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Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kentish Independent Newspaper (extract)

It makes me wonder whether in 100 years time our grandchildren might say “We went to wonderful palaces in those days dears, and worshipped little gods on a funny little screen”.

So remarked actress Frances Day at the opening of the Woolwich Odeon cinema back in October 1937. 50 years later, the Woolwich public were still “worshipping those gods” though on a somewhat larger screen. The choice in cinemas in 1987 was more limited though with the Odeon being the only cinema open, but it had not always been that way, for there was a period when ‘going to the ‘pictures’ was the main entertainment in town.

Film had first came to the area just after the turn of the 1900’s when a travelling film show calling itself ‘The Bioscope’ gave fortnightly performances on the second floor of the old Coffee Tavern in Woolwich New Road. It became such a success that the Coffee Tavern became ‘The Palace’ – so opened the town’s first fixed cinema. It was run on a diet of silent serials such as ‘Perils of Pauline’ and various short films.

It was not too long though before The Palace received competition – this came from the original RACS building in Powis Street where was built the Premier Electric Theatre. Run by Lord Bernstein, it vied with its New Road rival for the best films of the day. By 1913 two more ‘penny gaffs’ had arrived, one – ‘New Cinema’ - was situated between the Anglesea Arms Public House and St Peter’s Church , and the other – ‘The Cinema’ - in Beresford Square.

By 1936 however, sound had arrived in the movies and silent picture houses were facing a bleak future – the New Cinema suffered from a lack of silent pictures and it closed. The emphasis in new cinemas was in having luxurious buildings giving audiences a comfort and style to match the splendour of the big screen. So it was that in 1937 a massive 2,000 seat cinema – ‘The Granada’ - was opened and on its opening night it was introduced as “the most romantic cinema ever built”. October of that year would see another ‘super’ cinema –The Odeon – built directly opposite the Granada.

As the 1950’s approached, the cinema faced a new and potentially destructive challenge –TV. With commercial TV now available, the habit of families going to the cinema 2 or 3 times a week became a thing of the past. Ironically, the era of great change would witness the last opening of a cinema in Woolwich. The Regal, owned by Associated British Cinemas (‘ABC’) opened in 1955 with a screening of ‘The Dambusters’. Ironically, it closed in 1982 to another war epic – ‘Who Dares Wins’. This time, the challenge to movie going was not TV itself but a later related technology – Video.

By 1987, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Woolwich Odeon, the town was down to just one Cinema – the Coronet (the Odeon taken over and renamed). At that stage it was a cinematic crown as it became the only cinema that had survived running for at least 50 years in the town but soon its own future was in danger. At that time people lamented its planned demise and people harked back to what happened to Music Hall when Cinema forced its closure. Was this what the future had in store for the Cinema then? The manager of The Empire (Woolwich’s last Music Hall) had lamented in 1958: “We’re closing for lack of ‘biz’ see. We go into darkness tomorrow. Everybody gets the sack. This place will deteriorate and deteriorate and that will be the end of it”.

Was that too what the future held for cinema in the area that “that will be the end of it” or could Woolwich continue to be the ‘town of the movies’….?

Author: Bryan Matthew

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