Our palaces of kitsch end up as the height of respectability

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FOR THE cinema, it's been a slow climb to respectability. Film began as a touring fairground attraction, next to the Fat Lady and the Two-Headed Dwarf. As its buildings got more luxurious, people not only fell in love with the movies, they also fell in love at them. The back row was the prime arena for heavy petting (that is, everything short of insertion), in those Neanderthal days before the pill. Cinema designers, in the more raffish parts of a city, helpfully added "love seats" (paired seats that had no intervening arm-rest). Here, close contact was mandatory.

No wonder the dandified French novelist and playwright Henri de Montherlant said that, whenever people wanted to do something shameful, they went to the cinema. But, then, he was a great advocate of the "male" virtues of courage and cold baths. A cinema has always been more like a warm bath, with added popcorn.

At last, however, total respectability is on the horizon. Cinemas were unashamedly built as kitsch showboats for working-class dreams. But today in one of the earliest, the Electric Cinema (built in 1911 in London's Portobello Road), English Heritage launches its plans to give another 30 cinemas "listed" status. The first one it ever listed was the stupendous Granada in Tooting, south London. On today's proposals, it would move up the architectural pecking-order to Grade One, alongside St Paul's cathedral.

But, then, this was also a cathedral of sorts. (I don't know why I say "was". It is now a bingo hall, another fount of cheap dreams.) Angela Carter's Baroque stories had their seedbed in her childhood visits to the Granada, Tooting. "To step through the door of this dream cathedral of voluptuous Thirties wish-fulfilment architecture," she told BBC-TV's Omnibus programme, just before she died, "was to set up a tension within me that was never resolved, the tension between inside and outside, between the unappeasable appetite for the unexpected, the gorgeous, the gimcrack, the fantastic, the free play of the imagination - and harmony, order, abstraction, classicism."

The Granada had nothing to do with the exterior appearance of Tooting's rows of little terraces and semis. But it had everything to do with the way people wanted to be. The adolescent Ruth Ellis, whose south London hopes turned so sour, was, I bet, one of the customers. The Granada's architecture is unsettling (just as movies are); from the street, it is streamlined Moderne, but inside the building is a riot of Gothic extravagance.

It's no wonder Europe's monster dictators of the 20th century, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin, all appreciated cinema's power to up-end, or at least massage, the way people feel. It tells lies so beautifully, in both the foyer and on the screen - a natural vehicle for propaganda. A Birmingham firm, headed by Harry Weedon (the Lutyens of the high street), designed most of the Odeons in Britain, including the famous black Odeon in Leicester Square. One of the job-architects had a special responsibility for the mirror glass in the foyers. It was always tinted pink, to make the arriving customers think they already looked happy, before they'd even bought a ticket.

At the time, and for years afterwards, the thought that such structures were really "architecture" would have been laughed at. The men who commissioned them would be delighted by this turn-up for the history books. After the early days of penny-gaffs and tin tabernacles - mere sheds for showing silent shorts - the cinema-owners pursued their own dreams of classiness. In a pioneering history, The Picture Palace, Dennis Sharp noted that "Red plush and marble, ferns in brass pots and plenty of electric light were guaranteed to give that `air of cosy refinement' which was wistfully sought by a trade anxious to disclaim its low birth."

British cinemas might still be brick sheds when viewed from the sides or back. But the facades blossomed into Italianate swags and arches; and, increasingly, into an Art Deco vision of Egypt (propelled in part by Lord Carnarvon's and Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings). Somehow, lotus and papyrus motifs, and all the design gestures towards Isis and Osiris, gave you classiness without class. It was essential never to make the audience think you were being condescending. Symbolically, as early as 1913, Manchester had more cinemas per head than any other British city. Film was a way out of the factory.

And now? The dream has changed. Film has become an escape from Suburbia. High-street cinemas are struggling. Customers don't like the surroundings, especially at night, and there's nowhere to park. Enter the purpose-built multiplex; cinema is always the messenger of the unexpected.

One of its newest messages is that current trends are not always continued. From the heyday of the Forties and Fifties - reaching a peak of 1.4 billion tickets sold in Britain in 1951 - the trend was dizzily down. It looked like a dying duck. Then, in 1985, the first purpose-built multiplex opened - in Milton Keynes, which is city-as-suburbia. The customers started to return, though those amazing post-war sales will never be reached again, and currently the downward blip caused by the distraction of the 1998 World Cup appears to be continuing.

It will be some time before The Point multiplex at Milton Keynes gets English Heritage listing for its pyramid stack of mirror-glass boxes and its wigwam of neon-lit steel beams. But it will happen, as surely as the main feature follows the trailers. Suburbia's dream machines - the shopping mall, the garden centre, the multiplex - are sneered at today as the kitsch palaces of inner-urban cinema once were.

It's like an old three-reeler melodrama. Reel one: dismissed as vulgar. Reel two: paraded as high camp. Reel three: honoured as part of the national heritage. Popcorn, anyone?