Friday, 25 March 2016

Let's Go to the Pictures

'Cinema' - Acrylic on Board

I've just heard that the 1930s, Art Deco, Regent Cinema in Lyme Regis has burnt down. Although it's been years since I was there, the news of its loss has upset me - I have always been a film fan and the Regent was one of my favourite cinemas.

Much of my childhood in Walton on Thames was spent at the pictures. My family had been connected with films and film making from the beginning. My maternal grandparents and a much loved maiden aunt had worked for Cecil Hepworth, the pioneer film maker, until his studios went bankrupt in 1923 and my father's family advertised the local cinema on hoardings outside their garage/petrol station in return for which they received free tickets. Using these my Grandmother would take us to see selected films at the Odeon and later on my brother and I became regulars at Saturday morning pictures at the Regal – sixpence to get in plus tuppence ha'penny for an ice lolly during the interval. As I grew older I would sometimes bunk off school in the afternoon to go and see a film – something I now regret - although, to be honest, my only real regret is that I didn't do it often enough.

At art school I ran the college film society. I even worked in films, albeit briefly. As an eleven year old schoolboy I had had a small part in an advert for Ribena, the blackcurrant juice drink, and later on I worked as a runner on a couple of films but by then the twin lures of fame and fortune had lost their charm and all I really wanted to do was paint.

After moving to Lyme Regis I soon became a regular at the Regent, happily sitting through even the crumbiest of films. In the holiday season the town quadrupled in size and the cinema did good business which probably kept it solvent the rest of the year. However at midweek showings during the long winter months it was not unusual to be almost alone in the auditorium. Occasionally the projectionist, whose concentration was variable, might allow the film to go out of focus at which point a member of the audience would have to go and ask for it to be sharpened up. I remember once when I was almost the only customer having to go and ask if he would put the Cinemascope lens on – which he had forgotten to do – and feeling guilty that I had not only disturbed him but also quite possibly woken him up.

In the summer of 1981 I was invited by one of the usherettes to attend a secret, midnight, pre-release, staff-only viewing of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' much of which had been filmed in the town. There were only a handful of us and, despite it being the height of summer, the cinema was freezing because the manager hadn't been told about the screening and no-one dared turn the heating on in case he found out. Consequently we all had to cuddle up together in the centre row just to keep warm.

The film enjoyed a long run in Lyme Regis mainly because almost all the townspeople had been involved in its making. One consequence of this mass involvement was that often during a showing one or more of the locals in the audience would point at the screen and whisper loudly to their companion, “Look - that's me!” I fondly remember one screening during which somebody spoke up during a quiet moment and - clearly referring to one of the locals over-acting her heart out as an extra in a street scene - said, “Look at her the silly cow!” at which point the woman herself who just happened to be sitting only a couple of rows in front, turned round and replied, “You can't talk, you fat, f***ing bitch!”

An undocumented but popular local belief was that another consequence of the filming of the French Lieutenant's Woman and the occupation of the town by its undeniably glamorous film crew was that nine months later there was a small but significant upturn in the local birthrate.

A few years ago I was commissioned by a fellow film fan to paint a cinema audience made up entirely of film stars from the 1950s and 60s (above). During its planning I was given permission by the manager to draw and photograph the empty theatre out of hours. In the finished painting most of the auditorium is invented, mainly because I had to make it bigger to accommodate all those actors, but the empty place at the front is a faithful portrait of one of the seats from the front row of the old Regent.

The cinema is now just an empty shell and that seat is gone along with the rest, although the latest news is that the owners have said that they will rebuild it - The Regent is dead, long live the Regent!