Category Archives: North Kensington

The Electric Cinema: Portobello’s Fleapit and Picture House

I’ve spent the last few days working on a new post. But as I worked I knew that in another room far away from me my friend and colleague Isabel Hernandez was working on the final (?) post in her series on cinemas in Kensington. My efforts naturally have to give way before her magnum opus.

 

If some cinemas have become relics of the past, then how about a cinema that has survived to become a picture house worthy of its age. For the time being I have decided to conclude my cinema blogs with the Electric Cinema, given we have some excellent photographs to share with you and even if much attention has been paid to this unusually designed building over the years as both saint and sinner in various publications, I thought I would end the subject on a positive note. This one survived the cull, despite the odds, and is now apparently the oldest working cinema in the UK.

 

 

 

There are many in the North Kensington area who will know this building intimately and have come to know ‘the Bug House’, or the ‘Bughole’ as it was sometimes referred to by the local people, as a familiar fixture at 191 Portobello Road.

The Electric Cinema was built by Gerald Seymour Valentin in 1910, on the site of a timber yard owned by Thomas Henry Saunders. It was built in the midst of grocers, butchers, confectioners, decorators, plumbers, cheesemongers, fruiterers…the list is long. You can see the canopies of the many shops stretching right along the street in the image below. It was decided that an entertainment venue was probably a worthy addition in so busy a street.

 

The cinema opened on the 27th February 1911, although another source states that it was on Christmas Eve, 1910. Perhaps there was a preview? The Electric Cinema is first listed in the 1912 local directory, under the ownership of London and Provincial Cinematograph Ltd.

 

 

 

 

 

Valentin was an architect with little to go on as far as cinema building went. There was no exemplary blueprint to fall back on, and the glamorous cinemas of the 1930’s/40’s were yet to be imagined. In 1910 cinema design was still in its infancy and the age of electricity was relatively new. The development of radio, the accessibility of gramophones, and now cinemas, heralded a new era in the world of entertainment. If the industrial age was a significant cornerstone of advancement and prosperity, then technology was a cauldron of possibilities. The British film industry was still very much a new concept. Moreover, the venue was built well before ‘talkies’ became the norm.

 

It is thought that Valentin built the auditorium with a Music Hall in mind. Geoff Andrew, a former member of staff at the cinema, wrote:

 

“It was no shock to learn from detailed acoustic analyses carried out in the late Seventies that the auditorium was far more suited to live musical performance than to the reproduction of sound by electric speakers; after all, it was built eighteen years before the introduction of the ‘talkies’, during which period (1910-1929) live piano or band accompaniment would have been used to supply the emotional atmosphere for the moving images on the screen.”

 

The audience seated in an early image below gives you an idea of how little space there was within the small area. I imagine not as comfortable as the plush cinemas of later years. In fact, nearly all of the cinema space was devoted to the auditorium. It is estimated that the auditorium had the capacity for 600 seats all on one floor.

 

 

 

 

 

The cinema met with problems over the course of many years. Its age meant that costly repairs were essential if it was to continue being a viable and safe venue. During the course of the sixties, it was not uncommon to hear about the latest calamitous dysfunction within the building, such as a leaking roof, or a whole row of seats collapsing. It was when new management in 1969 took over that a much-needed refurbishment took place to improve the building – certainly the general condition of the auditorium: the roof was repaired, an efficient heating system was installed, carpets and new seats were bought – it was a welcome change.

 

 

 

 

The auditorium’s paneling does not appear remarkable in any way in these images. The walls were repainted at some point during the sixties. Some described it as lurid. Aesthetics had to take a backseat to other more important things, like keeping the cinema open and getting paying customers in to watch films as it was intended to do, with enough to make the necessary repairs when the roof or the gutters went awry in inclement weather, which is quite often in the UK, and affected the cinema numerous times. It is important to note that prior to this period the cinema had not been touched in fifty years or so.

 

 

 

 

Another view of the auditorium. Note the buckets at the back. I describe them as ‘old world’ fire hydrants.

 

 

 

 

Unlike later, larger cinemas, the frame surround to the screen was relatively simple without a distinctive proscenium arch. Nothing unusual for its time, except the screen remains the same to this day and was never modernised like some of the Electric’s counterparts were over the decades to accommodate CinemaScope – an anamorphic lens series used in the 1950’s and the precursor to the likes of Panavision which allowed for films to be projected at different ratios. I am, of course, only describing this in a very rudimentary way.

 

 

 

 

Standing enclosure for 27 persons. Not a huge space when you look at the room generally, maximising space sounds like a good idea if you do not mind being in very close proximity to other people, or indeed if you mind standing up. Generally, the community spirit of The Electric gave it a more casual approach to such things. A laid-back acceptance of how it all worked.

 

 

 

 

Below is an example of that casual atmosphere. Many of the staff at the cinema took great pride in the Electric’s friendly reputation.

 

 

 

 

Below you can see the dark brown nicotine stained ceiling. Years of tar accumulated over time and yellowed the panels giving them a rather unpleasant, greasy look. It is said that it was at least 1 inch thick. Quite grotesque in retrospect, but not surprising when smoking was usual in public spaces.

