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The cultural hub of Christchurch

The Regent Centre is a commercial success as well as a thriving centre for the arts. John Newth has visited.

The rich red of the seats helps to give the auditorium a warm and welcoming feel

The rich red of the seats helps to give the auditorium a warm and welcoming feel

Cinema has never been more popular than it was in the 1930s. The stars were the leading celebrities of their day, and the TV set had not yet arrived in the corner of every living room. Small wonder, then, that in 1931, a group called Portsmouth Cinemas bought and knocked down a couple of handsome Georgian buildings on Christchurch’s High Street and built the Regent Cinema, which opened on Boxing Day 1931 with a showing of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

An advertisement from the Christchurch Times for 11 January 1947. Note two changes of programme a week in those pre-TV days, and two films on each programme. John Hodiak is little-known today but was a promising actor who was only 41 when he died in 1955.

An advertisement from the Christchurch Times for 11 January 1947. Note two changes of programme a week in those pre-TV days, and two films on each programme. John Hodiak is little-known today but was a promising actor who was only 41 when he died in 1955.

For thirty years the Regent prospered, but like so many cinemas, it experienced a disastrous drop in audiences in the 1960s in the face of growing competition from other forms of entertainment, above all television. In 1973, it suffered the same fate as almost every other cinema in the area as two fat ladies took the place of Garbo, Dietrich and Pickford – it was converted into a bingo hall.
It took almost ten years for the bingo craze to run its course, but by 1982 the building stood empty and remained so for nearly a year. It was a source of concern for Christchurch Borough Council, being in such a prime site in the town centre, and they must have been delighted when a group of local people came up with the idea of using the old cinema as the home for the local arts centre that the town had long needed. Christchurch BC bought the building and let it at a favourable rent to the charity that the enthusiasts for an arts centre had set up.
In essence, the same arrangement exists today, and the backing of the Council has been a vital element in the Regent Centre’s success. They have co-funded major capital projects, such as the creation of a new studio, green room and dressing rooms at the rear of the building, which was the Council’s and the Centre’s main Millennium project. In 2006-7 they helped pay for a major refurbishment. Further co-operation came when local government cuts meant that the Council could no longer afford to run the town’s Tourist Information Centre. As it was in the same building, the Regent Centre took it over and combined it with their box office, an arrangement that continues to be of mutual benefit; this year it has been completely refurbished.
The centre and heart of the building is of course the auditorium with its plush red seats. Not that they have always been red – they have been green and purple in their time. The number of seats has changed over the years, too, being as high as 620 at one stage, reducing in the bingo hall days to accommodate bingo machines at the back. Today, capacity is 484. What hasn’t changed is the 1930s feel of the space, with its art deco mouldings and details.

This 1960 view, taken from the top of the former United Reform Church in Millhams Street, shows the Regent’s place in the High Street and the auditorium stretching out behind

This 1960 view, taken from the top of the former United Reform Church in Millhams Street, shows the Regent’s place in the High Street and the auditorium stretching out behind

So who is likely to be sitting on those 484 seats? During a year, 120,000 come to see a live show at the Regent Centre; to put that figure into perspective, the population of Christchurch is 40,000. Draw a line that sweeps from Lymington up through Salisbury and round to Wareham and that is the Centre’s main catchment area, but holidaymakers are important, too, and the biggest acts will even attract fans from abroad who have come over to be at every gig of a tour. It is an important venue for local theatre groups, who pay rent while their show is on and a commission on ticket sales.
Live acts are booked a year or more ahead and can cost well into five figures for one night’s performance – worth remembering if £45 seems a lot to pay for a ticket. It is also relevant that nearly always, all the risk is borne by the Centre, so the act gets paid however good or bad the ticket sales. Then there are the ‘riders’, the extras that the artist demands as part of the contract. Some ask for nothing, others might stipulate hot food and a few beers. To meet one artist’s demands would have cost £700, but he was negotiated down! However, it is worth falling in with artists’ reasonable demands so that they want to come back and the Regent gets a reputation as a good place to perform.
If the live acts are the glamorous jam, then the bread and butter is the cinema, which accounts for half of all the shows at the Centre. Eight thousand people, the equivalent of 20% of Christchurch’s population, saw The Lady in the Van at the Regent. Some might say that the programme of films is not cutting-edge, but the Regent management know their audience and it is not part of their brief to show films that lose money because only a small minority, however dedicated, want to see them.
A screen rolls down at the front of the stage (so a set for that evening’s show can remain behind it), speech comes through speakers positioned behind the screen, and other sound is sent to speakers around the auditorium. Back in 1982, the original projector was winched in from the High Street over the roof. Its modern equivalent is a highly computerised piece of kit worth £100,000, which the Centre has on a long lease. Films arrive either on a hard drive or through a dedicated internet line straight to the projector. Once the times of the showings have been put into the computer, there is no need for any further human intervention: the projector will not only screen the feature, trailers and advertisements at the appropriate moment, it will play music to the audience waiting for the start and control the house lights.

