Looking back at 100 years of the Aldeburgh Cinema
PUBLISHED: 15:25 03 December 2019
Aldeburgh Cinema, celebrating 100 years of showing films, is as much a part of the seaside town as fish and chips and shingle beaches | Words: Nick Cottam
A carnival every year, a shingle beach, great fish and chips and a cinema. Aldeburgh lovers claim the Suffolk seaside town has it all, including its famous picture house which this year has been celebrating a centenary of electic entertainment.
The cinema's big birthday is a tribute to its longevity and staying power. An Aldeburgh institution, the quaint, timber-framed picture house at 51 High Street has managed to combine mainstream blockbusters with avante garde and art house, matinee musicals with documentary festivals and has tapped into some of the rich cultural heritage which has kept even the most discerning film buff happy.
Back in 2008, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote fondly of the old building's hidden delights. "It was like going to what looked like a creaky museum and finding inside, not fragments of Saxon spears under dusty glass, but a film," he noted.
The Aldeburgh Picture House opened its doors for the first time in August 1919. Cinema and seaside don't always seem like natural bedfellows but England, and indeed Suffolk, was riding a wave of interest in the movies which had become the most popular visual art form of the Victorian Age.
Owner Walter Hill, a draper with a shop on the other side of the street and mayor of Aldeburgh in 1925, must have known he was on to a good thing.
"He was keen to provide entertainment and improvement for all residents," says Sally Irvine, former trustee of Aldeburgh Cinema Trust, who has written a short history of the cinema. "The area around Aldeburgh already had several cinemas, an indication of the increasing popularity and affordability of film."
Under a series of doughty leaders the cinema has prospered, sometimes in parlous financial circumstances.
"There were times when we would only open four nights a week to save money," recalls Susan Harrison, who worked at the cinema for over 50 years, first front of house and then as box office manager, eventually retiring in 2015. Aldeburgh has survived by being light on its feet, introducing new forms of entertainment to suit the times and welcoming enthusiastic supporters.
After Walter Hill's tenure, the cinema attracted a formidable cast of characters, such as Raymond Rayner, who lived in a flat above the cinema and was manager for over 40 years, and the formidable Letty Gifford, who took on distributors to ensure Aldeburgh got access to the latest James Bond films and other blockbusters.
"She was a force," says Barnaby Milburn, long time director of the cinema. Letty's initiatives, such as starting a Supporters' Club - now the Friends of Aldeburgh Cinema - helped to keep the cinema thriving and solvent.
"When I left it had 1,200 members," says Susan Harrison. "People paid £5 a year and got discounts on their tickets, another incentive to keep coming." Personal loyalty has always been a factor in the cinema's success and Susan, who was awarded a British Empire Medal in 2012, for her long service, led from the front.
"I would never ask staff to do something I wouldn't do myself. One day we had a midnight screening and I told staff they could come in their pyjamas, so that's what I did. On another occasion we were having a bad winter and our projectionist, Neville Parry, phoned to say he couldn't get in. I reluctantly agreed to show the film. In those days you had to put the film on a reel and if it broke God help you!"
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Felicity Ann Sieghart took over the running of the cinema in the 1990s and died aged 91, only days after the launch of the cinema's centenary celebrations. She introduced DocFest, originally presented by satirist and local resident Craig Brown.
"My most vivid memories are largely bound up with things that went wrong. Alan Clark, the louche and very funny Conservative MP, asking to be excused, halfway through his session, before sashaying offstage in order to have a pee. Sir David Attenborough, having introduced the world premiere of Blue Planet, being told by an elderly lady in the audience "That's the most boring film I've ever seen".
Susan Harrison recalls a star-studded cast of characters who pitched in to help the cinema in times of need. As a box office for the Aldeburgh Festival in the 1960s it attracted financial support from Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
And hits such as The Graduate and Bonny and Clyde, helped. Musicals, says Susan, were among her favourites and when a weekend of Fred Astaire films brought his daughter to Aldeburgh it was the icing on the cake. "She was on stage and she was lovely."
A national treasure?
Bill Nighy, local resident. patron and supporter
"In an increasingly marketed world, where we are minutely manipulated to favour a diminishing range of things, it's thrilling to walk into an independent anything, whether a bookshop, a bakery or a cinema.
"Aldeburgh has all these things. The cinema is a rare and marvellous opportunity, in pleasant surroundings and almost within earshot of the sea, to enjoy a carefully selected programme of unexpected and enjoyable films for the whole family.
"The documentary film festival each November and the variety of events year round are a vigorous part of town life. It is to be treasured and should be on the national health."
Writer and director Humphrey Burton, presenter of eight seasons of Matinees Musicales
"I have had some terrific experiences going back to Craig Brown's documentary festivals. One year I found myself interviewing David Attenborough and, even more thrilling, being interviewed by him!
"We both arrived that afternoon with stacks of video cassettes which were slotted into the conversation with unflappable precision by legendary projectionist Neville Parry and his team.
"The session went so well I persuaded management to let me try introducing my own series of themed selections, inspired by my personal classical music VHS cassette archive. I called the shows Matinees Musicales, a title pinched from the compositions of Benjamin Britten. I am happy to report that a decade later they are still going strong."