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 owned its surroundings with an assured and comforting design. While being 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. The lengthy cue finally, leading you to the opulent box office and Miss Candy concessions counter. The small paper ticket, a gateway to the large sweeping staircase of the foyer and the 1,600 seat Theodore Komisarjevsky designed auditorium. Holding the second largest cinemascope screen in the United Kingdom, a screen that dominated Granada’s vast cavern of imagination, wonder and escapism.
These magical childhood memories of cinema were attached as much to the building as the film being shown. With the Italian Renaissance theme of the cinema’s design offering pure visual beauty. Alongside a true commitment to offering the finest film viewing experience possible. And despite its sticky floor and uncomfortable old seats, The Granada offered pure escapism; the artistry of film expressed in architecture.
As I awaited the main feature, I would tolerate the cartoon or documentary before the film began. From documentaries on rescuing the whale before Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. To Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Daffy Duck. The wait was always worth the sheer power and force of the main feature. And when the curtains finally parted, and the main feature began, my imagination was all that mattered in a cathedral of film. The rest of the 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. While equally allowing me to experience a film the way a director intended. On a large panoramic screen, within a building that understood the power of cinema.
However, the birth of the multiplex led to the final curtain for the Granada Bedford, which despite much anger, was demolished in 1990. The site remained a dusty and empty car park for years until a Lidl was constructed. Meanwhile, a new ‘luxury’ multiplex managed by Cannon Cinemas opened near the embankment on a new leisure park. The luxury of the building gave us small screens, no cinemascope, but comfy seats to make up for the loss. The supermarket of cinema had arrived in Bedford at the expense of size, scale, beauty and power. And while I continued my film-watching journey at the new multiplex. The magic had gone, replaced by something that felt far more commercial in nature—a conveyor belt of cinema and film, driven by sales alone.
The move away from the picture palace of the 1930s ultimately led to a downgrading of film as an art form, dismissing the beauty of a movie to make us think, explore, connect and cry. Here, the once-grand auditoriums were replaced by small screen boxes. The result of which only strengthened the home viewing experience. In turn, betraying one of the most powerful mediums of artistic expression, cinema morphing into a bland supermarket detached from its theatrical roots.
In recent years some independent cinemas and chains have returned to the notion of experience, service and comfort. Leading to a small renaissance of the picture palace concept. However, despite this, many modern cinema buildings still lack identity, care and grandeur. Opting for mundane carbon copy designs that offer little inspiration to the customer. While many cinema chains focus on how many nachos they can sell rather than the beauty and power of the films they are showing. Gone are the projectionists who understood the importance of presentation, replaced by a computer system that presses play—the experience less important than the money made in the foyer.
The past decade has seen some of our historic cinemas born again. Once again providing us with a film viewing experience that inspires us through location and architecture. And while this is a positive step forward in protecting our cinematic heritage. Many other historic buildings continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Something that would not happen in the architecture of theatres, art galleries, or museums. This only further demonstrates a lack of understanding and urgency in protecting our cinematic heritage.
The loss of our shared cinema heritage leads to a loss of both the magic and art of film. With imagination and passion often missing in ensuring these buildings live again in the 21st Century. Once more inspiring new generations of filmmakers, actors, cinematographers and writers. And as I reminisce, I can’t help but wonder how many children stepping into a multiplex this weekend will share the love of film generated by the picture palaces of my childhood?