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Campaign to restore Paignton Picture House to former glory

By su_carroll  |  Posted: January 18, 2014

By Andrea Kuhn

  • Cinema enthusiast John Mann, who is helping to restore a Paignton cinema

  • Cinema enthusiast John Mann at his home

  • The Art Deco style Torbay Cinema in Paignton in its heyday

  • John Mann, left, and Tony Moss, inside the Art Deco Paignton cinema

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John Mann was so passionate about his beloved cinema in Paignton that when it closed its doors in 1999, he never gave up hope he would one day return.

The dazzlingly elegant building, so loved by Agatha Christie she had her own reserved seat, fell dark and dusty.

But after nearly two decades John and the cinema’s army of loyal supporters will have their patience rewarded, as Paignton Picture House, is to be restored and re-opened.

“It’s been very sad for me to see it like this,” he says pointing to the broken panes of Art Deco style coloured glass and dusty velvet seats. “It’s been a hard fight. I remember the day they shut it. They just closed the doors. They even left fish and chip papers in the rubbish bin.”

The small 375-seat cinema has been part of John’s life for over 50 years. From visits as an eager child, to luring him back from a burgeoning career as a technician at Ealing Studios in London to work there as chief engineer. He even married the daughter of the cinema manageress.

He believes that, the despite changing times and tastes, it will be possible to recapture the old magic once again.

“I think everybody loves nostalgia. It’s part of the human experience – we all remember the past. But I think what people love about it is it’s pure escapism. I don’t think that ever goes away.”

He is an ardent fan of the silent films of early comics such as Buster Keaton and Snub Pollard and runs occasional showings in Paignton accompanied by pianist Pam Bennett, who apparently has the rare skill of being able to play in the dark. Very soon they will return to their natural home at the Picture House.

Yet without John’s passion for the glory days of cinema, much of it’s precious contents would be lost. So convinced was he that the cinema would re-open again that he rescued and stored delicate silk screens and painting hoardings with photographs of the Marx Brothers and Gloria Swanson which will now also be returned.

The Picture House is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe and it is thought to have been built between 1907 and 1910 – certainly long before the word “cinema” had even been invented. It was called “The Electric Bioscopic Exhibition Centre with entertainment suitable for ladies” with men seated on one side and women on the other.

It was the first such building outside of London to have a 21-piece orchestra and also the first to have air conditioning, both quite extraordinary achievements for a little seaside town in Devon.

But in the heady days of the glamorous English Riviera, it was the popular haunt of the rich and famous.

One of its biggest fans, Agatha Christie, had her own pair of seats in the circle (row two, seats one and two), one for her and one for her butler, who would provide her with drinks during the evening performance.

It was also visited by Paris Singer, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, who lived at nearby Oldway Mansion. During his ill-fated courtship with his lover, the dancer Isadora Duncan, they would sit discreetly in their own private box at the back of the upper circle.

Even Edward, the Duke of Windsor, and Mrs Simpson are rumoured to have visited during their courtship.

The cinema became a film set itself when it featured in Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence with a star-studded cast including Donald Sutherland and Faye Dunaway.

Even now, despite the building’s current decrepit state, it is easy to see how it has cast a spell over its many fans.

Upstairs in the old projection room there are giant spools of spiralling tape across the floor. In another room there are wages sheets from 1937 showing that it cost £24 14s and 5d to run the cinema each week with a staff of 10.

Chunky black shellac records in paper sleeves from popular 1950s names such as Ray Martin and Winifred Atwell are stacked in a dusty pile.

“Even now I feel aggrieved when I see all this,” says John. “But we’ll be back, we’ll be back.”

In the last 17 years there have been numerous rescue plans, all of which have failed. The Picture House has also faced being demolished or converted by owners Dart Valley Railway.

“At one point they wanted to run a train right through the cinema,” says Tony Moss, chairman of the Paignton Heritage Society. “We’d have lost all of this,” he says, gesturing at the walls.

The building is certainly unique with its unusual mixture of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, probably due to the fact it was built by local business people.

“It was their understanding of what they believed the style was,” adds Tony.

Lining the walls there are plaster reliefs of the stars of the time such as Douglas Fairbanks, once known as “the King of Hollywood”, for his roles in silent films such as The Mark of Zorro and Robin Hood.

But despite, the lack of success so far, Mr Moss says this time is different, in part due to a recent change in management at the railway which has heralded a new impetus to revive the cinema. Paul Hawthorne, chairman of the newly formed Paignton Picture House Trust, which is leading the restoration plan, is confident of success.

He says supporters of the scheme appreciate the many benefits the restored cinema could bring to the town, coupled with the steam railway and such popular attractions as Agatha Christie’s former home, Greenway.

But he says the plan to raise the money from grant-making bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, and then to carry out the work, could take up to four or five years.

“Nobody will put money into anything unless it can wash its face. The difference this time is that the steam railway are very committed to making this project happen.”

“I think the Picture House is an opportunity for all of us to reconnect with something from our past. If you go and sit in one of the boxes there is something magical about the building.

“It would be a crime not to do anything.”

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