London’s Cinema Museum Is A Hidden Gem
Britain has always had a disparaging attitude to its cinemas and their history. After the collapse of MOMI (Museum of the Moving Image) in London’s Southbank, we were left without a cinema museum. MOMI was utterly dreadful, a dumbed-down ‘experience’ ineptly run, with very little to enjoy beneath its expensive surface gloss. So it was down to a private museum to take up the reins and do the thing properly. So South London’s Cinema Museum was born; appropriately in an area that was once packed with picture palaces.
Hidden (and I mean hidden) off Kennington Lane, behind a Buddhist centre and beside a clinic, is an old Victorian building, Lambeth Workhouse – the very one which Charlie Chaplin attended. The museum is announced by a small sign, and has much Chaplinalia. The building has never been open to the public in the conventional sense; instead I called ahead to arrange a guided tour. Inside, the refectory appears largely unchanged. The cinema regularly hosts talks, movies, events and parties. Martin, our host, is an affable gentleman with a passion for old films. He takes us around some of the collection of signs, timetables, posters, lobby cards, film cans, projectors and models of art deco cinemas.
There are surprises, like the strip of experimental metal film, the floral spray to make the cinema smell, well, if not nice then disguised, the early tickets designed to be felt in the dark, and this terrifying source of pure electricity caused by passing a current through liquid mercury and effectively creating a storm in a bottle – as seen next to the wimshurst machines in old Frankenstein movies.
I loved the paraphernalia of old cinemas, from the wooden cut-outs and price boards to the various pieces of signage redolent of another age. Memories of old cinemas are almost as strong as the films themselves. I had to stop myself from purchasing an original poster for an old Norman Wisdom film, knowing that I would have nowhere to put it. I love this shot of the well-behaved children at the Saturday Morning Pictures (a lot posher than I remember it).
No, we didn’t wear suits and ties to the flicks, and usually got ice cream or cigarettes thrown over us. The museum does good work too; many unique films have been saved, copied and preserved by the museum, including around 80 titles from the Blackburn-based Edwardian film pioneers Mitchell & Kenyon (now available on DVD), and a collection of silent colour travelogues from the early 20th century.
There are also cinema attendants’ uniforms, always braided with gold buttons. Anyone who has read my memoir ‘Film Freak’ will know how I feel about all of this; it’s not nostalgia exactly, but an acknowledgement that in such places I first discovered a sense of imagination, and therefore they have a place in the memory.
Inevitably, the Cinema Museum’s future is far from assured (it’s within sight of the London Eye) but has one fact in its favour; the beautiful Victorian interior would be hard to convert into flats. What you can do to help protect it is take a tour for a tenner (£7 conc.) or attend a film or event there. You would have to be very unsociable not make new friends in the course of your evening!