 

 

 

 

During the refurbishment already mentioned, the old projectors were replaced with new projection machines purchased from Winston Churchill’s Chartwell home. After his death they had come onto the market almost new, or so I thought…

Dave Hucker a former manager at the Electric informed me that these particular images show the ‘Italian made Cinemechanicas which were the best projectors in the world at that time and the same at the NFT.’

He goes on to say:

“These date from an upgrade in the mid/late 70s when new seating and a decent screen were installed. This brought the cinema up to a very high standard.”

 

 

 

Enormous machines compared to the digital tech we have now. A fraction of the size.

Also, we cannot fail to look upon these images and not think about a spectre of the Electric’s past, the mass murderer, John Christie of 10, Rillington Place, rumoured to have worked here as a projectionist sometime in the forties. Just one of many stories that are not verifiable, but add a certain mythos to the cinema.

 

 

 

Below you can see the signage of former times. The Electric was renamed The Imperial Playhouse around the period of the First World War, something of a grand title perhaps, but it seems fitting considering the cinema also weathered the Second World War. Initially, there was an order for cinema closures to avoid crowds gathering during the Blitz. A wise precaution. Yet not surprisingly, as London grew more resilient to the raids, cinemas simply carried on. During air raids, an announcement flashed onto the screen and audiences would head out to the nearest shelter, usually collecting a refund on the way out. A very calm attitude considering the circumstances.

 

 

 

 

The image below shows The Electric in 1977 advertising Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road. What you may not know is that the cinema, as well as showing some rare classics and notable masterpieces, would often show new films that might perhaps never have seen the light of day, given that distributors were not confident they would do well, so they regularly shelved them. In fact, directors as varying in their styles as their eras, received their first British releases at the Electric. Directors such as Orson Wells, Fritz Lang, Martin Scorsese, and John Huston. Hard to believe, but when you are starting out, or simply trying to establish yourself outside of your usual base, it isn’t always plain sailing, and it wasn’t initially for these now well-known auteurs. Creative efforts are so often thwarted, and talent is a mixed bag of luck, hard work and vision. Everybody starts at the beginning somewhere.

 

 

 

 

Double bills were part and parcel of the Electric experience in its varying incarnations. Films would be programmed together because of their similarities and it offered customers value for money. Geoff Andrew states that:

“The juxtaposition of two films can throw up interesting ideas by means of the films’ similarities and differences. For instance, in a season of movies dealing with madness, we doubled Hitchcock’s famous Psycho with John Huston’s film Freud.  Or Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers with the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup which offers a far less dark but in its way equally cynical view of political machinations.”

I don’t see that level of thought going into the general cinematic experience currently, with some exceptions, like The Prince Charles in the West End.

 

 

 

 

My husband’s programme, Shock Around the Clock, which he has kept over the years. A precursor to the continuing successful horror film festival, Frightfest. Over a period of 12 hours one would sit and watch several films back-to-back. No mean feat, as personally, I probably would have died from a migraine the size of a planet. But it shows the dedication of some film buffs and those organisers willing to go the extra mile.

 

 

 

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre apparently made its first run in uncut form at the Electric cinema. Although the cover you see is from the third instalment. Below a list of what was shown.

 

 

 

 

 

Programme booklet credits.

 

 

 

As with most cinemas the spectre of closure loomed over The Electric too. And it did close in May 1987 after staff, local residents and celebrities campaigned in vain to keep it open, despite efforts over several years to return the cinema to its former glory under different ownership. Mainline Pictures who took over in 1987 renovated the building and brought the cinema up to scratch, rebranding it the Electric Screen. This was no bad thing; The Electric desperately needed a facelift. Or did it? As with most information the truth can sometimes be a little stretched or simply incorrect. Dave Hucker, former manager at the Electric, points out that this was one of many myths surrounding the cinema. Unfortunately, programming was also changed, and regulars began to stay away. Changing from repertory to single-run programming proved too much of a change, altering the cinema’s personality, if such personification can be allowed here. What made it unique had been altered to the point where revenue began to fall. Whatever the reasons, as it stood, it could no longer compete with West End arthouse cinemas, even as a second-run rep house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cinema entrance below. Interestingly, in 1938 plans were submitted detailing a proposed alteration to The Imperial Playhouse as the Electric was then. Had this been carried out, the façade of the building would have been radically transformed, making it look more like a Thirties art deco building. The dome was going to be removed completely and a permanent canopy above the entrance was to be erected, which sounds intriguing. In the end none of it came to fruition, I suspect due to a lack of money. Austerity during the war years halted a lot of ideas.

 

 

 

Below you can see the tiled floor in more detail at the entrance..

 

 

 

 

The doors leading into the auditorium.

 

 

 

 

The box office which reminds me of fair grounds for some reason. The place where you could purchase reasonably priced tickets and enjoy the inexpensive programming. Alas! No popcorn anywhere!

 

 

 

 

The Electric is currently owned by retail entrepreneur Peter Simon who was once a local trader. He invested a considerable amount in the restoration of parts of the cinema before leasing the site to Soho House.

Below is an image of what The Electric looks like today.

Gebler Tooth Architects took on the job using the original plans and any early photographs that were available:

“We’ve restored all the mouldings in the auditorium. The High-level mouldings just needed washing. It was hard to determine what colour the auditorium was painted in the first place. We’ve gone for an ivory background with mouldings and the gilding left but washed.”

