Going behind the curtain of Suffolk's oldest cinema
PUBLISHED: 11:29 14 December 2018
Managing the independent Leiston Cinema is Wayne Burns' dream job, which is just as well. He's been there 26 years, dishing out the popcorn and greeting cinema-goers by name | Words: Jan Etherington - Photos: Sarah Lucy Brown
I went to see Mama Mia at Leiston cinema recently. I took a group of friends, who all live locally but as we settled down in the Premier seats and ordered drinks from the bar, I was surprised to hear a number of them say, “I didn’t even know this cinema was here.
We usually go to Aldeburgh or Lowestoft - but this place is fabulous!” It’s true that Leiston film theatre is a secret delight for those of us in the know, which is why it’s always been my favourite place for ‘screen time’.
Suffolk’s oldest, purpose-built cinema, it opened in 1914. There are plush, Premier seats, with side tables for bar drinks, double ‘cuddle’ seats, Dolby Digital 7.1 Surround EX sound and the very latest in digital projection – including Dolby 3D.
Its patrons include Emma Freud, Bill Nighy and Libby Purves. It has a thriving Supporters’ Club, formed in 1992 (annual membership £6) but the fact that it is now busier than ever is down to one man, Wayne Burns, who for 26 years has been cinema manager. He announces proudly and truthfully, “I’ve taken it from fleapit to fabulous!”
It’s always a joy to meet someone who freely admits he has a ‘dream job’. Indeed, Wayne doesn’t think of it as a ‘job’ at all. “Providing the best customer service anywhere is our aim,” says Wayne, which is why the one thing Leiston doesn’t have is automated ticket machines, or booking screens.
“I want to meet my customers”, most of whom greet him (and he greets them) by name. “It’s communication that separates us from the multiplexes. We have lots of chat and banter.”
Wayne has a small, ‘family’ team around him. His ‘integral cog’ is Steve Ginger, whose great- grandfather, Ted Titlow, was one of the original shareholders, and Steve’s parents are members of the Supporters Club.
“Steve started as a volunteer in 1989 but has been an employee for the last 18 years. He’s a lighting technician, but he does pretty much anything we need. He’s a very handy man,” says Wayne, adding that Steve and his assistant manager Becky Nichols are cut from the same cloth. “We all have the same aims, the same high standards – to provide unrivalled customer service.”
Wayne was born in Aldeburgh in 1970, the son of a milkman and a waitress. As a child, he was taken to shows on Great Yarmouth’s pier and loved the performers and the atmosphere.
Although his first job was a Dairy Crest milkman - I bet his customers loved him - he worked part-time as a projectionist in Aldeburgh cinema. When he was offered the projectionist job permanently, he spent three happy years there before the assistant manager job came up at Leiston, in 1992.
“I wouldn’t say the place was entirely derelict – but even the fleas had left the pit!” But when the manager retired, on April 1 1994, Wayne got the top job.
Leiston Film Theatre has traded continuously for 103 years and still gets nothing but five-star reviews on TripAdvisor. Following a decline in cinema attendances in the 1970s, the venue was saved from closure in 1976 and is now ‘proudly’ owned and operated by Leiston-cum-Sizewell Town Council, which has invested in carefully updating the building to meet the expectations of today’s cinema audiences.
Today, there are live music shows, performances and pantos (Dick Whittington live on stage January 10-13), you can book the cinema for birthdays, events, and there is a costume and prop hire business on site.
“Everyone admires our loos,” says Wayne, showing me round, and there are plans for major refurbishment in the spring – a new frontage and front of house – which will include a new tourist information desk for Leiston.
There’s no doubt Wayne would be Mayor of Leiston, were it not for the fact that he’s a council employee. “Lots of people knock Leiston but it’s a town with character and it’s on the turn,” he says. “There’s a new leisure centre planned and a new website (visit-leiston.co.uk).”
Wayne has written a wonderfully entertaining history of Leiston Film Theatre. It’s called Spilling the Popcorn and is available in the foyer.
So all-consuming is his passion for his own silver screen, that there seems barely time for a private life but fortunately, Wayne’s partner of six years is just as involved as he is. Mandy Baskett is a performer and was Maid Marian in his racy ‘adult’ panto, Throbbin Robin, in which he, naturally, played the title role.
It’s no surprise to learn that Wayne has built his own cinema in the garage at his home. I ask him what he would choose to watch, from his own Premier seat.
“One of my favourite films of all time is The Smallest Show on Earth,” he says. “I can’t wait for the new Bond film – and Stan & Ollie, because Laurel and Hardy are my favourites.
“I don’t like to be scared. Horror unsettles me – I don’t want to know what happens in the forest! But the film that has caught my imagination, and so many other people’s, is The Greatest Showman.”
A film about a Master of the Revels, who creates his own magical world? It could be Wayne Burns’ life story. What a film that would make!
Leiston Cinema, 74 High St, Leiston, IP16 4BZ