Slouching towards Stevenage

They call it progress: the rise of the multiplex, the fall of the picture palace.

School's out for the summer in Stevenage and Letchworth. What will New Town and Garden City teenagers do with so much time on their hands? They'll go to the cinema; or they will if they were telling the truth to researchers canvassing Hertfordshire youngsters about what they wanted from their town centres. Cinemas, they said, and cinemas they've got.

Next Friday, two rival cinemas, the Broadway in Letchworth and Cine-UK in Stevenage, five miles down the A1(M), open for business with the same film, Mission: Impossible. The Broadway first opened in 1936, when Follow the Fleet, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, took the morris-dancing garden city folk of Letchworth into the era of Art Deco, cocktails (the nonconformist town had long been "dry"), top hats (instead of no hats), and tails (rather than smocks).

The Broadway, owned by this, the first of England's famous garden cities, fell into a long decline at about the time of Edward Heath's three-day week and the rise of the home-rental video, and closed earlier this year with a nostalgic showing of Will Hay in Windbag the Sailor.

Today, the Broadway's new management is racing to breathe fresh life, employing three screens rather than one, into this elegant Art Deco picture palace. It is just the sort of cinema that, across the country, has lost its magic and been converted into a bingo hall. And been superseded by the likes of the 12-screen Cine-UK "multiplex" on the edge of the industrial estate at Stevenage.

The Broadway's rival is a paradigm of contemporary youth culture, a cinema fuelled on up-to-the-nanosecond screen technology and sited in a sea of edge-of-town burger joints and mall-ish postmodern buildings, a perfect suburban frame for summertime gum-chewing, sulking, hair-flicking, mountain- bike wheelies and the wearing of baseball caps with the peaks at the back.

Cine-UK's boss, Stephen Wiener, is confident of success. With backing from the City, the pounds 3.5m Stevenage multiplex is the first of 12 such "leisure facilities". It promises not just a choice of a dozen movies at any one time, but a Movie Cafe to hang around in, a Haagen-Dazs ice cream parlour and "100 love-seats" for teenage smooching. "The arm-rest can be pulled down between the two seats," says Wiener, "in case things get out of hand."

What can the Broadway offer to keep teenagers from busing and biking it to Stevenage and Wiener's Cine-UK?

Graham Dentith, general manager of Broadway Cinema Ltd, is as confident as Stephen Wiener. He talks lovingly of the Art Deco cinema's restoration. "But this is not purely an exercise in heritage to please the older Letchworth folk. We've squeezed all the latest gizmos into the fabric of the old building. It's going to be a case of Thirties Hollywood waltzing arm-in-arm with multiplex technology. Now that's got to be a winner, hasn't it?"

And perhaps it will be. Not only is Letchworth obsessed with its very particular heritage - the town is run by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation - but, surprisingly, it was home to one of the very first purpose- built cinemas in Britain. Surprising, because Letchworth was, from its inception in 1903, famous for being home to what George Orwell listed, in The Road to Wigan Pier, as "every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal- wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England".

Brainchild of Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), parliamentary reporter turned urban reformer, Letchworth began life as a retreat for the aesthetically- inclined middle classes. There were no pubs. Instead there were weaving and callisthenics, Esperanto and theosophy. Day-trippers came to gawp at the sandal-wearing vegetarians as they toiled and spun in their William Morris-inspired cottages designed by the tweedy architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin.

For all their Good Life posturing and talks on "Sex and Civics" in Arts & Crafts halls, Letchworth's garden citizens took up the cinema as eagerly as they did bicycles and Indian clubs. And, at a time when everyone in Britain went to see the latest Bogart, Chaplin or Will Hay, Letchworth invested in the ritzy Broadway.

Stevenage, a post-Hitler scion of Letchworth, was born in the age when radio's Uncle Mac was about to be given a hard kick by television's Muffin the Mule, yet cinema was still at its peak. Life in Fifties Stevenage was influenced by American wartime culture - the area had been overrun in the Forties by overpaid, movie-loving US servicemen - seduced more by Coca-Cola and consumerism than by fruit juice and Arts & Crafts aestheticism.

Where Letchworth verged on the precious, Stevenage accepted the brash. Stevenage deserves the 12-screen Cine-UK multiplex as Letchworth does the refurbished Broadway cinema. Each of the two film theatres is a microscosmic representation (or theosophical, perhaps, in the case of Letchworth) of the history and values of two of Britain's most influential New Towns.

And the clientele? Given that the majority of British teenagers appear to be indistinguishable from their North American counterparts, it's difficult not to assume that they will be slouching self-consciously towards Stevenage on the evening of 12 July for the full-on multiplex "love-seat" experience, while Graham Dentith is probably right in his hunch that the clever mix of nostalgia and zappy technology may just turn enough young heads. If not, he had better commission a remake of Windbag the Sailor with Nicholas Cage in the lead, and fast

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