The golden age of cinemas

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Before identikit multiplexes, a trip to the movies meant audiences could see bold architecture as well as a film. Chris Beanland celebrates the picture palaces of the past

The smell of popcorn, the taste of cigarette breath kisses on the back row, the feel of an involuntary tear tumbling down your cheek as a film sucks you in – the cinema experience stings our senses in ways that lodges hard in the memory.

Yet, not so long ago it looked like the reign of cinemas in Britain was coming to an end – TV, video, DVD, then the internet all rallied against the tired old picture palaces. Some historic cinemas are still threatened with the wrecking ball. But, remarkably, a parallel renaissance is also under way – certain cinemas are thriving against the odds.

Film reached its apotheosis in Los Angeles. But early cinema was pioneered in Lyon by the Lumière brothers in 1895. And the bulk celluloid from which film was made was developed in Lyon's twin town – Birmingham – by Alexander Parkes, 40 years earlier.

Like LA, Birmingham has a suburb named Hollywood (though the Alcester Road doesn't look much like Sunset Boulevard). Surprisingly, cinema history was made in Brum – the city's Electric Cinema is the oldest working cinema in Britain. Unloved and falling apart, it was bought by Tom Lawes in 2004. "The cinema is profitable now – 60,000 people a year come to watch films," he says. "We offer sofas and waiter service and have our first-ever horror festival next month."

The Electric opened in 1909. And, despite the whims of Birmingham City Council's planning department, it has remained. It now squats opposite the brown brick canyon wall of New Street Station's soon-to-be-improved 1960s incarnation. Its fare has changed over the years though: in the 1940s it showed newsreel, in the 1950s cartoons, in the 1970s Swedish pornos. All preceded by home-grown shorts shot on the cheap by the likes of Harold Baim.

In 1931 The Electric was bought by Joseph Coen and renamed The Tatler News Theatre. Coen had a friend who was also a regular at Singers Hill, a synagogue that now stands beneath the grotesque Mailbox shopping centre. Like Coen, Oscar Deutsch was also a Brummie businessman – and a cinephile. Deutsch started a chain that defined British cinema-going – Odeon.

Descended from Hungarians, Deutsch grew up in the inner suburb of Balsall Heath. He opened his first cinema nearby in the Black Country, at Brierley Hill, in 1928. But his first branded Odeon came in 1930, in Perry Barr, north Birmingham. Within a decade Deutsch had 250 cinemas. "By the late 1930s these two Birmingham Jewish friends controlled more cinemas than probably anyone else in the country," says Lawes.

At the Jewish Museum London in Camden Town I explore its new exhibition, Entertaining The Nation, which looks at British Jews' contribution to our national showbiz canon. It also tells the story behind Deutsch's rise, and in particular the way he used architecture to showcase his aspirations. Curator Dr Edward Marshall explains: "Odeon cinemas became renowned for their eye-catching art deco designs." Lawes jokes: "Some people talk of the class differences between cinemas; they say you'd find Tory voters at the Odeon and Labour voters at the ABC."

It's been said that Odeon cinemas prepared reactionary Britons for the modernism that was to come like a tidal wave after the Second World War. Deutsch said in the journal Design & Construction: "We endeavour to make our buildings express the fact that they are specially erected as the homes of the latest, most progressive entertainment in the world."

Two Birmingham architects made this vision a reality: Cecil Clavering, who designed the famous Kingstanding Odeon in 1935, and Clavering's boss, Harry Weedon. Weedon met Deutsch when he was building a new factory for Deutsch's father. They discovered they had much in common: Weedon had studied at Birmingham's School of Art, in the same suburb where Deutsch grew up. Weedon personally designed Llandudno's Odeon.

According to Dr Marshall, in the 1930s "Oscar assisted Jewish filmmakers fleeing Nazi persecution". But Deutsch died young in 1941 and his empire has been passed around ever since. J Arthur Rank owned it for a time, and Guy Hands bought it in 2004. Hands' private equity outfit Terra Firma was looking to sell Odeon earlier this year, but now seems intent to hold on to it.

Odeon isn't quite the shining star it once was, and cinemas large and small were hit from the 1960s onwards as first TV, then alternative ways of consuming film at home – VHS, DVD and internet-streaming services – all ate into revenues. But interestingly, many independent cinemas that spent the 1980s in the doldrums – such as Leeds' Hyde Park Picture House and Brixton's Ritzy – are now reinvigorated.

Perhaps that's because independent cinemas, with their carefully chosen programmes, offer a night out that is distinct from sitting in a soulless multiplex or slumping on your sofa, streaming film through a laptop. Tom Lawes explains: "You can drink beer at home for one-third of the price you'd pay in a pub but that doesn't stop pubs being packed on a Friday night. Cinema attendance share has actually tripled since their lowest point in 1984."

Clare Binns is the programming and acquisitions director of the successful City Screen chain of boutique cinemas, and what she tells me echoes what Deutsch said 80 years ago: "We offer cinemas that are interesting architecturally. The Ritzy is majestic – it's what a cinema is meant to look like."

This independent cinema tradition is celebrated in Lawes' new documentary, slated for release in December. "The Last Projectionist shows how the renaissance of independent cinemas is now a worldwide phenomenon," he says. "I also think the end of 35mm film and the switch to digital is an important story. It's the end of an era for projectionists."

One of those last projectionists is John Brockington, who worked around the West Midlands from 1955 to 2008 – including at The Electric and Odeon. He tells me that digital projection boasts "excellent sound and picture quality", but that "the future now looks bleak for projectionists – despite us doing our jobs with pride". Brockington thought "Odeon was the upper-crust because of the architecture and furnishings". But, he says with a wink, "I usually took dates to the Gaumont instead!"

A stroll over the road from the Jewish Museum, at Camden Town's Odeon on a weekday evening, it's business as usual. A smartly dressed chap waits outside for his date, nervously texting and hopping from foot to foot. Inside the foyer a group of giggling teenagers buys tickets for The Hangover Part II; while a couple debate which flavour of ice cream to buy.

These days outdoor summer screenings are the next big way to watch films and the Secret Cinema collective has won plaudits for turning unusual locations – such as the tunnels under Waterloo Station – into cinemas. Last year another group, comprising young architecture graduates, transformed the derelict Texaco in London's Clerkenwell into a temporary cinema. But whether it's for a fumble in the dark with a girl, or a night out with mates, a century on it seems there are times when we still want to go to an old picture palace and experience films as a big-screen event.

Historic cinemas facing their final curtain

St Helier – Odeon

The 20th Century Society has called for St Helier's Odeon to be spared, but the States of Jersey has its heart set on a different denouement for Bath Street's stark old dame – the bulldozer. Construction was abruptly halted by German occupation in 1940 – and wasn't completed until 1952.

Edinburgh – Odeon

When a plan to demolish the disused Odeon in Edinburgh's South Side – and replace it with a hotel – was put on the table, locals nearly choked on their Irn-Bru. Now there's a chance the building could be saved, but it's stuck in legal limbo, with planners and developers slugging it out in court.

Penrith – Lonsdale Alhambra

Better news came from Cumbria this April, when the long fight to save Penrith's threatened Lonsdale Alhambra resulted in a temporary victory for campaigners. Bizarrely, the cinema was profitable but the bingo hall next door wasn't. The owners wanted to sell both off, but have now agreed to extend the cinema's life by 10 years.

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