They wisely acquired the shop next door and expanded the space for upgraded WC’s, an air conditioning plant, and a restaurant.

Gone are the days of the affordable fleapit. Lamentably money keeps things ticking over until it doesn’t. Without it closures happen. I say lamentably because it shows up the inequalities within communities. Not everybody can afford the changes.

 

 

 

 

Portobello Road, taken from the roof of The Electric in the 1980s before the wave of tourists took over chasing after the Notting Hill dream. Sitting on a 52 bus I have often been asked by visitors if this was the correct transportation to take them to Portobello. The Portobello of Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, a big blue door and celebrity. Prior to that, Portobello Road was a Disney song in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

And don’t forget Paddington Bear, although his claim is far more established in my opinion, as his creator lived in the area.

As a child, Portobello Road was nowhere near as glamorous as it is now portrayed on the big screen. It was the place where you went to get your fruit and veg, settled down for a cup of tea in some greasy spoon café. And if you fancied some entertainment, perhaps an obscure double bill over at the eccentric and unique 191 Portobello Road after a couple of drinks at the local pub.

For me it was Spanish School twice a week down the other end of Portobello after Secondary school, and the occasional visit to Garcia’s with mum for chorizo and bacalao. And sometimes, when I later worked in the area, it was the occasional lunch for a take-away from any one of the many options along Portobello Road. Over the decades I have noticed its gentrification. Now it’s so different I almost think I imagined what it was like before. I suspect the same can be said of our changing city and its buildings generally. But Portobello will always be Portobello and perhaps its historic cinema too will remain so. It has survived this long, we shall see.

 

 

 

 

Postscript:

It has taken me an eternity to finish this blog, not because it was particularly difficult, but because so much has happened in recent months, both personally and otherwise. I kept shelving it, not really having the time to complete it. Getting around to finishing this proved challenging, but I am grateful that I have been able to do so. Also, I realise that The Electric Cinema is well known in the area and as an iconic cinema much has been written about it. I tried to keep things succinct as far as possible and have probably not covered everything. Everyone has a wealth of memories regarding the past – an impossible task for a blog. But I hope you have enjoyed it and allowed for some escapism from the isolation. At this point many of us will be re-evaluating life and some of us will be struggling with the fallout of this for various reasons.

We live in very strange times indeed, and perhaps we are on the threshold of drastic changes given how our lives appear to have been turned upside down. I’m not sure what to make of it as the everyday now seems not so normal. And we wonder what was normal to begin with. The things we once thought were important are now in question.

Please look after yourselves and take good care. Look out for each other and help where you can. We will endeavour to keep you posted where possible and continue to offer a virtual service for Local enquiries.

 

Postscript to the postscript

My thanks to Isabel, and to her husband Paul (who added some personal knowlege) for this excellent post. Also to the many people who worked at the Electric and those who have donated material to the collection.

Dave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


St Ervans Road: another era

Firstly, I should apologise for those readers who accidentally got an early draft of this post emailed to them a couple of days ago. I pressed the wrong button while preoccupied with the way the streets near St Ervans Road had changed since 1970. The idea for the post came out of a conversation I recently had with a former resident of St Ervans Road, reminiscence of his childhood days living there. It stuck in my mind because his memories were largely happy, as opposed to some other memories of North Kensington I’ve heard recently.

 

 

The post box on the left was a goalpost when he and his friends were playing football in the street. As the picture shows, things were a bit quieter then. If you look at St Ervans Road now you will find that these houses are gone. The street is part of a whole set of streets filled with relatively new housing. The picture above looks towards Golborne Road. You might not be able to see it at this magnification / brightness but there is a street sign on the left for Acklam Road, which once ran west from the end of St Ervans Road to Portobello Road. Acklam Road still exists of course but it now snakes away from a gap on the north side of St Ervans towards a junction under the Westway and then back to the bottom of Blagrave Road. (If you’re not familiar with this part of North Kensington, follow it on Google Street View, as I did earlier.)

It’s complicated, jumping backwards and forwards from the past to the present. All I intended to do was to take a look at the street in 1970.

This is the norther corner of the street where it met Acklam Road.

 

 

 

I hadn’t planned to include a map but to avoid any further confusion here is a section from the 1935 Ordnance Survey.

 

 

You can see how Acklam Road once linked St Ervans, Wornington, Swinbrook, Bevington and Blagrove Roads before reaching Portobello. It now stops short of that at the end of Blagrove where the Acklam Village is located. And of course the southern side of Acklam Road where the houses backed onto the railway was swept away by the Westway.

One of the interesting aspects of these pictures is that the Westway was already there, in the background. The street looks quiet and the people are ambling around.

 

 

In close up the two women look quite unhurried.

 

 

There are plenty of old cars to spot, as you know we like to do. I haven’t named any myself – this post has taken up enough time already, but as always I welcome contributions from car enthusiasts. Does anyone remember that series of books from a publisher called Olyslager which covered British and American cars by decades? My friend Steve referred to one volume as “the Bible”. American cars of the 1950s, obviously.

 

 

 

People are chatting in the street, unconcerned with traffic. Above, a young woman offers servicing advice to a man with the bonnet of his car open. Perhaps he’s got a Haynes manual just out of sight.. Below, one man slouches on his bike while talking to a couple of friends.

