Dave Hucker's History Part 3: FROM THE EDWARDIAN TO THE AVANTE-GARDE
(By Dave Hucker.)
February 27th 1911 is the day the Electric Cinema opened on the site of a former timber yard at 191 Portobello Road. The Notting Hill Electric Cinema Theatre was pioneering the new phenomena of Kinematography. Films had been shown in the area but as one- off shows at halls and exhibitions, and as added attractions at music halls, such as the Shepherds Bush Empire, where the young W.C.Fields once appeared. But in those days of highly inflammable nitrate-based film stock, questions arose about the safety of audiences. The first permanent custom built cinema in Kensington was the Picture Palace on Kensington High Street, which opened in 1909 and closed in 1944.
So in November 1910, on the premises of W.J. Horseman’s Timber Yard, building of the Electric began. At this time Charlie Chaplin was still serving in Fred Kano’s Army and “Birth Of A Nation” was still a notion in D.W.Griffith’s head. Cinemas were moving into a new era, no longer part of an exhibition, circus or music hall but specially constructed buildings where films became fully-fledged entertainment in their own right.
Designed by Gerald Seymour Valentin, The Electric Cinema conformed to the highest contemporary standards. Safety features including an enclosed projection room with a large skylight contraption above the projectors that meant if there was a fire, soldered fuses in cables would break and the windows would drop open to ventilate the smoke. It had fire escapes, raked permanent seating and a large screen which was a flat, plaster surface on the wall, painted white and enclosed in a molded proscenium arch. The fake proscenium brought the focal point of the design to the front enclosing the square screen, ratio 1:1.33.
The shell of the building was brick, faced at the front with white glazed terra cotta tiles. A cantilevered iron frame supported the slate roof and a barrel-vaulted ceiling with fireproof plaster molding, each panel outlined with a decorative frieze and painted ribbons.
Sound was not a concern at that time so the design did not bother with any acoustical necessities, unlike the music halls of pre- amplification days, where clarity of natural sound was important.
There was only one projector as films were generally no longer than 10 minutes. Only with the development of longer films was it necessary to use two projectors so that changeovers from reel to reel were possible.
Electricity was still a novelty in this period and Portobello Road was proud of its recent conversion. So it was only natural that the first film venue should be called the Electric Cinema. This was the popular name for a building showing the latest films.
In fact there were three Electric Cinemas in Kensington. One was in Drayton Gardens – it opened in 1911 in a converted Church hall, later renamed The Paris Pullman, sadly now demolished. Marlon Brando’s The Wild One was a staple Saturday late night there for years because it was banned at the time. Another was in Notting Hill Gate – which showed “News Reels and Popular Cinema” it was renamed The Classic, but is now the Gate. The Electric in Portobello Road opened with a film of Sir Henry Tree’s performance as Henry VIII filmed at His Majesty’s Theatre. Electric Cinemas marked the point when films were shown exclusively in cinemas.
The original Electric Portobello Road had 600 seats – the congestion in the foyer and toilets must have been unimaginable! The design of purpose built cinemas was still at an embryonic stage and only later were large foyers, auditoriums, toilets and the idea of comfort built to accommodate the huge audiences. Going to the cinema was the major source of entertainment and information for most of the population.
In 1911 Valentin could not have foreseen the new picture palaces and the dizzy heights of design that cinemas would attain. In eight years the Electric was already out of date – moving pictures were no longer just a novelty but had achieved a greater sophistication and attracted a mass audience. In 1919, in an attempt to match up to this new image, where cinemas were given emotion stirring names like The Majestic, The Galaxy, The Capital, The Dominion and so on, the Electric became The Imperial. But it still operated as a local cinema with a classic repertory programme of three different double bills a week: Sunday, Monday to Wednesday, and Thursday to Saturday. In common with the many other cinemas throughout Britain it formed the backbone of the flourishing British film industry.
When the cinema first opened admission was 3d [appx 1.25p] which included a bun and an orange. In 1946 just after the war when people were going out again and the best tickets were 1/9d [appx 8.75p], the Imperial was attracting weekly admissions of 3- 4000 people (giving it a weekly take £100 - £150) but that was the highpoint. In the 50’s admissions declined dramatically and the fabric of the building began to deteriorate. The local audience dwindled, especially with the post war opening of the swanky new Odeon in Westbourne Grove. The Imperial was forced to stick to the tried and tested formula of three changes a week but showing not only third and fourth but thousand-run films. The restrictive practices of the industries ‘barring’ system meant the big chains creamed off the new film business for themselves and left the breadcrumbs to independents. The distributors also tightened their belts and demanded that an independent cinema book a film for a minimum of 6 days at a minimum price, to maximize their profits at the expense of the exhibitor. The old repertory cinemas were effectively destroyed by the industry that had grown on the back of them.
But the Imperial was lucky, it survived by supplying a place to sleep after the pubs shut in the afternoon, and it was cheap....on the screen flashed a never-ending supply of Audie Murphy westerns and George Raft gangster flicks. A clause in the lease stipulated the building was always to remain in use as a cinema and could not be let as a bingo hall, converted to a supermarket or some other use. Mr Hyams, the owner, also had a soft spot for it, as it was his first cinema and he was not interested in selling. It did eventually pass on to different owners after his death.
By 1950 the cinema’s fate had been sealed. The Kensington directory described it as the “lesser-known Imperial, which can offer some unique specimens of the Western variety, dear to the hearts of the younger residents of the area and ‘out of circuit’ bookings of current films”.
