Gilbey on Film: save our cinemas!

Unlike out-of-town multiplexes, the likes of Walthamstow's EMD bring communities together.

The campaign to save the EMD cinema in Walthamstow, east London, is nothing new (the NS reported on it back in 2004) but it is vital that anyone wishing to add their signatures to the petition does so by the end of this month.

The McGuffin Film and Television Society (so named in honour of Alfred Hitchcock, born in nearby Leytonstone) has done a hardy job of highlighting the social and cultural loss that will befall this corner of London if the cinema, which is Grade II listed, is converted into a church by its current owners UCKG (United Church of the Kingdom of God). UCKG bought the building in 2003, following their acquisition of the Rainbow Theatre, the legendary former music venue in Finsbury Park, north London. Since then, the EMD has stood dormant, and was recently occupied by squatters. Images taken by the local MP Stella Creasy have shown the interior to be in a state of significant disrepair, contrary to the claims of UCKG.

A video filmed by torchlight inside the cinema was as difficult for me to watch as any horror movie. I have a sentimental attachment to the place -- it was where I saw my first film, and countless subsequent ones. I was as happy there as a child as anywhere I have ever been, so it would not be overstating the case to say that seeing the dilapidated, water-damaged interior now is like witnessing the desecration of a childhood home.

The connection with the EMD, or the Granada as it was known when I used to go there, reach even further back in my family. My Italian grandmother, who still lives in nearby Chingford, used to visit the cinema most Monday evenings after she first arrived in London. She was in her early twenties and had left Italy to live in east London with her husband (my late grandfather) whom she had married when he was stationed in Grado during the Second World War. With only a few English phrases, and even fewer friends, these cinema visits served various purposes: they gave her a breather from looking after a young baby (my father), while the films helped improve her English vocabulary, and the social aspect brought her into contact with other Italian immigrants.

She looked after me a lot in the early years of my life, and it was in her company that I rode the few miles to Walthamstow on the upper deck of a Routemaster, and visited my first cinema. It couldn't have been the movie we saw that hooked me -- I was four years old, and it was a feature-length version of the ropey 1970s sitcom Man About the House, chosen simply because that was what happened to be on. More likely it was the Granada itself. The description on the McGuffin site brings the grandeur of the place back to me:

Flamboyant interior decorations by the world famous Russian director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky ... The cinema's lavish interior was inspired by a trip to the grand Alhambra Palace in Spain, resulting in the Granada's large foyer being designed in an elaborate 17th Century Baroque style with a marble floor and extravagant chandeliers while the main auditorium boasted colourful Moorish-inspired arches and grille-work. Sidney Bernstein [the cinema's proprietor] insisted that the beautiful interior should be decorated with fresh flowers each day.

Perhaps at the time I just thought that all cinemas were that swanky. Possibly the magnificence of the Granada didn't hit me fully until I visited another local cinema, the slightly less impressive Woodford Majestic, which couldn't boast chandeliers, or that expansive carpeted landing outside the Granada's Screen 1 on its first floor, so ridiculously vast that Gatsby could have comfortably hosted an intimate shindig there. The Majestic certainly didn't have fresh flowers in the lobby every day. Did anywhere?

The glory of the Granada was wrapped up for me in lots of other wonderful aspects of the cinemagoing experience -- the unspoken, delicious naughtiness of being in the cinema in the afternoon, the picnics that my grandmother would prepare for us to share in the stalls (Spam and Salad Cream sandwiches, crunchy red apples, Golden Wonder crisps, orange squash that she would decant into glasses in the dark). We saw a lot of the Disney releases of the day and a good deal of inferior things I expect, but whatever we chose must have been immeasurably improved by where we were seeing it.

That still held true for the movies I saw at the Granada as I got older. It felt just right seeing Scorsese's After Hours there on a grey Saturday afternoon, the building's faded glamour all around me, and only two or three other people in the cinema. And I'm sure Scream, the last film I saw at the Granada (in 1997), was that bit scarier because I wasn't sitting in one of the slick multiplexes which had begun springing up in the vicinity, but rather in a waning picture palace full of its own lingering ghosts.

My reason for turning on the faucet of nostalgia and giving it the full Alan Titchmarsh is not self-indulgence (well, not only self-indulgence) but rather to point out a truism with regard to the campaign to save the EMD: that cinemas situated in communities, unlike multiplexes out-of-town, are not merely buildings. They are focal points for those communities, repositories for our memories, bridges from the past into the future, monuments to the immediacy of film, and part of who we are as a society.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution