THE ELECTRIC’S FAITHFUL FLICKER LONDON’S LONGEST PICTURE SHOW
(by Minty Clinch LAM 1981.)
Happy Birthday to the Electric Cinema, seventy years old next Friday – which makes it the longest-serving purpose-built cinema still screening in Britain. Even better, since it crept off the drawing board into bricks and mortar in November 1910 and opened to the public as a silent cinema on February 27th, 1911, it has never closed, intrepidly showing films, even through two world wars.
In those early days, the Electric Cinema Theatre, as it was called to distinguish it from such non-electrified rivals as the Biograph and the Coronet (both which predate it but only in theatrical guise), had a single projector which limited programmes to one-reelers interspersed with stand-up comics who performed on the tiny stage that still stands to the right of the screen. The musical accompaniment came from metal records, hand wound on a period turntable. Patrons paid three-pence for admission, a bun and an orange, or they could bring a jar of cod’s heads, an acceptable alternative to a manager who ran a glue factory as a side-line.
Come World War I, the cinema fell into disrepute because its German manager allegedly signalled to the Zeppelins from the roof. Accordingly it was regularly stoned by xenophobic locals until the unwelcome alien disappeared leaving the question “did he run or was a fatally pushed?”, forever unanswered. Towards the end of the hostilities, the Electric acquired its second projector and so was able to celebrate peace with such early masterpieces as DW Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation.
In 1919 the cinema was renamed the Imperial Playhouse Theatre, in tune with a post-war fashion for regals and royals and similar expressions of superior status. Audiences boomed in a Notting Hill Gate, which was smarter then than now. Though respectable folk would no doubt have been horrified to know that John Christie, notorious killer of 10 Rillington Place, worked there as a projectionist for a year during World War II, and may have set out on his murderous sorties when the doors closed.
During the late Forties, in the brief heyday before television invaded every home, the Imperial lived through its finest hours, seating up to 5,000 people a week, before sliding into decline in the Fifties and degeneracy in the Sixties when it provided a temporary refuge for drunks, dossers and snoggers whose interest was in anything but the films. The floors were uncarpeted, the auditorium unheated, the upholstery unwholesome and the screen, the last in London to go “wide”, all good reasons from the distributors’ point of view, to refuse to supply first or second run pictures.
At this stage, the cinema might well have gone under had it not been lucky enough to attract the attention of Peter Howden. He took it over for late night and weekend screenings, rechristening it the Electric at these times and made it the grandfather of alternative cinema (now expanded to include the Scala, Ritzy etc.) in the process. He managed to get a preservation order on the premises to prevent a change of use, eliminated Imperial forever by taking over full-time and edged painstakingly towards security and the current degree of comfort.
Heating and carpeting came in the early Seventies, to be followed later in the decade by brand new custom built “old fashioned” seats and last year by the best sound system money can buy, a necessity in a purpose-built silent cinema whose handsome high-vaulted ceiling pays little heed to acoustics).
Today the Electric, very much in its original state, works surprisingly well for a cinema that was constructed on highly experimental designs, comparing favourably as far as sight lines are concerned with the little boxes built in todays multi-auditoria boom. It is regularly called on when television needs a period piece, notably in Upstairs, Downstairs and in a thirteen-part series on the Golden Age of Cinema “shown almost everywhere but in Britain) which Douglas Fairbanks Junior introduced each week against a backdrop of its ornately plastered walls.
As its imaginative programming suggests, the Electric is run by dedicated buffs (even the cleaner has a one hour film to his credit) who are prepared to struggle to keep it open without any form of grant. Its young manager, Geoff Andrew, put it like this: “If it came to the crunch, we’d have to go for one but we prefer to have no strings attached.” He traced the Electric’s development away from the underground and rock cinema, so popular ten years ago, towards the historical perspective they offer today. The show silent, unfashionable Thirties and Forties Hollywoods, Europeans eminent and otherwise, Greed one day, Bresson the next, Texas Chainsaw Massacre the next, as eclectic a collection as you’ll find anywhere in town. Thrillers are the most reliable crowd-pullers, according to Geoff and other bankers include Herzog, Fellini and Godard (but not Bergman), Dietrich, Garbo, Jagger in Performance, plus anything Japanese.
It’s typical of the Electric that the birthday celebrations (starting March 1st) feature none of these, instead offering a trio of documentaries. Gate of Heaven, “a lunatic American gimmick in the Herzog style” sending up pets’ cemeteries shows for the first two weeks with Joe Albany – A Jazz Life, about the Forties pianist whose liking for drugs put him in prison (also featuring Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday). Next comes Model, Frederick Wiseman’s look at the urban sophistication of a New York agency, followed by the fourth and last week by Nicholas Ray’s classic Bigger Than Life, starring James Mason as a drug addict.
Which only leaves me to wish the Electric, once again, many happy returns as “the friendliest cinema in London”.