Help Save London’s Unique Cinema Museum

Film

 

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Here’s a perfect example of another quirky London venue now in danger of being lost. London’s extraordinary Cinema Museum is in serious danger of closure. Despite numerous attempts to buy the building over the years and promises in writing from SLaM (South London and Maudsley NHS Trust) that they would sell it to the Museum for a fair and independent price, they are now planning to sell at speed to the highest bidder, telling them The Cinema Museum’s lease expires in March 2018, so that they can be evicted.

In a time when new flats and retail chains have reached peak density in London, it seems little short of criminal that a place which provides a real service to the city could be so easily removed. The best result would be for them to keep this historic venue and properly fund it, or at the very least rehouse it in a more accessible building better suited to its needs. You can sign the petition to save it via the above link.

IMG_5867What of the museum itself? Britain has always had a disparaging attitude to its cinemas and their history. After the collapse of ill-conceived MOMI (Museum of the Moving Image) on London’s Southbank, we were left without a cinema museum.  MOMI was a dumbed-down ‘experience’ with very little to enjoy beneath its expensive surface gloss. In a way, it reflected the problem we’ve always had towards the arts. Should they be sternly academic and ‘improving’, or are you allowed to have some fun with them?

The problem was exacerbated by the idea of a cinema museum. Do you concentrate on cinema’s creativity or technology? The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford covers the physical equipment of making and showing movies. Nobody now covers the creativity of this art. As for the unique history of British cinema it was down to the Cinema Museum to take up the reins and do the thing properly, appropriately in an area once packed with picture palaces.

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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 as a boy. The museum is announced by a small sign, and has much Chaplinalia. It 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.

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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.

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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 the Greenwich Granada, where I went).

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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, 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.

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There are also cinema attendants’ uniforms, always braided with gold buttons. They reflected the affordable luxury of what were literal picture palaces. 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 you could first discover a sense of wonder and imagination, and therefore they have a place in the memory.

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Inevitably, the Cinema Museum’s future is under greater threat than ever before (it’s within sight of the London Eye). It always had one fact in its favour; the beautiful Victorian interior is listed and therefore hard to convert into flats. Try taking a tour or attending a film event there. You would have to be very unsociable not make new friends in the course of your evening.CINEMA-TICKETS-300x243

16 comments on “Help Save London’s Unique Cinema Museum”

  1. Lorraine says:

    First time I went here was a few years ago to see you do a talk on your favourite films Chris. It’s a wonderful old building full of fascinating memorabilia and steeped in nostalgia. Spent ages looking round. I truly hope it is saved as it would be a tragedy to lose such a treasure dedicated to a bygone age.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    Well written. Interesting article. Good grammar.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    In the early days of cinema, entering one was often the first time some people had seen and walked over a carpet, never mind seeing electric lighting. Cinemas are so evocative as Admin says and just walking into one-whether a flea pit or a picture Palace-had the “tingle factor”. I started about 8 years ago going around Britain taking pictures of any building that is or was a theatre or cinema, even if it hadn’t been one for decades. I do it a bit at a time and all by public transport. I suppose it’s also a kind of “bucket tour” You can see my efforts in Flickr, I go under the name of “Stagedoorjohnnie”

    I can’t think why Admin thinks that Momi was ill conceived and dumbed down. It was fantastic, and in the right place and just found the right level between showmanship and academia. It was also very popular and I was shocked when it closed down. Now the BFI building has gone in for minimalism with lots of empty space, and-yes you’ve guessed it-endless cafés. It would be logical for the cinema museum to be removed to here as it is out of the way and has only sporadic openings as it is run by volunteers. So, if the government can find a billion pounds to pay to Ireland to keep a failed-self serving PM in power, and billions to give to Europe to quite unnecessarily leave-just to appease racist little Englanders-I’m sure they can find a bit of petty cash to celebrate the wonderful (thought not faultless) film industry we used to have.

