Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Can Paris offer new hope for an old cinema in Lichfield?

The former Regal Cinema in Tamworth Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

About a week ago, The Economist published a news story about the Louxor Palais du Cinema, north-west of the Gare du Nord in Paris, which was once one of the jewels of Egyptian-inspired art deco. It opened in 1921, boasting pillars, papyrus motifs and pharaohs’ heads – and with an auditorium that could seat almost 1,200 people.

The Economist recalls that this was the heyday of silent movies of the sort that The Artist” has brought back to life. However, after World War II, the cinema fell on hard times, and the Louxor screened its last movie in 1983 before Pathé sold the building to a retail firm that had plans for a store. But the plans never saw the light of day because the Louxor’s exotic façade had been listed for preservation. From 1987 the building stood empty.

Two pressure groups were formed in 2001 to regenerate the Louxor and to raise the tone of the neighbourhood. Paris City Hall bought the site, work began on restoring the Louxor to its original glory, and three years and €25 million later, the Louxor re-opened earlier this month [18 April] with Grandmaster, a Chinese martial-arts movie, as its first showing.

This news must surely give hope and succour to the people in Lichfield who are campaigning to save the Regal Cinema at 23-27 Tamworth Street.

The Regal Cinema opened on 18 July 1932 with Maisie Gay in The Old Man and Shirley Dale in The Begger Student. It was designed by the Birmingham-based architect Harold Seymour Scott, who was one of the directors of the independent operating company.

Like the Louxor in Paris, the external and internal styles of the Regal were described as a “delicate” Egyptian, Art Deco style. There was seating in the auditorium for 1,300 people, with 1,000 people in the stalls and another 300 in the circle. The proscenium was 40 ft wide, and the cinema also had its own café.

By November 1932, the cinema had been leased to the County Cinemas chain. It was taken over briefly by the Oscar Deutsch chain of Odeon Theatres Ltd in September 1939, but it was back in the hands of the original independent owners by around 1941.

In August 1943, it was taken over by the Associated British Cinemas (ABC) chain, which operated the Regal Cinema until July 1969. The Star Cinemas chain then took over. Part time bingo was introduced on several nights a week, and on 10 July 1974, the Regal Cinema screened its final film; Bruce Lee in The Big Boss. The Regal then became the Star Bingo Club.

The building was sold in the late 1970s, and became a KwikSave supermarket, with a snooker club in the former café area.

By 2008, the building was ‘For Sale’ or ‘To Let’ for leisure use.

Proposals to demolish the auditorium and to build an hotel on the site, retaining the Regal Cinema’s facade as the entrance, were put forward in February 2010. Planning consent was granted for the partial demolition and new build of the premises to create a bar and restaurant and a 104-bedroom hotel, with associated facilities.

However, in the three years since then, no work has been carried out on the proposed hotel.

Last July, Anna Coley started a Facebook page, “Restore the Regal Cinema, Lichfield!” Around the same time, Adam Bradley organised a petition for the restoration of the Regal Cinema “to its former glory.” By the time the petition closed, it had been signed by more than 80 people. br />
Lichfield District Council points out that “planning permission has been granted for a new cinema as part of the new Friarsgate Scheme, which should satisfy the demand for a cinema in the local area.” However, the argument is not simply about the need for a cinema for Lichfield and the surrounding catchment area. It is about the conservation of a unique and beautiful building that is part of Lichfield’s architectural heritage.

If this was Tudor-era cinema in Bore Street, a Georgian-era cinema in Bird Street, or a Victorian-era cinema in Beacon Street, the case for its preservation would be quite clear. Is art deco architecture less valued because it only dates from the 1930s?

The blogger, Brownhills Bob points out that The Regal is the only Art Deco building left standing in Lichfield since the Robin Hood on the corner of Saint John Street and Frog Lane was demolished. It was also built in the 1930s, replacing an earlier pub dating back to the 1790s. In his book on The Old Pubs of Lichfield (2001/2007), John Shaw recalls the names changes it went through, including City Gate, City Frog and Funky Frog, before being demolished in October 2000 to make way for new apartments on the site. Part of the Art Deco Burton building at 26 Market Street dates from about 1938, when the foundation stones were laid, but the ground floor has since been replaced with later shopfronts.

In August 2009, the MP for Lichfield, Michael Fabricant, gave a cautious backing to plans to transform the former Regal and KwikSave site into an hotel. He told the Lichfield Blog at the time that his only concern was that any new hotel would not interfere with the city’s skyline. At the time, he thought any idea of bringing a cinema back to the site was an unlikely scenario.

Then, last September, he called a meeting in the Guildhall to discuss the future of the former Regal Cinema. At the time, he said: “I have been blown-out by the response to my suggestion that the Regal should be restored as a specialist single-screen cinema in the city. The enthusiasm for the idea has been incredible.”

He went on to say on his webiste: “Yes, I know that we will have a multi-screen cinema in the City in a few years’ time, but specialist cinemas also have their place showing a combination of new releases and classic movies. A specialist cinema can have custom seating with tables to allow drink, including alcohol bought at the cinema, and food to be enjoyed while watching a good movie. It enhances the cinema going experience. Independent cinemas are a success in places as far afield as Belper in Derbyshire and Tywyn in Gwynedd. There is no reason why a well-managed private cinema shouldn't be a success in Lichfield too.”

A new club showing movies in Lichfield twice a month screens its inaugural film at 7.30 tomorrow evening [Wednesday, 1 May] in Wade Street Hall, beginning with a cutting edge eco-documentary Drying For Freedom.

Lichfield Film is the brainchild of Lucy Beth, who told the Lichfield People website: “The lack of cinema in Lichfield is something which is constantly discussed … Lichfield Film aims to bring a relaxed cinematic experience to the city.”

Although the former Civic Hall frequently shows films and movies are occasionally billed as part of the Lichfield Festival, the city has been without a permanent cinema since the Regal closed.

The calls for restoring the Regal have received an overwhelming response in recent months in letters to the Lichfield Gazette.

The Regal Cinema site shown on the papers submitted with the planning application to Lichfield District Council

Planning permission for the new hotel runs out in September. That means work on the plans could still proceed, and that the company has until September to start turning the Regal into an hotel.

What happens if work does not begin by September? The planning permission runs out, and hopefully an order will made for the preservation and restoration not only of the exterior but for restoring the interior too, and for the use of the building once again as a cinema and perhaps as a community arts centre too.

To see the petition go to:

http://petitions.lichfielddc.gov.uk/CinemaRebirth/

The Facebook campaign to save the Regal Cinema is at:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/372682976131548/

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