 

 

Houses are for sale as you can see so no-one is expecting the development to come in later years. Perhaps some owners made a decent profit.

 

 

This is I think the northern end of the street at the junction with Golborne Road.

Below, the other end, with that post box again.

 

 

 

Some of the housing looks a little rough, like this section.

 

 

 

Some of those house may be empty, especially the one with all the rubbish outside.

But there’s plenty of activity for a quiet street.

 

 

Another conversation by a pair of mopeds.

Is that a Rover below?

 

 

 

And is that Trellick Tower rising just behind the houses?

 

 

A Morris 800, and the view back to where we started. What’s that in the distance?

Is it the Westway itself? This view is looking east from the junction of Acklam Road and Portobello Road.

 

 

The final view links us up with Acklam Road at the end of St Ervans, looking west.

 

 

The Westway has an anniversary next year, so expect some more pictures of it here then. St Ervans Road is now in another era.

 

Postscript

I was working on various matters yesterday so I never got to finish this post till this morning. There was also a slight digression when I checked on the Olyslager books. It seems there’s a copy of one in the Reference store. I’m going downstairs now to see if I can find it. (One of the pleasure of working in a library.Allow me to indulge myself while I can.)


Health and welfare: streets in North Kensington 1966

I’m grateful this week to one of our volunteers, who found these pictures together in an envelope among a collection of pictures given to us by the Planning department .They originate in another Council department, the Health and Welfare department, which was once located in Kensington Square.

 

 

It says on the back of this picture” Appleford Road”, which means the road you see at the top of the picture could be Adair Road. Nothing in the picture remains today after redevelopment in the early 1970s.

The picture could have been taken from a new housing block. It is dated, as many of today’s pictures are, 12th September 1966. The Health and Welfare department would have been interested mainly in the condition of the housing in North Kensington which had been causing concern for some years.

Below, a view of the narrow spaces between the terraces of houses. You can see how cramped they were.

 

 

This is the space between Bramley Road and Testerton Street. I’ve looked at some of these streets before in this post for example. Those pictures were taken by our photographer, John Rogers who wanted to chronicle some of the streets that were about to be demolished.

Blechynden Street, below, was one of those. It only exists today as a stub, facing towards the Lancaster West Estate. Here it is still a place where life was going on.

 

 

Some demolition had already occurred.

 

 

That fence in Barandon Street, behind which rubbish was accumulating, is supposed to be 14 feet high according to the caption. Note the graffitti which has been concealed. The swastikas do not show some right wing message: the words read “Nazi-occupied Britain” which puts a slightly different slant on the sign. The message “Down with Taggart’s” must be personal in some way. Too early to show an antipathy towards the Scottish crime drama.

The picture below shows more rubbish building up in a back yard. But the neighbours have hung their washing up undeterred by the mess behind the wall.

 

 

The yards were between Lancaster Road and Testerton Street.

 

 

This is a cul-de-sac where Testerton Street was bisected by Barandon Street. Although the houses look rough, they’re still being lived in. I should know the distinctive rear of that car on the right. Anyone?

Cars and other vehicles were still a focus of life and work in this area.

 

 

 

This scrap yard was in Bramley Mews which ran between Bramley Road and Silchester Terrace. The Silchester name only survives on the eponymous estate.

This was Bramley Road. The houses were already vacant at this point.

 

 

I think that’s the rear of a Jaguar on the left. You often find these relativity upmarket cars in less than affluent neighbourhoods. As I’ve said before, there was a Jaguar collector in Dalgarno Gardens in these days.

This picture is the rear of Golborne Gardens , a now demolished street near Appleford Road.

 

 

 

See the two women looking out at the photographer from the top floor. The one of the left is definitely smiling.

The front of these house looked like this.

 

Those two women were photographed nearly ten years earlier in 1957. Was one of them the same person?

Below, a street under demolition which has not even left its name behind.

 

 

Lockton Street ran between Bramley Road and Mersey Street (another name which was not used again). One end of it was underneath the railway close to Latimer Road station.

The picture below is not dated like the others although Hazelwood Tower could have been the vantage point for a couple of the pictures.

 

 

It would have been almost new at this time. You can see that it looks as if it had just materialised, plonked down in the midst of the terraced streets

We’ve jumped back to Blechynden Mews in this picture. Another instance of these mews streets being devoted to m otor vehicles.

 

 

Finally, a quick look back to Hurtsway Street, which we know quite well. I won’t go on about the cars (although I could)

 

 

Instead, take a look at the woman looking at the photographer from a first floor window on the right. If you follow that line of windows you’ll just about see another woman looking towards the camera. The men in the street are paying no attention, but take note of the pile of tires in the distance. There were a lot of them in this area when these pictures were taken.

I can’t say exactly how these pictures were passed on between Council departments before arriving here in Local Studies. But this is where they will stay as a witness to some forgotten street scenes. (More on Lancaster Road here.)

Postscript

It seems appropriate this week that the death I noticed most was that of John Haynes, the creator of the Haynes workshop manuals. At one time this library had dozens of his books, a couple of bays of them down in the sub-basement to which library staff, myself among them, regularly went to pick out the relevant volume from the 600s.

The Haynes company was clever enough to produce some less serious works in more recent years, including such items a as workshop manual for the Starship Enterprise which we bought for my son on year. I also own, somewhere, a key ring with a cutaway drawing of a Ford Capri.

