the ceiling from creamy yellow to maroon in line with the rest of the walls, the ceiling has been drawn down to create a more intimate, cosier environment in which to see films – a very far cry indeed from the smoke-choked atmosphere punctuated by flying mint imperials that this writer remembers from the Rex of his childhood. Back then, the cinema manager, Rusty Irons, or the redoubtable usher, Mrs Cadell, would administer a sharp ticking off and then leave the unruly pack to it. Such boisterousness is long gone and the Rex now attracts a wide audience of all ages with a programme that blends mainstream blockbusters with a lively strand of independent and foreign language titles. Last December it introduced allocated seating to make the online booking process more straightforward, an enhancement that has been generally
‘The Rex still has an air of informality, but we are a business, albeit not-for-profit, and we need to run as one. Allocated seating instantly removes disputes over who sits where and we’ve found that regulars who like to sit in “their” seats simply book online in advance and without fuss,’ says Neil.
Built in 1889 at a cost of £3000 and designed by Wareham architect William Laws, the Oddfellows Hall not only housed the local lodge, it was hired out for entertainments that ranged from music hall shows, dances and concerts to banquets and moving picture, possibly bioscope, shows. It operated as a cinema, the Empire, from 1920, when the first floor was inserted, and introduced ‘talkies’ in 1927.
By 1931 it was owned by Harry Mears, three times Mayor of Bournemouth, who ran a string of cinemas throughout the south, before passing first to Cecil Elgar and then in 1937 to Joe Merrick, who ran the business until his death in a flying accident in Swanage in 1949. His widow, Violet, took care of business until 1963 when it was taken over by Rusty Irons, refurbished and the arched ceiling added before reopening as the Rex on Boxing Day with a screening of South Pacific.
After Rusty’s retirement in 1987, management passed to a group of local friends and enthusiasts, which saved the town’s cinema and laid the foundations for its acquisition by the Purbeck Film Charitable Trust in 2009.
Next month, Purbeck Film Festival celebrates its twentieth anniversary and, as it has been every year, the Rex will be its ‘home’ venue. As such it will host the opening gala, ‘Maggie in Film’, with a screening of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on 15 October in the presence of its star, Dame Maggie Smith, who will share thoughts on her career afterwards with the audience. She will join a stellar list of famous guests welcomed to the Rex over the years including Alan Bates, Brenda Blethyn, Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman and Purbeck resident Edward Fox, the cinema’s patron, as well as his actor son, Freddie.
But for all its undoubted pedigree, the Rex is resisting the urge to trade too heavily on the past. It is as modern as it can be and looking resolutely to the future. ‘There’s no way we can compete directly with the multiplexes and that is reflected in our film programme,’ says Neil. ‘We are captive to an extent on the strength of the films that are being released – last year was a particularly good one for films – but our audience is very loyal and generally appreciative of what we’re doing. We get glowing reviews on Trip Advisor and last year were awarded a Certificate of Excellence.’
Without the budget or management structure for a comprehensive marketing strategy, such user-generated social media coverage is vital in raising awareness of the Rex. As well as locals discovering the Rex for the first time, holidaymakers regularly turn up during the day to ask if they can see inside and the cinema’s sole part-time employee, administrator Julie Sharman (whose time is shared with Purbeck Film Festival), will often interrupt her work to conduct impromptu tours. ‘People are fascinated by the Rex,’ she says. ‘They love to find out about it and if they want a quick look around then we try to help – it’s the magic of backstage, a peek behind the curtain.’
But the work goes on. The Rex is looking ahead to a new phase of development, one that will have a lasting impact on the venue and, potentially, on the wider community. ‘At some point,’ says Neil, ‘probably in the 1930s judging by the ironworks, an extension was built on the back of the original hall. It was poor quality, although it has lasted – just about – until now. In an ideal world we’d demolish it and build a new full-height extension to the back. That would mean we could have the toilets on the first floor and create more space downstairs so we could enlarge the bar and install a proper lift to provide more suitable disabled access. It’s a big project that will cost a six-figure sum, but whatever happens within the next five years or so, we will have to do some work to repair the existing structure. The work will have to be funded, so we’ll be looking at grants and how much we’ll need to raise for ourselves.’
The project would effectively future-proof the Rex, providing not only a cinema for the enjoyment of local people, but also a genuine community asset with a range of possible uses. It has already provided a venue for members of Wareham Women’s Institute to watch a live stream of the organisation’s national conference from the Royal Albert Hall, and the Rex stage has played host to a 40-piece brass band, a Poetry Slam as part of Purbeck Art Weeks, and the annual variety shows of the Rex Players. ‘The Rex is a cinema first and foremost and it will remain so,’ says Neil, ‘but we are also very open to it being the venue for all kinds of uses when we’re not showing films.’
And what about the gas lighting? ‘If people know anything at all about the Rex, that’s the one thing they all ask about. The light fittings are all original and we’d love to re-instate the [gas] supply, but the reality is that doing so would cost far more money that we’re ever likely to have to spend on it. That said, if there’s someone who could make it happen it would be wonderful to hear from them… or perhaps we’ll find a cache of rare and extremely valuable film posters stashed in a dark corner one day.’
Picture Credits 1, 4 & 5: Jean Dixon