Obituary: Phil Hyams

Allen Eyles
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:26

Phil Hyams was the last of the great showmen responsible for Britain's most spectacular cinemas. He was a flamboyant figure who loved the limelight - impulsive, temperamental, but likeable and fair-minded. He often worked by "hunches" and his hunches were rarely wrong.

Assisted by his younger brothers Sid and Mick, he put buildings of eye-popping grandeur in reach of the working classes in some of London's dreariest suburbs. The Hyams' greatest undertaking was the State at Kilburn, north London, on a three-and-a-half-acre site. The largest of all English cinemas with 4,004 seats and a tower visible for miles around, it survives as a bingo club. The Hyams also promoted the Troxy in Commercial Road, Stepney, resplendently brought back to life for bingo in 1992 after three decades of decay.

The Hyams' father - a Russian immigrant baker in the East End of London - had helped finance the new Popular cinema in Commercial Road, Stepney, in 1912 and his teenage son Phil worked there in the evenings to learn the business. Joined in 1919 by the quieter, more reflective Sid, Phil built up a small circuit that included the Canterbury in Westminster Bridge Road. He claimed that the years he spent in the early 1920s reviving the fortunes of this former music hall were the happiest of his life.

In 1927 the Hyams converted a vast tramshed into their first super cinema: the Broadway at Stratford, east London (no longer standing). Thanks to a versatile and gifted architect, George Coles, the auditorium looked palatial, and Coles went on to design all the cinemas the Hyams initiated. Phil demonstrated his flair for showmanship when he learned that the Prince of Wales was a keen supporter of British Legion events and offered the Broadway free for a huge rally just before the official opening. The Prince obligingly attended and no new cinema ever had more national publicity.

In 1928, the Hyams sold their circuit to the newly formed Gaumont British combine, then started afresh as H&G Kinemas in partnership with Major A.J. Gale. Three live elephants appeared at the 1930 opening night of the Elephant and Castle Trocadero - externally ponderous, it boasted a sumptuous 3,500-seat auditorium with elaborate Renaissance decoration and an atmosphere of magical expectation that never faded. The Troxy Stepney followed in 1933, of equal size, but in the art deco mode. (There was also the Troc-ette Bermondsey, an existing cinema taken over and renamed.)

The Hyams' philosophy was "If you give 'em value for money, they'll come", and their cine-variety shows were legendary: not just two films, a newsreel and organ interlude, but huge variety bills featuring top artists of the day. "Mr Phil", and "Mr Sid" (as the Hyams were known to all) were unusually generous employers: at the end of a good week, staff would often find a bonus in their pay-packets.

The cinemas also featured amateur talent contests. One night at the Trocadero, Phil went to the rescue of a hapless young singer who was being mercilessly barracked. He persuaded the audience to give her a chance, recalling another terrified novice who had received a fair hearing - Gracie Fields. His story was, he readily confessed off-stage, "a pack of lies".

The Hyams linked with Gaumont in 1935 to expand further, forming Gaumont Super cinemas. Brother Mick was on board as theatre controller. At Kilburn, their long-gestating Troxy had become the Gaumont State when it opened at Christmas 1937. Here a modern skyscraper tower with full broadcasting facilities rose above an entrance hall in Italian Renaissance style with marble floors and columns, pink mirrors, and two chandeliers modelled on those in the banqueting hall at Buckingham Palace. It was a place fit for royalty and in fact Queen Mary regularly came to programmes in the 1940s.

The State's vast auditorium continued the classical theme but in a less elaborate, less overwhelming style than at the Trocadero. The huge stage, orchestra pit, Wurlitzer organ, twenty dressing rooms, band room and scenery workshop were all put to use for frequent live shows over the years - from ballet and circuses to pantos and pop concerts.

This was the Hyams' last great venture. With war imminent, they worried about their concentration of inner London properties and sold off projects at Holloway and Kingston-on-Thames.

The Blitz did indeed have a devastating effect. Audiences were scared to enter the Trocadero and State at the height of the bombing and they were closed for several weeks to save money. The Hyams sold out to Gaumont in 1944, just before the post-war boom in attendances made goldmines out of their huge theatres.

In 1947 the Hyams launched a distribution company called Eros Films. This reissued hundreds of old Hollywood favourites like Beau Geste and The Road to Singapore and also backed new films by British producers, ranging from the Frankie Howerd comedy The Runaway Bus (1953) and the star-laden war drama The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954) to exploitative material like the Soho vice drama The Flesh Is Weak (1957) plus Cliff Richard's screen debut in Serious Charge (1959). Old music halls at Croydon and Lewisham were turned into Eros cinemas.

By the late 1970s, the Hyams were left with only the Biograph in Wilton Road, Victoria, an old fleapit which they had never been able to sell and which, in the spirit of P.T. Barnum, was inaccurately promoted as Britain's oldest operating cinema. This closed suddenly in 1983, to be demolished in days.

But both the State Kilburn and Troxy Stepney stand, as listed buildings and monuments to the taste and daring of Phil and his brothers. In fact, Phil Hyams celebrated his 100th birthday at a reception in Kilburn alongside the State.

Allen Eyles

Philip Hyams, film exhibitor: born London 26 March 1894; married 1919 Yetta Kramer (two sons); died London 8 January 1997.

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