 


Princes Place: another backwater

We’ve had a bit of a hiatus on the blog since the end of January caused partly by the fact that I had a cold, and partly by some general upheavals in the building which have occupied us somewhat. Both Isabel and I have been working on posts which require a bit more work than usual  to do properly so this week I decided to pull some Photo Survey pictures off the back burner and do a relatively straightforward post.

Princes Place fits the description backwater as I’ve used it on other occasions. (Here, and in other posts – try this one.) It’s a narrow street which makes its way from Queensdale Road to Princedale Road near to Holland Park Avenue. Try navigating it now on Google Street View and you’ll see some modern flats, some walls at the backs of gardens and a few original houses. But it was a bit more varied back in 1970, when most of these pictures were taken.

This particular image has always been a favourite of mine because of a detail in the bottom left of the picture.

 

 

That dog, who seems to be engaged in quiet contemplation of some canine matter, not bothered by the photographer. Perhaps he’s decoding some olfactory clue in his immediate vicinity. It’s the internet of dogs, their sense of small. A little way to the rear a woman leans on her garden gate. She may be the dog’s solicitous owner, wondering what he’s up to. Or she may be keeping an eye out in case he wanders in through that open gate in front of him. We’ll never know. But I think I can detect a thoughtful look to him (or her). At one point I considered doing a post entirely about animals caught randomly by our photographer, but I’ll leave that for another day.

With its terraced houses and gardens, the street looks more substantial than it does today but to orientate us, here is the narrow entrance in Queensdale Road,

 

 

The building on the right is still there, and that shuttered garage entrance can still be found.

 

 

 

The street looks pleasant enough to me. Homely, if a bit ramshackle about the edges. Are these back gardens, perhaps?

The house on the right is definitely quirky, almost rural.

Slightly further along is some demolition, with one exposed interior.

 

 

 

Further detail of the ongoing work in other houses. Princes Place, as people in 1970 knew it, wasn’t long for this world.

 

 

Below, a man perches on top of an empty house.

 

 

 

Look back at the dog picture and you might just be able to make him out again.

The same picture has a man on a bicycle in the distance

Here he is again on the edge of this picture.

 

 

Experiencing some slight difficulty, I think

These pictures invariably  allow us to to see some cars of the period.

 

 

 

The rather ugly Ford Anglia (does anyone have fond memories of those?).

And a Vauxhall.

 

 

 

 

The estate version of…the Victor? (I’m sure someone can confirm this or correct me.)

Equally invariably in back street,s a working vehicle attached to a nearby garage.

 

 

 

And a variety of buildings.

 

 

The intriguing 17a, home of some eccentric person I hope.

And at the end of the road…

 

 

The aforementioned garage, named after the street.

 

 

Note that this is not the same entrance.

 

 

Sales and servicing available within.

This view looking back.

 

 

You can see the entrance to the garage, a Morris Minor “woody”, the only car subject to dry rot, and in the distance of course, the same man on the same bicycle (his third appearance you will have noticed.)

Take a walk through what is still a backwater today, virtually or actually, and you will will only see a few remnants of how the secluded enclave of Princes Place looked in 1970.

Postscript

I’m writing my way back in to blogging in this post, getting myself moving again after a period of exhaustion. But I’m not complaining. Mortality has not been idle while I took a breather. I’ll just mention the sad death of one of the country’s funniest men, Jeremy Hardy. Another name added to  the roll call of the News Quiz, and I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue.


Forgotten buildings: The Odeon Westbourne Grove Cinema

To start the new year, here is a post from my friend and colleague Isabel Hernandez, fresh from her grueling magnum opus on the Natural History Museum, and onto a more personal topic.

 

The subject for my post this week is the Odeon Westbourne Grove cinema. I happened to find some photographs within our collection whilst looking for something else; one of those distracting moments when the original plan went out the window in favour of my newly found stash of local treasure. I thought it might be an interesting one to post about. Even if sadly, what I found were photographs of the cinema just prior to closure.

Local history is really a nostalgic trip inviting us to remember our past selves more than anything else. Places, like people, ingrain themselves in our memories. How many of us have incorporated the cinema as part of a date, for example? Many relationships/courtships may well have begun around these stalwart picture houses like no other place. It is probable that most of us will have set foot in a picture house over the course of our lives, so it is something we can all relate to. Once there were local cinemas everywhere in the UK. Hundreds, in fact. Now you would be hard-pressed to find many of them because they no longer exist.

I still remember the red brick cinema building. It wasn’t, in my opinion, the prettiest of creations, but it had character. A pleasant way of saying it was a good solid building that did what it said on the programme. Spacious and intrinsically functional, it was at the time of building, a modern spectacle for all to enjoy. Attractive in its own way. Not far from the ABC cinema in Queensway (also gone), it was one of quite a few purpose built cinemas in the area at the time of opening. And although it wasn’t one I frequented much, as perhaps I did the Kensington Odeon, or the ABC Queensway, it was a local building I was familiar with.

 

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The Odeon Westbourne Grove opened its doors to the public in 1955. It filled an otherwise unremarkable spot on the corner of Westbourne Grove and Chepstow Road and was a welcome social pastime addition for the Bayswater and Notting Hill population. Interestingly, the cinema was planned at a much earlier stage than when it was completed. The Odeon Theatre was the conception of the Oscar Deutsch Theatres Ltd chain in 1937. Oscar Deutsch was the cinema owner and film exhibitor who founded the Odeon franchise. The first five Odeons opened in 1933. By 1936 he had opened 142 cinemas.

