Star of the big screen

profile : Barry Jenkins : It took him 30 years to achieve his dream, but the chief executive of ABC now owns a cinema chain. Paul Farrelly reports

"Once cinema gets into your blood, it stays there. And you stay with it." Exactly four weeks ago, Barry Jenkins, chief executive of ABC Cinemas, one of the best-known names in British film, achieved a dream. He finally bought a cinema chain.

It was an ambition seven years in conception and 30 more in the making, with a fair share of hopes dashed on the way.

The ABC story is strewn with fallen icons of the debt-crazy Eighties: Alan Bond, the Australian deal maker brought to book by Tiny Rowland; Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israeli film-makers whose Cannon cinemas and Hollywood dreams disintegrated into dust; and Giancarlo Paretti, the Italian waiter-cum-financier whose last appointment with bars came courtesy of a Roman jail. Heroes - the cigar-puffing Lew Grade and woolly pullovered Richard Branson - make but cameo appearances.

It hardly seems like a plot written for a modest Peckham lad, who left school as a sign maker at 17 and barely worked inside a cinema until 1983. Then, British cinema was in the doldrums, with just 50 million admissions annually. With two screens at most, the shabby stalls and circles of converted Victorian theatres made picture-going drab. After years of neglect - as roofs fell in, paint peeled and audiences plunged - they were closing up and down the land.

It is a thriving business now. Admissions are forecast at 123 million this year as new multiplexes, which Jenkins helped pioneer, pack audiences in. Thriving enough for Branson, ever one to spot an opportunity, to jump on the bandwagon and unwittingly give Jenkins the chance he craved.

Jenkins was born in July 1941, one of two children, in the south London area made infamous by that lovable villain of the small screen, Del Boy Trotter. His mother was a Gas Board clerk and his father a plumber before serving seven years in the army until demob in 1946. It is an experience Jenkins hardly recollects, save that his dad, like millions of others, fought in France.

"He wouldn't talk about his part in the army, not even with my mother," Jenkins says. "He resented it, wasting seven years of his life. We were total opposites. He was a fairly educated person, but didn't push himself. He thought I was mad when I went into business on my own."

That start came early. Jenkins left William Penn Comprehensive aged 16, armed with GCEs in maths and technical drawing, and became a trainee draughtsman with London Signs and Illuminations.

He was quickly immersed in making patterns, 50ft by 30ft, for neon signs: "The patter was that we would make you a sign for anything from Piccadilly Circus to the local fish shop," he says.

At 24, Jenkins left with the top salesman and designer to start up their own firm. Five years later, it was taken over by Electroneon, part of Grade's empire, which made signs for his Classic Cinema chain. Jenkins had shares, but made only "a couple of hundred quid". The office junior start though, he reckons, still stands him in good stead.

"As the dogsbody, I had to fill in everywhere," Jenkins said. "I could go out and sell a sign, make it and hang it up. It's always a good thing to say: 'I've done it, so don't pull the wool over my eyes'."

Jenkins' big break came in 1983, but through a tragedy he'd rather forget. Golan and Globus had bought Classic from Grade the year before and set about change with gusto. Jenkins had worked his way up to become technical chief, the number three at what had become Cannon cinemas when the managing director died of a brain haemorrhage. Jenkins was selected to convey the news - and he exploded.

"I phoned Globus in the US and had a real go at him. I blamed them for all the pressure. They had a lot of good qualities. They fired you with enthusiasm, but they believed they owned you 365 days and nights of the year." Globus put the phone down, rang back an hour later, and appointed Jenkins to do the job.

Then, Cannon had just 67 cinemas. Three years later, it had 300, leapfrogging Odeon to become the biggest chain in the land. The new Cannon boss was at the forefront of the multiplex revolution, too. The US group UCI started to change the face of British cinema in 1985 with a complex at Milton Keynes and Cannon followed suit, in the unlikely setting of Salford.

"Up until then, people were still going to the local flea pit," Jenkins says. "It was a case of spending money on cinemas and getting more people into them. You don't actually make money out of showing films. You make it from popcorn and cola."

Cannon's big leap came in 1986, with the pounds 175m purchase of ABC. Bond had owned the chain for just a fortnight, taking it off the hands of Thorn- EMI, and making pounds 20m on the deal.

"I was shut in for 36 hours with Alan Bond," Jenkins says. "He was quite ruthless, but we had a few interesting conversations in between - he'd started life as a sign writer."

The 1990s turned out even more turbulently. Jenkins resigned abruptly in 1990 after a bust-up with fraudster Paretti, whose MGM took over after Golan and Globus collapsed. Less than a year later, he was back, called in by Hollywood mogul Alan Ladd Jnr after French bankers Credit Lyonnais shunted Paretti out. His opinion of the Italian is unprintable.

Three years later, Jenkins upped sticks again during what was a difficult time for his family. His wife, Brenda, had just lost her brother, but at least their children were grown up: their eldest son, Stephen, is in private banking, their daughter Dawn a housewife with two children, and Kevin, "the rebel of the family", runs a thriving courier and car company in London.

"We were fortunate. When we got married in 1962 we decided we wanted to have children young," Jenkins says. "That bit was planned - the rest wasn't but it was good timing."

He had secretly approached Credit Lyonnais in 1989 to buy out Cannon (including ABC), but to no avail. By 1993 it was clear they would eventually sell and he felt he stood a better chance of doing a deal outside than inside.

The next two years were sheer frustration - trekking in and out of the City, putting business plans together, only to see hopes dashed again. Last July, Branson pipped him to the post, bidding pounds 195m to his pounds 190m for MGM.

Plans for an entirely new venture were also dashed when the backer, Prudential, pulled out. But Jenkins plugged away and on 3 May, 10 years to the day after Globus and Golan ditched the ABC name in favour of Cannon, Jenkins, with City backing of pounds 68m, bought 90 of the old cinemas not wanted by Branson.

The Virgin boss kept the glitzy multiplexes and flagship high street sites, but Jenkins has high hopes for the ABC revival and its 2,300 staff. Many have spent their working lives with ABC and Jenkins' first move was a conference for all 90 managers.

A few of the loss makers will close, but expansion is on the way. Jenkins will finally have his own multiplexes - 17 are planned in the next three years - and, at the turn of the century, the Stock Exchange might see a pure cinema group quoted again.

Jenkins has a 7 per cent stake in ABC after putting in his savings and the old sign companies he bought out from Credit Lyonnais. When all that comes on the market, it'll be worth more than a "few hundred quid".

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