Help Save London’s Unique Cinema Museum
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.
What 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.
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.
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 the Greenwich Granada, where I went).
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.
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.
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.