 

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The initial plan was to build a 2,050 seat cinema to the design of architect Andrew Mather. But subsequently, it was decided to reduce that to 1,870 seats with some building work beginning in 1938. Although planning permission was granted in the spring of 1939 to complete the cinema, the outbreak of war in September halted the process.

Below you can see how the ODEON letter signage has already been removed. Signs generally, were often lit in neon at night. It was Oscar Deutsch’s desire that his cinemas be eye-catching and this use of lighting was particularly effective.

Ironically, the telephone boxes you see outside the entrance have also been relegated to the past. With the advent of more personal – though I use that word loosely – communication devices, the iconic red telephone box, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, are few and far between now. I think some are still maintained in London, purely as British iconic designs, like the red post box, and London’s Routemaster buses.

 

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The interior of the Odeon Westbourne Grove was practical without many design frills. It was contemporary and simple. The space was enormous. At least it seemed that way to me. Initially only having one screen to entertain the potential 1,870 customers, it has to be said, functional, comes to mind again.

 

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The view towards the other end of the Foyer. At the time of closure, the cinema had three screens. The colour scheme you see here is probably not unfamiliar to cinema goers of the time. Deutsch’s wife Lily was usually a consultant on the colour schemes for a lot of his cinemas. The wooden doors and panelling were made from Sapeli mahogany. The colour palate used in the soft furnishings, such as the carpet, apparently were a combination of Indian-red, powder-blue and straw-pink. Carpet was standard for most cinemas and still is. Some even boasted settees and other decorative furniture in art deco designs – comfort away from home. During the ‘smoking allowed’ epoch (a number of decades), it wasn’t long before the stale smell of cigarette smoke clung to the furnishings. Ash-stands were not an uncommon part of the scenery.

 

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The programme for the opening of the Odeon Westbourne Grove on 29th August 1955 lists the following:

  • National Anthem
  • Opening ceremony by the Mayor of Paddington, Councillor Miss Catherine P. Rabagliati
  • Jack Hawkins on stage
  • Universal News
  • The film screening of “Doctor at Sea” starring Dirk Bogarde (incidentally, my mother-in-law’s favourite actor)

You can see below in the main auditorium the typical raked design of the seats. It was meant to obviously enhance an obstacle free view of the screen. A given for most large cinemas. The auditorium was quite plain, but much of it was panelled in special acoustic tiling to ensure a good sound quality that could be enjoyed throughout the theatre. At the time of building, the Odeon’s main and only screen was…

“of a revolutionary new type, and the widening of the proscenium arch to accommodate its 46ft width is one of the major changes made from the pre-war plans. This screen gives the most brilliant black and white pictures ever shown and sets a new standard of beauty and realism in colour film preservation. Its size and shape can be instantly altered by variable black ‘masking’ operated by press button control.”

The screen curtain had sewn sequins on it. With the right lighting they would twinkle. A small luxury for an otherwise practical, well-equipped cinema.

The best twinkles I think I ever saw were at the Empire, West End, before it was turned into a multi-screen.

 

 

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No cinema can function without its projectors. The first projector used at the Odeon Westbourne Grove, was the Gaumont Kalee 21 projector.

 

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I’m not sure what this is, or its function. I have very little knowledge of the technical terms for a lot of these interesting mechanisms, I’m hoping a cinema aficionado will perhaps enlighten me. It looks like an organ without the keys, but plausibly it looks more like a lighting or sound controlling device.

 

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How to rewind a film? Or at least that is what I think is happening in this next image. It reminds me in some small way of our microfilm readers, but on a massive scale. Macrofilm. Or is this really a long-play turntable?

 

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The scale of the projector is clearly posed here. When you consider how much smaller and more advanced our technology has become, this almost seems excessive. With the advent of digital cinema, we now look upon these remarkable instruments as museum pieces. Projectionists too were no longer required once automation came into play in cinema projection booths. It almost seems blasphemous.

 

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The projector again, this time with a 35mm film reel attached.

 

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Although initially the cinema boasted one large screen, it was temporarily closed in December 1978 for tripling. Something that nearly all cinemas succumbed to, to maximise profit. In March 1983 the Odeon itself was later taken over by Panton Films Ltd, and re-named Coronet Cinema. The same company that operated the Coronet, Notting Hill. However, this was short-lived. By June 1986 the cinema was closed for the last time.

Below you can just about make out the posters for the films last shown there: “Delta Force”, “To Live and Die in LA” and “Jewel in the Nile”.

 

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The beginning of the end.

When I consider the recent closure of the Odeon Kensington I am reminded that the cinemas of old are vulnerable. How many can be left? Unfortunately, these old theatres are gradually losing out to our ever inventive technology and the developers bulldozers. It would seem that video didn’t just kill the radio star, it also started a home cinema revolution. We can even watch films on our mobile phones now, that’s how fast technology moves.

