THE ELECTRIC’S SPARK FADES OUT...
(By Ed Vulliamy, The Observer 1987.)
Ed Vulliamy on the long-loved, historically important cinema that has seen as much drama off screen as on.
An inauspicious advertisement appeared in the “Shops” section of the London Evening Standard classified ads last March: "Cinema/Hall Portobello Road. To let/for Sale".
It was placed by a Bond Street estate agent, Wogman’s, acting for a Panama-registered property company, Safeland. Wogman’s literature called the property a “Unique Cinema/Theatre/Hall – possible use as a discotheque/club/theme restaurant etc ... could accommodate a mezzanine floor.”
The advertising refers to a Grade II listed historic building, one of the loveliest cinema theatres in the country and a strikingly elaborate and original piece of Edwardian architecture – The Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, Notting Hill. Last month, the English Heritage monuments commission up-graded the Electric to a “II Star” rating – the highest for a 20th century building. The memo of amendment extended the listing to include the exterior, with its “baroque-style swags over the central window”, as well as the interior.
The Electric Cinema is nearly 80 years old, but tow years go this month it was shut and bolted, its uninterrupted history of showing films truncated.
Richard Gray, secretary of the Cinema Museums association, calls the Electric “a very important building – it was one of the longest running cinemas in London. It is the right size for the area, and I see no reason why it should not run”.
Gray accuses the Electric’s one-time owner, Romaine Hart, of having “destroyed its atmosphere” before it was closed. One of those most vocal in the cinema’s cause is Don Letts, the film-maker and member of Big Audio Dynamite band, who has been going there for fifteen years. “What I loved about Notting Hill was all that mixture of creativity: now its all wine bars. The Electric was the last real creative, artistic venue. If I had the money, I’d buy it tomorrow, and I’d get it back to what it should be doing.”
Bohemia and the creative arts in Notting Hill have been under fairly incessant siege since the late 1960s, as the squats have become “this stunning maisonette” and BMWs replaced the old Citroens. Up the road from the Electric, the glorious old Coronet cinema is due to be turned into a branch and offices for MacDonald’s hamburgers. But in the old days, all this was London’s Left Bank or Haight Ashbury – and its heart, from about 1969 was the Electric Cinema.
The Electric Cinema began in 1968 as a late-night and weekend alternative film club inside what was then the Imperial cinema. The club took its name from the original building, designed by Gerald Seymour Valentin and dating from 1911, when it had opened as the Electric Theatre with a silent movie of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII – entrance 6d and a free orange. It had become the Imperial in 1919.
The Electric Cinema Club (or “Electric Experience”) of 1968-9 drew its audience with a blend of Hippies underground and “film noir” – The Chicago Conspiracy Circus, Monterey Pop, Ivan the Terrible, Batman, The Trial, 1984 and the Third Man. The air tended to smell sweet and not-too legal, and the folding seats seemed none to safe. Then, at the end of 1969, a scribbled note appeared on the door: “On December 13th, we took over the Imperial Cinema on a full-time basis ... “. There would be improvements to seating, heating, projection and the screen, but, continued the notice, “to do these things and keep the cinema, we have to do something we’ve never really been serious about, that is making some money ...“.
In the years that followed, the Electric was an important point of focus for the European scene. The work, for example, of Herzog and Fritz Lang found an enthusiastic outlet; there was the first Third World Cinema festival; films by George Lucas and Michael Powell become particularly associated wit the cinema.
It was listed in 1972 – as a fine and untouched example of a purpose-built cinema from the Edwardian era – after an early attempt to block a development on Portobello Road into a shopping centre. There were further attempts to develop the site, from supermarket and from car park companies: the council turned them all down because of the listing and because the lease from the Deanville company specified that it must be used as a cinema.
By 1983, however, the holder of the lease, Richard Davies, was advised by his trustees to pull out of the cinema. A short-lived co-operative was formed, and then the Electric came into the mini-empire of Romaine Hart (Screen on the Green/Hill/Baker Street. Etc). There was a bit of refurbishing, reseating and repainting that the staff disapproved of, and many left; there was talk of targeting the cinema more towards the new Holland Park audience that now populated the surrounding streets. There was also a change in programming. Out went the repertory and the double bills, in came the first and longer-run shows like My Beautiful Launderette.
“It was very successful at first,” recalls Tom Heslop, who worked in the cinema and now runs a campaign to re-open it, “but in the end, she was bad for the Electric and the Electric was bad for her.” The GLC offered a grant to the Electric in 1985, on condition that it be kept a cinema for the next five years. The grant was never accepted. Hart maintained the cinema was unviable; the staff argued that it was, if the programming was right.
On April 5, 1987, the Electric was sold through the Conrad Ritblatt estate agent. There were stories it would become an antiques market. It went, however to Ruth Mellor of Central Properties Securities, who promised the staff that it would remain “a cinema of sorts – a sort of club”. There was a public meeting at which the Conservative MP and his Labour opponent both pledged their support to the Electric. But on May 6, the doors closed. A goodbye double-bill was promised: Peeping Tom and Performance, filmed just yards away during the underground Electric Club days. “We went open up“, recalls Karen Smith, the cashier, “but the shutters were down. The managers threw our wages out on the steps”. There was a tearful party in the street with Big Audio Dynamite.
Later that year Ruth Mellor (acting under another company name Wellingshire) submitted three proposals for the “cinema of sorts“, which happened to include a dance area and a mezzanine floor with eating tables. People in the film business objected: the proposals amounted to a change of use. The plans were rejected by English Heritage and Kensington Council.
The Electric, put back on the market was now bought by UK Land. Not much happened to the building under its ownership, except an unlicensed champagne, sushi roll and oyster party organised by the children of Sir Terence Conran to raise money for Save the Electric. “All these people eating oysters and paying £17 for a bottle of champagne. It bought tears to my eyes,” says Tom Heslop.
Soon the Electric was up for auction again. Safeland bought it earlier this year for £400,000. Weeks later, Wogman’s ad appeared in the Standard.
The cinema was bought for £625,000 by Greatspot Ltd with a registered office and accountant, at 24 Kilburn High Road, but no phone number. A director of the company is Martin Davies, who is available through Turner’s restaurant in Knightsbridge, but who has not been returning calls about the Electric; people intending to open new cinemas are usually hungry for publicity. The company’s memorandum of association does not mention cinema, its work being “to carry on business in property and estates.”
During the 1987 Notting Hill Carnival there was tumult in Portobello Road. As the carnival broke up, cars were damaged, windows smashed, shops raided, stones thrown. One building was left completely alone – the Electric Cinema.