    End of rant.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    The last bit in brackets should read “though” and not “thought”. And after little Englanders I should have added “and Daily Mail readers”

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Oops-and I should have said the cinema museum is out of the way-WHERE IT IS. NB, I am following the good advice given to aspiring writers-the big 3 “musts”-rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

  6. admin says:

    There’s a ‘Save the Cinema Museum’ Campaign Meeting October 30th.

  7. Jo W says:

    I have ‘signed’ the petition and have crossed my fingers,but I won’t be holding my breath. Anyone can achieve anything these days by merely waving great loads of dosh in the right?direction. Money will always drive out any sense of history! 🙁

  8. Mark Davies says:

    Very interesting debate. However, I think everyone is getting a little too sentimental for something that has had it’s day. Out with the old and in with the new I say!!

  9. Chris Webb says:

    “Good grammar”

    “I am the Roman Emperor, I don’t care about grammar.”

    (I don’t know who said that but I assume he was a Roman Emperor!)

    “I think everyone is getting a little too sentimental for something that has had it’s day. Out with the old and in with the new I say”

    Civilization isn’t just what we make or do at this moment in time, it’s the sum total of all the good bits of our past (and unfortunately quite a few of the bad bits as well). We shouldn’t become too preoccupied with the past but we need to realise it made the present and will make the future, and is therefore worth taking notice of. History is not bunk.

    Cinema was the definitive form of popular culture for much of the 20th century, providing news and documentaries as well as pure entertainment. I doubt if anybody would really begrudge an acre or two of land being devoted to its history.

    I had never heard of this museum, and the sentence “It has never been open to the public in the conventional sense; instead I called ahead to arrange a guided tour” implies they have not really put as much effort into making it a success. Maybe it is more of a hobby for a bunch of enthusiasts than a serious enterprise? If that’s the case I’m not very optimistic but if they do have to close down I hope their exhibits find a good home. Maybe some sort of arrangement or tie-up with the BFI?, although it’s far from the BFI’s main interest in films themselves.

    That mercury contraption that looks as if it came from Frankenstein’s laboratory – is it a light source for a projector?

  10. admin says:

    Yes, it’s a museum for enthusiasts, but what they’ve done is remarkable; they show rarities in a dedicated silent screen cinema, and a great many UK films that have not been seen for decades, often introduced by the original stars. They hold events and auctions, and all manner of interesting screenings, and their collection is genuinely enlightening. It’s wrong to write this off as mere sentimentality; British film history has been buried under Hollywood’s swamping output, and deserves a voice.

  11. Vivienne says:

    This is the sort of place that has suffered since Time Out stopped being a proper listings place. Unless you are already in the know and have the time to check on all the venues individually, it’s easy to miss so much. There was a print museum not far away in Kennington, but think that has closed too.

  12. Brian Evans says:

    There is a moving image museum in Bradford. It seems to have taken over from Momi. I went there the year before last, and I didn’t think it was very good

  13. Helen Martin says:

    I remember the picture of the film schedule boards from an earlier post. I have never seen anything like them as our theatres had the schedules printed on a card in the ticket wicket window. The bars look as if they rolled over but did they glue paper strips onto the flat side or what?

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Is the Ronald Grant Cinema museum still a going concern?

  15. snowy says:

    H, the answer to your conundrum is contained in the photo, but not obvious at first glance.

    Individual rectangular celluloid letters slotted into the frame to build up lines of text, [supermarkets carried on using something similar for shelf edge pricing for decades.]

    C, the glassblowers nightmare is a mercury arc rectifier, used to power the carbon arcs inside the projectors.

    B, if you are documenting old cinemas and should you feel so inclined; swing-by Cinematreasures*, they would be very glad of any holes you could fill.

    Here endeth the parish notices.

    [*stick a . and org on the end]

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, thank you as ever. I was so busy looking at the upper boards that I didn’t see the one below that has letters fitted into it.

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