By 1939, Oscar Deutsch had built and taken over many cinemas, including his flagship cinema in London’s West End, naming and renaming them Odeon. By this point they were equal to the Gaumont and ABC. Two of the longest established circuits in the country. In 1941 Oscar Deutsch died at the age of 48 from cancer. His ambition had been to take over the rival Gaumont chain and to expand abroad, but this was left to the man who succeeded him as chairman of Odeon Theatres, J. Arthur Rank; the man-with-the-gong symbolising the finest in screen entertainment.

 

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 A shadow of its former self. And yet you can almost imagine that opening night with the lights and the buzz of the excited crowd:

“Tonight the lights go up and the doors are opened at the latest theatre to join the J. Arthur Rank Organisation’s proud family of more than 550 ODEON and GAUMONT cinemas in Britain.”

It couldn’t be more different in this image.

 

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Of course, there were protests by the local residents. But it was to no avail. The site was sold for re-development and the building was demolished in October 1986. In its place is a block of flats with a few shops on the ground level.

Finally, I will conclude with this interesting acronym I found online:

ODEON = Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation

That he did, for many years.

 

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Postscript:

A few cinemas still exist, just about, so they are not confined to the past (yet); I would hope that we can at least preserve what is left. But is that realistic?

It seems to me that those that remain and survive are always undergoing ‘upgrades’. Much tweaking has been afoot in the last few years technologically. The multi-screen attempt to attract more customers is no longer enough to keep the customers visiting, forcing some cinemas to bump up their ticket prices. In some cases, extortionately. Large one screen auditoriums were soon done away with and divided up to keep up with the increasing demand for more variety and profit. Now, with the advent of the internet, streaming, and home cinema, we have opted for a more personal experience with regards to watching films. Our viewing habits have changed so much we barely recognise what it is to concentrate on one thing at a time. There’s so much choice now the mind boggles.

I don’t know whether it is missing buildings, people, or both that feeds that nostalgia for what was. One cannot stop things from changing and evolving. It would seem it is the natural order of things. But at what point do we need to think about striking a balance?

I realise that there are cine-files who have excellent knowledge regarding the history of these fascinating picture houses, so if I have made any errors I do apologise. I am really not a tech expert, so I have kept that aspect of film to a minimum. In a short post such as this I have simply provided a few facts obtained from several sources to compliment the photographs. Perhaps at some point I will also write about the Kensington Odeon. We have very few images unfortunately, so it would be a very, very short one.

Meanwhile, I will continue to visit the occasional cinema for old time’s sake, and try not to strangle the person behind me kicking the chair, or the one rustling with crisp packets, popcorn buckets, and slurping through straws as they shake the ice at the bottom of their plastic cups for the duration of the film. When you’ve been spoilt like we have with the home cinema experience, getting used to behaving around others in a cinema setting is probably not a consideration remotely within the sphere of social etiquette for some. But then, where would cinemas be if all we did was complain? Anyone fancy the IMAX Experience? They’ll throw in the 3D glasses as part of the deal. I draw the line at Smell-O-Vision though. 4D may be the latest craze, but I blame William Castle for the ideas. Ultimately, it all goes back to cinema’s heyday. Nostalgia, you see.

 

 


Horse locomotion: at the Hippodrome

Among the many William Luker illustrations to Loftie’s Kensington: Picturesque and Historical  is this one. At this size it just looks like a mound or hill with a small crowd of people and a few horses. But click on the image and look at it in a larger form.

 

 

This is the Hippodrome, and this is one of the few illustrations which gives a sense of the hill and what it must have been like to see it from ground level. (This is the hill on the summit of which St John’s Church now stands.)

Some of you will have heard of it before. Its story has been told before in many places, but for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Kensington’s famous race course, today I’ll give you a brief version of the tale.

It’s gone now,of course, utterly vanished, but here is where it was:

 

 

This is the Davies map of London from 1841, the first to show the main rail lines into central London. The area north of Notting Hill Gate / Uxbridge Road is barely developed and you can see just south of the railway line the two farms Portobello Farm (just off Portobello Lane) and Notting Barn Farm.

 

 

Given the Hippodrome’s brief life span, we’re lucky it made it onto the map. Counter’s Creek flows freely to the west of the Hippodrome grounds and the area known as the Potteries nestles against them. Just the sort of area for setting up a sporting enterprise.The area was part of the Ladbroke Estate and in 1836 it was optimistically leased by a Mr John Whyte foe a period of 21 years.

 

 

On paper perhaps it looked like a decent proposition. Plenty of space – it was laid out for flat racing and steeple chasing, and the area was expanded to accommodate different distances. There was room for stabling horses and carriages and as you can see below it was fine for a young man to drive a young lady there in his new carriage and pair.

 

 

Room for plenty of enthusiastic spectators too.  Saying it was in Bayswater added a certain cachet to the name. So close to London you see. No need to go to Epsom.

 

There were one or two legal issues. A right of way went through the grounds, which the Vestry has ordered Whyte to keep open. This allowed an uncouth crowd of locals and other malcontents to gain free access. Eventually the course was altered so as not to obstruct the pathway.

On the plan below you can see that the entrance path stretched all the way to what is now Pembridge Road.

 

 

Barbara Denny, in her book on Notting Hill records that the path became known as Cut-Throat Lane because of the many instances of robbery committed along it.  (although we must remember that street robbery was not uncommon in the outer parts of London . The area known as the Five Fields in Knightsbridge was notorious for violent crime too.

