A little bit of cinematic history

When I first moved to Walthamstow I was pleased to see that the area had a cinema. And not a soulless multi-screen complex built in an out-of-town retail park surrounded by fast food chains and pizza restaurants, but a real old-fashioned cinema in the town centre. I remember going to see ‘All About My Mother’ by Pedro Almodovar there, and although the cinema itself seemed a bit down at heel you could still see that once it had been very grand indeed with a foyer and decoration inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. In fact, the cinema was once called the Grenada, and the original owners who turned the building from a music hall into a cinema went on to found the Grenada television company. I have a vague memory of the original Christie organ being played before the film, although I’m not sure if this is a false memory, and I was aware that this was the only cinema left in the country with the original Christie organ still in place and still playable. I also knew that Alfred Hitchcock had lived in nearby Leytonstone, but I had no idea whether he had visited the cinema (he had) and no idea of the history of the building. I was just glad that the cinema was there and still providing entertainment.

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The phrase “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” proved apt as in 2003 the cinema closed its doors for the last time and shut down. After it shut, in order to go and see a film you had to either go into central London and pay outrageous prices for a ticket, or get in the car to go to the Odeon in South Woodford, or one of those out-of-town retail complexes in Enfield or the Lea Valley. The building itself had been bought by a controversial Evangelical religious group called the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) who had bought up various other theatres and buildings in London and who wanted to turn the building into a church. For over ten years I read articles in the local newspapers about the building, as the church failed to gain planning permission to alter the site, which had been listed by English Heritage, and various protests were held, often organised by the McGuffin Film Society who campaigned and fundraised to save the building and try to restore the site as a place of entertainment. I joined the McGuffins and went to a few protests but in my heart of hearts I didn’t really think the building would be saved. In the meantime the cinema building, neglected and deserted, seemed to be crumbling away before our very eyes, and started to look very down-at-heel. I finally remember reading that, after another failed planning permission bid, the church were going to sell the building, and although I was glad, I hoped that it wouldn’t go the way of the local – and also historic – Walthamstow Dog track, and be turned into ‘luxury’ flats, keeping only the façade in place.

Then in 2015 I heard that a pop-up pub was opening up in the foyer space, called “Mirth, Marvel and Maud”. I had the impression that this was only a temporary ‘pop-up’ and was not sure how it would work; I’d heard it was in the foyer only and that the inside huge theatre space needed a lot of restoration work. I had no idea if the Christie organ was still in situ, having been damaged during one of the illegal raves that occurred in the building during the Church’s ownership. But Mirth, Marvel and Maud opened, and I heard nothing but good things about it from local friends who had been for a drink there.

In recent years I had, however, been enjoying independent cinema in Walthamstow when the Stow Film Lounge started up. Created by a couple of local film buffs, they put on screenings of films in Orford House Social Club complete with the Pearl & Dean advertising jingle, and often including innovations like joint pizza and film tickets, or following the film with Cabaraoke (a mix of cabaret and karaoke) to make it a proper night out. They also created a kids film club, and a baby film club, where parents of young babies could come and watch a film safe in the knowledge that no-one would object if their baby cried and where the babies could crawl around on play mats whilst the film was on. However, seemingly almost as soon as it had been established, the Stow Film Lounge lost its home at the Orford House Social Club, and although it appeared occasionally at other venues in the locality, none were quite so convenient for me.

So I was thrilled to see the Stow Film Lounge advertising that they were showing films in Mirth, Marvel and Maud, bringing cinema back to the old building, with films on a weeknight and also old classics on a Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t wait to go back into the old cinema, and so a couple of Sundays ago I went to see the classic Bogart and Bacall film, ‘The Big Sleep’. And I was not disappointed at all – far from it. The films are shown in a small cinema space, called “Maud”, and they were even giving free bags of Maud popcorn – all for the remarkably good value price of £6 for the ticket.

Inside the building, the foyer area was spacious and grand and MM&M have done a really good job of restoring the foyer and turning it into a lovely social place. It seemed both cosy and relaxing as well as grand, with the chandeliers still in place and the walls painted a warm yellow colour. I noticed from posters that they do quiz nights and also host various other entertainments, like stand-up comedy and theatre performances, thus restoring the building back to its original purpose as a place of entertainment.

The bar was also serving coffee, and I was able to take my coffee into the cinema space, where I settled down to watch the film. Before the main film started, they showed a five-minute short film all about the history of the cinema, during which I learnt that the building was originally the Victoria Music Hall which opened in 1887, and the first film shown there was in 1896, before it was turned into a dedicated cinema in 1907. The original cinema had seated nearly 3,000 people, and as well as films was also a music venue, with such legends as The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison all performing there.

And then in the middle of the film there was an old-fashioned intermission, where I was able to order an espresso martini to take in for the second half, having been enviously eyeing up the espresso martinis which some of my fellow cinema goers had been drinking in the first half!. I can’t think of a nicer way of spending a Sunday afternoon than sipping a cocktail whilst watching a classic film in such a historic venue, and I hope that this initiative is supported by local people so that it continues and goes from strength to strength. I shall certainly be back, hopefully on a regular basis!

 

 

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