The light of my life

David Thomson fell in love with the cinema at the Tooting Granada, which this week was granted Grade 1 Listed status. Here, he looks back in wonder at this palace of dreams
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The Independent Culture
The suburban high street in the 1940s had rhythms and institutions that would befuddle today's south Londoner. It had cinemas, some of which would leave a modern youth sheepish or horrified that earlier generations harboured such depths of ridiculous feeling. Were they your parents' parents? Were some of our cool kids conceived in those risque rear stalls where an usherette would sweep young children away from the sights of sprawl and abandon?

I am prompted by news that the Granada, Tooting, has been rated as a Grade 1 listed building. That means it cannot be altered, let alone torn down. God help the landlords - does it mean they have to maintain its original state? But even if they could tear it down, and did, how are passers-by to understand what it meant?

In the years around 1945 my mother would wheel me in a pushchair to the High Road in Streatham. The shopping was rationed, of course, but at the butchers - a wood-floored establishment with sawdust and pools of blood beneath the carcasses - the man would murmur to my mother that he might have a bit of kidney in the back. It was vaguely amorous, so I was never surprised to find hearts on Valentine cards.

Every line of produce had its own shop: there were three or four greengrocers; fishmongers, where whole fish were laid out on a sloped marble slab and hosed down every hour; there were shoe shops, hat shops, drapers shops.... There were even shoe repair shops, and Boots the Chemist, with a lending library upstairs. There was a shop that sold only coffee - roasted in the front window. There were no supermarkets, but there was one large department store, as grand as a hotel; Pratt's, a branch of John Lewis. It has been empty for decades, like a Ministry of Security that went ultra- secret.

These shops opened at 8.30am and closed at 5.30pm (more or less) and they seemed to act in unison, as if those were the decent hours of trade. The off-licence stayed open an hour or so longer, and there were a couple of restaurants. But no one we knew ever went there. They were kept for the gangsters that lived in Streatham Hill in the big apartment buildings that went up after the war, over some of the bomb sites.

In other words, the High Road was very busy for those set hours, because without a refrigerator everyone shopped every day. But there were two buildings - not quite as big as Pratt's, but larger than the library or the churches - that were closed still, their glass doors dark against the day, when we shopped in the morning. I mean the cinemas - the Astoria and the Regal in Streatham, big places that opened afternoons.

Before I'd ever been inside a cinema, I marvelled at their indulgent schedule. For it wasn't until mid-morning that someone opened the doors and began to swab down the marble steps, polish the brass railings and - this was astounding - walk through the gloomy interior (I saw this) with a perfume spray to keep the air sweet (I smelled it, too). If I had been a more advanced child, I might have made the association with the lazy, late round at brothels. Never mind, the links to decadence set in.

But Streatham's palaces were nothing next to the Granada, Tooting. I should add that in the Forties and Fifties, Tooting - especially Tooting Broadway as opposed to Tooting Bec - was regarded by people living in Streatham as a rough area. When my mother heard that I was taking the tram, and then later the 57 bus, to Tooting, she urged me to be careful. Tooting kids then were not very well brought up, she indicated, and Tooting... well, just say the word my dear. Tooting! It was positively vulgar, wasn't it? Whereas Streatham had once been the playground for Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale. But Tooting sounded cheeky and guttersnipish. I suppose it did, but "Granada, Tooting" was also surreal poetry - like a Xanadu in Runcorn, or an El Dorado at Cockfosters.

Now, I have to admit I haven't been in the Granada for maybe 35 years. In fact, I still have the record of films seen in the Sixties - and where I saw them - so I can report that 1962 was the last time I was in the Granada. Anthony Mann's Man of the West and Otto Preminger's River of No Return were showing. The details are instructive. For neither film was new in 1962; in other words, the Granada had already gone over to repertory programming. It was struggling. But both films were made in CinemaScope, and stereophonic sound, and the Granada was the only place I had access to where they had installed

authentic stereo, so that there were speakers at the back of the stalls as well as behind the screen.

So it was a long time ago, which means I am an unreliable rememberer where the Granada is concerned. I couldn't draw a map of it if I tried. But the auditorium itself was only half the deal - though it was very wide, with a huge upstairs that went so far back it was like being in the new corner stand at Stamford Bridge. It must have held 2,000 people, and I recall it full for movies - I knew it was packed for Samson and Delilah, because Hedy Lamarr scared me and I wanted to get out, but I was in the middle of a long row and couldn't muster the fear or the courage to disturb so many people. Samson and Delilah. That was 1949, or 1950 in Tooting. I was nine, and I was there alone. I must have waited on the marble steps, asking strangers to take me in to see the A-certificate film. And someone took me in. And nothing happened. My mother knew, and thought it normal enough. Today, a parent might be sent to prison for that. But I can hear my mother, indignant at modern outrage: "My son is especially enthusiastic about the pictures." And so I was, and in Streatham there were old ladies who'd take me into the Astoria and then afterwards for ice cream. It was the start of film criticism, discussing the new Burt Lancaster with them.

Anyway, the Granada had several lobbies, upper and lower, as well as sidebar lounges like chapels. I suppose it was done in the manner of the Alhambra, but in my mind's eye it is just like 1940s Hollywood, or like a studio backlot, a little Moorish here, a bit Arabian Nights there, a touch of the South Seas, ancient Egypt and what was then called Universal- International. I find now that the Granada was designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky, a Russian architect who was once married to the English actress Peggy Ashcroft, and that the theatre opened in 1931. I knew or bothered about none of that. I felt that the great spasm that made movies must have formed this theatre, too, with its hysterical decoration and its tumultuous faith in atmosphere. Only now do I see how far 1931 - the eve of Depression - was the worst time for the investment. The films in the Thirties were great, maybe the greatest, but were already less than an entertainment for everyone.

By the mid-Sixties, the Granada was given over to bingo. Though I loved the building, I never went back. For it seemed to me that a public offered movies and opting instead for bingo was every bit as doomed as the Philistines in Samson and Delilah. Maybe it plays bingo still, in a Tooting that has become gentrified. But can the profits from that game keep all the mirrors silvered and maintain the thick plush of the carpets?

Should it be a museum, then? I'm sure the projectors are gone, and I doubt they are made any more with a throw to fill that space. In an age when new cinemas are built like bare boxes - with a calculated 120 seats - how can Granada be a living museum? Is such a place destined to resemble those English cathedrals, slipping into damp, begging for funds? What could bring the miracle back?

Like 1955. I was 14 and I'd gone to see Rebel Without a Cause. It was a month or so after James Dean had died. I was so eager I got there early. The previous show was not over yet. So I went in, down the hallowed corridors, beneath the arches of Castile, and into the dark itself. And there on the Scope screen, with his hushed voice all over the theatre, was Dean - dead already, but so vital - asking Plato (Sal Mineo) to give him his gun. They were in the Los Angeles planetarium. And somehow the reach of that setting in Nick Ray's film seemed one with the scale of the Granada, and I moved like a cat on the carpet, uncertain of what was real and what myth.

So yes, keep the place, and order that every film critic has to be shut inside for a night, letting the ghosts work.