t Bob Dobson, Phil Stevens and John Thornley with one of the vintage projectors which is preserved in the Regent Cinema Museum. The one actually used today is a considerably more sophisticated piece of kit!

t Bob Dobson, Phil Stevens and John Thornley with one of the vintage projectors which is preserved in the Regent Cinema Museum. The one actually used today is a considerably more sophisticated piece of kit!

A comparatively recent development and a valuable source of revenue is the live streaming of plays, ballets and operas from places such as the National Theatre and the Met in New York. These are beamed direct to a large satellite dish on the roof and from there into the projector. The Regent Centre is justifiably proud that it gets the largest audiences of all the 600 cinemas in the UK that take live streams of Andre Rieu’s major concerts, and it was recently confirmed that the same applies to broadcasts from the Royal Opera House. The projector can record as it plays, opening up the opportunity for what are called ‘encore’ performances, ie. repeats.
Since a church makes use of the auditorium every Sunday and on Christmas Day, the Centre can truthfully claim to be open 365 days in the year. Considering the range of its activities and the scale of its operation, it is impressive that it has only seven full-time and four part-time staff, under General Manager Felicity Porter, but they would be the first to agree that it wouldn’t work without the input of the volunteers: 240 of them, of whom 180 are active, supplying the 20 or 30 who are needed each day to man the box office, run the coffee bar, act as usherettes and a host of other jobs. Many of them have been doing it for years: 30 years in the case of the oldest – and among the most efficient – of the box office volunteers, who is 91!

The Regent Centre foyer is not only the place to meet for a cup of coffee or tea, it is also home to a regularly changing art exhibition.

The Regent Centre foyer is not only the place to meet for a cup of coffee or tea, it is also home to a regularly changing art exhibition.

It is frustrating, but not uncommon, to find an arts organisation whose programming and artistic quality are on the top line, but which is in trouble because the management thinks that this means job done. No such accusation can be levelled at the Regent Centre, where a tight administrative and financial regime underpins everything that goes on. A careful balance is maintained in the programming, but a sophisticated computer system is also used to keep a close eye on what is selling and what is not. An informative, easy-to-use ‘What’s On Guide’ is sent out three times a year. It costs £12,000 a time, but it is the Centre’s key selling tool and guarantees a spike in bookings.
Partly for these reasons, the Regent Centre is almost unique in receiving no money from the Arts Council, the Lottery or the local authority – although the benevolence of Christchurch BC as landlords is an indirect but very valuable support. Not only does the Centre support itself solely by ticket sales, 50p on each ticket sold goes into the Development Fund to pay for future capital projects.
Even those who do not go to shows or the cinema may have enjoyed a cup of coffee in the foyer, under an exhibition of original artwork that changes every three weeks. This brings in some revenue – and not only from the coffee, as the artists are charged rent and a small commission on sales. At least as important, it promotes the Centre as a place to meet and to enjoy art of more than one sort.
The trustees and staff are well aware that for them, standing still is going backwards. There must be a constant programme of development and improvement, and new projects are always under discussion, so that the Regent can continue to occupy its enormously important place in the cultural and social life of Christchurch.

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