As a child, I was lucky to have experienced the grandeur and majesty of the Granada Cinema Bedford, a cinema full of the awe and wonder of the 1930s picture palace. Sitting opposite St Peters green in the town, the Granada dominated its surroundings with an assured and comforting design as it played home to all the latest big-screen adventures and experiences the week had to offer. I remember with fondness the long queues for a film that would stretch around the corner of the building, finally leading you to the opulent box office and Miss Candy concessions counter.
Once there, the small paper ticket in your hand was a gateway to the large sweeping staircase of the foyer and the 1,600-seat-Theodore Komisarjevsky-designed auditorium. Once seated, the majesty of the Granada was apparent; here, just like with all standard Granada’s, the art deco embellishments and intricate architecture surrounded the stage and screen, and the rear of the auditorium was more basic in construct. Above your head was a stunning chandelier surrounded by beautiful plaster work mouldings, while ahead of you was the second-largest cinemascope screen in the United Kingdom.
My magical childhood memories of cinema were attached as much to the building as the film being shown, with the Italian Renaissance design offering escapism. The Granada was the beauty of cinema expressed in bricks, mortar and plaster; a cavern of the imagination that beckoned you in and wouldn’t let you go.
As I awaited the main feature, I would gobble up the cartoon or documentary before the film began, from news items on rescuing the whale before Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home to Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Daffy Duck. But the main course was the main feature, especially in cinemascope, where the screen would wrap around you, consume you and transport you to new worlds – the real world disappearing for two or more hours. These memories led to my passion for film, my love of cinematography and my belief in protecting our cinematic heritage.
But like so many cathedrals of film, the birth of the multiplex would lead to the final curtain for the Granada Bedford, which despite much local anger, was demolished in 1990. To add insult to injury, the site remained a dusty and empty car park for a decade until a new Lidl was constructed. Meanwhile, a new ‘luxury’ multiplex managed by Cannon Cinemas opened near Bedford’s stunning embankment. However, while it may have been comfier, it offered us small screens with no cinemascope and a bog-standard, bland interior and exterior that promised none of the magic of its predecessor. It was clear that the cinema supermarket had arrived in Bedford at the expense of size, scale, beauty and power. Of course, I continued my film journey at the new multiplex, but the magic had gone, replaced by a conveyor belt of film.
In recent years some independent cinemas and chains have returned to the notion of experience, service and comfort with a small renaissance of the 30s picture palace. However, many are still being lost yearly, the majesty of their auditoriums demolished for car parks, supermarkets and shopping centres. Meanwhile, many modern cinema buildings lack soul and inspiration, with cinema chains more worried about the number of nachos they sell than the films they exhibit. Gone are the projectionists who understood the importance of presentation, replaced by a single-button computer system—the experience less important than the money made in the foyer. As I reflect on the movie palace of my childhood, I wonder how many children stepping into a multiplex this weekend will find themselves swept away the way I did all those years ago at the Granada Bedford. But I also wonder whether the magic of cinema has been lost as it morphed from majesty to multiplex.