We have a series of prints depicting the racing at the Hippodrome.

 

 

This shows the high fence that was erected around the ground, (to exclude, in the word of my constant companion the Survey of London “the rude and licentious populace” of the neighbourhood,) The smoking kiln in the background reminds us how close the Potteries area was.

 

 

Some chaotic jumping, and below a fallen horse.

 

 

Unfortunately the going was never too good because of the clay soil.

Below a rider is unseated at the Brook.

 

 

You will have noticed that the horses are depicted with all their legs outstretched in what is known as a “flying gallop”. This was a convention of horse pictures which can be seen in ancient pictures of horses in motion and in the work of the 18th century painter of horses and other animals, George Stubbs. Slow motion moving pictures were not available in the days of the Hippodrome, so while it’s easy for us to say things like “horses just don’t do that”, it wasn’t actually obvious to the naked eye.

The first person to prove otherwise was the pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge who devised a method of taking a number of pictures in rapid succession which captured the actuality of horse locomotion.

 

 

Below is a jump.

 

 

His work also gave rise to an early form of motion pictures, the zoopraxiscope, which could project these images in rapid succession creating the illusion of movement. An early form of stop  motion filming. Kingston Museum has a special collection of Muybridge material including an actual zoopraxiscope.

Even Luker, who was certainly around when Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion was published keeps this convention up in this close up of his illustration. The crowd of spectators looks carefree. By Luker’s day the Hippodrome was a picturesque memory.

 

 

 

 

After 13 race meetings the Hippodrome was wound up. A new proprietor took over but the final race took place in June 1841. The developers moved in and Notting Hill as we know it today came into existence. But that memory of the Hipodrome remains as an example of how in early and mid -19th century times, Londoners had an urge for outdoor entertainments which only grew as the century progressed.


Backwaters 3

This is another of those posts about the quiet streets of the late 1960s and early 1970s featuring pictures taken by our roving photographer John Rogers. Some of these images are nearly fifty years old now, which certainly gives me pause, as I contemplate my own mortality. (Not to be morbid or anything.)

 

 

John has to be standing in the middle of the road here at the western end of Bomore Road with a view of one of the towers of the Silchester Estate in the background. All is quiet with barely a car on the street.

Here is a nice view of some varied brickwork.

 

 

And here, the corner of Avondale Park Road.

 

 

Note Lily’s Toy’s and Novelty Goods  (prop. A.  Bridges)  with its makeshift table of stuff outside. How much passing trade did they get, I wonder?

There is some life in Bomore Road though.

 

 

Can’t quite make them out? Allow me:

 

 

A couple of sisters happen by on their way home from school. How do I know they’re sisters? Well the fact is I’ve spoken to one of them. Her sister found out somehow that John had accidentally caught them on camera, and she came in to get a printout of the photo, which I did. for her. It was she who told me the anecdote which ended up in a post from the early days of the blog. This kind of thing has happened more often than you’d think.

 

 

So the theme of this post is not empty streets (which I am fond of), but passers by. Above, a woman with a perm, a Mark 1 Cortina (those rear lights) and Star Radio. (“The shop that buys anything” Anything? Really? I wonder if they sold everything too?) Norland Road, by the way.

A man pauses under the awning.

 

 

Is he thinking about BACON, or on his way for a haircut? I like the glasshouse structure you can just see on the left at the rear of the building.

 

 

Almost a crowd by backwater standards. The Stewart Arms has a slightly plain exterior. The van with the open door is in the process of dropping off some Mother’s Pride bread. And the woman is in a hurry, seemingly oblivious of John.

Something more elaborate  further east in Moscow Road.

 

 

 

A lone young man passes The Leinster. Is he about to swerve and go in? Or not?

 

 

Back west in Murchison Road, another girl is about to leave or enter her house. I’ve never met her. Or perhaps I have. Not everyone is interested in old photographs.

Even further off the main road was Munro Mews

 

 

Munro Mews was of those slightly run down streets which seem in retrospect to be mostly occupied by people doing things with motor vehicles, servicing them on an amateur or professional basis,

 

 

Gathering up old tyres, or just abandoning cars and vans.

The mews was more of an alley.

 

 

And this trio are the real stars of the show, weary but confident travellers almost certainly on their way home.

(And what about the pile of crated milk bottles by the wall at the back?)

 

 

It’s possible to read all sort of situations into the three girls. Are the two standing together best friends, with the other only tolerated, or more likely, is it an entirely random moment of walking down the street, all three living in the same street? Are two of them sisters?

So you know what I have to ask. Do you recognize anyone? Is one of them a friend of yours, or a relative? Or is one of them you? I’m no longer surprised by coincidence. I almost expect it now.

But even if all the people in these pictures remain unknown, these are still good photographs.

 

Postscript

It’s not really my place to pay tribute to John Cunliffe, the creator of Postman Pat, who died recently, but Pat Clifton (did you know his surname?) loomed large in our house at one point, on VHS videos, played incessantly, and in wool form brought to life by my late mother-in-law, Jean. The wool version of Pat still sits on the shelf of a wardrobe along with ancient bears and a blue hippo, but all that is left of the monstrous giant version of Jess the cat  is a head, somewhere in another cupboard. Alas, poor Jess. And thank you to John Cunliffe.

 

 


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