Ageing cinema stars saved by Grade I listing

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The Independent Online
THE SPLENDOUR of a former south London cinema will be recognised this week when it becomes England's only Grade I listed picture house, to be joined by 30 other buildings originally designed as cinemas which will be listed for the first time.

The Granada cinema, Tooting, now sadly reduced to a Gala bingo hall, boasts an interior which was the crowning achievement of Theodore Komisarjevsky, one time husband of the late actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft. A Russian, born in Venice in 1882, Mr Komisarjevsky worked in St Petersburg and Moscow before arriving in Britain to cut a dash through London society between the two world wars.

After meeting Sidney Bernstein, Granada's founder, he was invited to become the interior designer of the entrepreneur's growing cinema chain. His picture house in Tooting opened in 1931, a year when audiences were thrilled by James Cagney in The Public Enemy, frightened by Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, and amused by the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business.

Mark Winter, current manager of the hall, said his first day was like "walking into a Tardis". He said: "I was stunned. From the outside it's quite an ordinary building but when I got inside it took my breath away."

Spectacular chandeliers hang from the ceiling, supported by moulded columns and elaborate arches. From the foyer a grand staircase leads up to a mirrored hall. Other walls are decorated with scenes from a fairytale palace, where musicians entertain courtiers.

Peter Longman director of the Theatre Trust said: "In the 1930s people went to the cinema to escape to a different world, the cinemas of the period are often very romantic."

Most of the cinemas on the list were built between 1910 and 1940, the heyday of cinema construction. It was during the period that films replaced music hall as the most popular form of entertainment and before television took its place in the nation's affections.

Marcus Binney, president of Save Britain's Heritage (SBH) which has been highlighting the plight of buildings, including cinemas, since 1975, said. "We look at practical ways of saving endangered buildings whatever their type."

The State cinema in Grays, near Thurrock, Essex, typifies the problems faced by older cinemas. According to SBH, no cinema is "more evocative of a bygone era". But faced with competition from a nearby multiplex it had to close. The building is now boarded up and is affected by water damage.

It is to combat problems like these that the film producer David Puttnam will address an English Heritage conference on the future of England's historic cinemas on Wednesday, at Notting Hill's Gate cinema. The conference will be used to launch a scheme to find the public's favourite old cinemas.

Speakers will also discuss ways to help save old picture houses from the rise of the multiplex and highlight the plight of these overlooked buildings. There are already 120 listed cinemas, 10 of which will be upgraded to Grade II* status tomorrow. Richard Gray, the chairman of the Cinema Theatre Association first suggested the picture house project to English Heritage. He said: "Cinemas are part of our cultural history and as important as all other building types. They are part of the infrastructure of life, not just their architecture but also their decoration."