The other local cinema The Royalty, on the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Lancaster Road, turned to Bingo. The Imperial, now rather dilapidated and universally known among locals as the ‘bughole’ limped into the 60’s. It was not unique...places like the now demolished Tolmer Cinema, in Tolmer Square off Euston Road, was another fleapit on a grand scale. This was the kind of old cinema where young film critics such as David Thompson and Phillip French went to see films they were too young to see on their original release, and films you could not see anywhere else - it was low-rent cinema city.
But as someone once observed ‘the times they are a changing’.
The old guards of the film distributors were being invaded by younger and more passionate movers and shakers straight out of university film clubs. They had been exposed to a vast number of foreign language and specialist films but there were no screens or repertory outlets attuned to the times. The National Film Theatre under the guiding hand of Richard Roud had broken new ground as far as it could, but a totally new generation of film fans had been staggering up the steps at Waterloo to take on the Napoleons of the largely moribund British Film Industry. By the end of the 60’s a lot of films were sitting on distributors shelves, because of limited box office appeal, refusal by the censor, or cost of getting a BBFC certificate.
This coincided with North Kensington becoming a hippy/freak centre – the Haight Ashbury of London.
An enterprising local called John McWilliams hired the cheap and run down Imperial for Saturday late night shows catering for the hippies and showing “Alternative Cinema”. He called it the Electric Cinema Club. He wanted to show Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin but it was only on 16mm so a young man from the distributors, and a graduate of those university cinema clubs, brought along a 16mm projector to show the film on. That was Peter Howden, who went on to run and programme the Electric.
By 1969 the Imperial was at an all time low. The heating was virtually non-existent. If you sat on the wrong seat – it was benches then – the whole row could collapse. When it rained half of the cinema had to be roped off. The projection was erratic and the interval music came from a 78rpm record player. The Electric Cinema Club expanded to Friday and Saturday and by 1970 was taking as much money on its late night weekend shows as the Imperial was taking all week. So on December 13th 1970 the Electric Cinema Club went full time and took over the Imperial. The few, old clientele had been impervious to all the changes, but a new audience was prepared to brave the elements and position – Portobello Road was well off the beaten track in those days, and the area still very run down.
£1000 was borrowed to get going and put in some heating. A new sound system and projectors were put in – they were from Winston Churchill’s private screening room at Chartwell and had hardly been used. The seating was also replaced and carpets fitted.
The first film shown was Luis Bunuel’s black comedy “The Criminal Life Of Archibaldo De La Cruz” A bewildering array of films followed from Flash Gordon serials to foreign language classics, all rubbing shoulders with Roger Corman, Jean Genet, Kenneth Anger and a cast of Hollywood thousands. An innovation came with all-night shows of Sci-Fi, Hitchcock, and music movies. It was with much irony that the Electric showed many Michael Powell films on these projectors including “The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp” and “Peeping Tom”, films Churchill had hated.
The building may have been run down but it was essentially unaltered from its original appearance. The standard renovations of most cinemas in the 50’s had been by-passed, mainly because it would have involved spending money. The proscenium arch remained, despite the advent of widescreen and cinemascope ratios, and there was still gas-lit secondary lighting as well.
In 1972 a preservation order had been placed on the whole block bordered by Portobello and Kensington Park Roads, and Elgin and Blenheim Crescents, to prevent demolition. A huge supermarket was proposed for the area, and luckily the Electric sat within this block.
A cinema with a similar design to the Electric, but then being used as a warehouse, was described by an architectural expert as typical of buildings now “rarer than Roman Villas in Britain”.
A large-scale refurbishment costing £50,000 happened in the late 70’s, paid for by Richard Davies, a son of the inventor of Letraset. In came new Cinemeccania projectors, the same as in the NFT... the Churchill projectors being donated to the Cinema Museum. A modern sound system was installed with a speaker that sat behind the screen rather than the old, ungainly box that sat to one side. Brand new art deco-looking seats were installed, along with a new carpet.
Compared to the grandeur of cinemas built in the 20’s and 30’s, Valentin’s Electric is a well-preserved example of simple Edwardian baroque architecture, and was at that time the oldest surviving custom-built cinema in England. It also had never closed its doors.
The Electric Cinema has had a very colourful history; During the First World War there were riots outside because although the company that owned it was English, the shareholders were German, and there was a lot of anti-German feeling in the area at the time.
Also shops owned by people with Eastern European names had their windows broken.
At one time it had a manager who also ran a glue factory, and would allegedly accept a jar of cod heads as price of admission. It was claimed that mass-murder John Christie was a one-time projectionist but there is no proof of this. He may have been a part- time projectionist at the Royalty, which was closer to Rillington Place. It is known he was a doorman at a cinema in Hammersmith though.
The projectionist from the 1940’s to the 70’s was a Polish wireless operator whose ship had been sunk in the Thames Estuary – he was only ever known as Chief.
After the Electric Cinema Cub closed down in the 1983 a number of owners came and went and unfortunately the cinema went dark, much to the despair of us fans.
Eventually it was rescued and is now part of the Soho House group who have integrated it into the private members club and restaurant next door. After a recent refurbishment it has a row of loungers/beds forming the front row. The hippies would have loved them.
I worked at the Electric in its heyday during the 70’s. I started off as assistant manager to Peter Howden, and went on to design the printed programmes. I repainted the interior, and looked after the building and equipment, repairing projectors, unblocking the toilets etc. I originally wrote this history for the Electric’s 70th Birthday. I have revised it slightly.