Picture Palace

The loss of our cinema heritage

My first experience of cinema was the stunning, grand and magical Granada Cinema Bedford, as a child I will never forget the awe of this 1930s picture palace. Sitting opposite St Peters green in the town, it owned its surroundings with an assured and comforting design, a home to all the big screen adventures and experiences the week had to offer. I remember with fondness the long queues for a film, stretching around the corner of the building, the box office lined with red curtains, where you were issued with a small paper ticket that led to the large sweeping staircase, the Granada’s huge auditorium awaiting you.

These childhood memories of magic, love and wonder were attached as much to the building as the film I was destined to watch. Screen one felt cavernous with its balcony and stalls, huge cinemascope screen and art deco decoration. Despite its sticky floor and uncomfortable old seats it was pure escapism and beauty; celluloid expressed in architecture.

With excitement and eagerness for the main feature I would tolerate the cartoon or documentary before the film began. I will always remember a documentary on saving whales before Star Trek 4 The Voyage Home; completely apt based on the film, but a twenty minute inconvenience of historic proportions for a young boy eager to see Captain Kirk take on his latest adventure.

When the main feature began and the luscious cinema curtains swept from sight; the huge cinemascope screen, silver glow of projection, loud thumping soundtrack and my imagination were all that mattered; the rest of the world disappearing for two hours.

These memories led to my love of film, my love of cinematography and my passion in protecting our cinema heritage.

The birth of the multiplex led to the final curtain for the Granada Bedford, which despite much anger was demolished in 1990, leaving an empty shell of a car park for many years before Lidl moved onto the site. Bedford was treated to a new ‘luxury’ multiplex managed by Cannon Cinemas. Gone was the huge panoramic screen, gone was the grandeur and gone was the magic of film. Of course I continued my film watching journey at the new multiplex, and as a teenager a choice of films was nice, as was a day out at the cinema for just £5, something I wish young people now could enjoy. But no matter how many visits I made, how many films I viewed, I never managed to relive the magic of the Granada Cinema.

Film is an art form, its ability to make us think, explore, love and cry, with a mere image, scene, score or performance make it one of the most powerful mediums in expressive art. Yet despite its place in our lives we have allowed film to be reduced to being viewed in black boxes, devoid of character, thought and love. The multiplex gave us choice at the cost of style and imagination, and while the multiplex has had many positive effects on film viewing, it led to supermarket of cinema. A throwaway culture of film, where the experience was less important than the speed of delivery.

In recent years some cinema’s have returned to the notion of experience, service and comfort, a small renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s view of cinema as escapism from our world. However many of our modern cinema buildings still lack identity, care and grandeur, opting for mundane carbon copy designs.

The last decade has seen some of the historic cinemas that survived the cull of the 1980s and 1990s born again as part of this renaissance, once more providing us with film viewing that inspires through location and architecture. This is a huge step forward in reclaiming the art of cinema, but equally many others sit lost, void of attention, slowly crumbling away. The loss of these picture palaces and our shared cinema heritage leads to a loss of magic and art in film presentation and viewing. These buildings can live again, and can inspire new generations of film makers, actors, cinematographers, writers or like me people who simply love the art of film.

I often wonder how many children stepping into a multiplex this weekend, will share the love of film generated by the picture palace of my childhood?


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