Singapore markets open in 4 hours 45 minutes
  • Straits Times Index

    +62.94 (+2.04%)
  • S&P 500

    -35.46 (-0.85%)
  • Dow

    -267.13 (-0.78%)
  • Nasdaq

    -75.41 (-0.56%)

    -1,204.21 (-2.73%)
  • CMC Crypto 200

    -49.04 (-3.91%)
  • FTSE 100

    +1.39 (+0.02%)
  • Gold

    +1.50 (+0.08%)
  • Crude Oil

    -0.80 (-1.21%)
  • 10-Yr Bond

    +0.0020 (+0.12%)
  • Nikkei

    +582.01 (+2.09%)
  • Hang Seng

    +399.72 (+1.42%)
  • FTSE Bursa Malaysia

    +7.86 (+0.50%)
  • Jakarta Composite Index

    +0.53 (+0.01%)
  • PSE Index

    -38.84 (-0.62%)

Dorset's art deco cinema jewel returns to its 1930s splendour

Harriet Sherwood
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Colin Burdett/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Colin Burdett/Alamy Stock Photo

It was the year of the abdication crisis, the Jarrow marches, the Battle of Cable Street and the launch of the BBC’s television service. Beyond Britain’s shores, the world was edging closer to war.

In Christchurch, then in Hampshire but now in Dorset, people were flocking to the Regent Centre in 1936 to watch movies such as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Mr Deeds Goes to Town, starring Gary Cooper.

The Regent had been built five years earlier by a local entrepreneur at a cost of £25,000. In the middle of the decade, new owners gave it a plush makeover, featuring a deep rose, gold and silver colour scheme and art deco signage.

The cinema thrived. But in 1973 the march of the Rank Organisation reached the south coast town, and the movie theatre became a Mecca bingo hall. Thankfully not for long: Christchurch council bought the property in 1983, and leased it to a charitable trust to run it as an independent.

Now, as cinemas across the country are shutting their doors or curtailing their opening hours as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Regent is bucking the trend. Next month it will reopen after the completion of a £350,000 restoration project funded by the local community. “It is a bit of a gamble, to be honest,” Gary Trinder, chair of the trust and a cinema historian, told the Observer. “None of us knows quite what’s coming next. But people were desperate for us to reopen.”

Trinder, who oversaw the 2009 restoration of the Grade II*-listed Plaza cinema in Stockport, had a clear vision for the Regent. “We wanted to recreate the way the cinema looked in the mid-1930s. Converting an idea into reality is always a bit worrying, but we’re extremely pleased with the result.”

Fourteen different paint colours on the cinema’s walls – “a bit too vibrant, left over from the bingo days,” said Trinder – were replaced with a classic palette of deep rose with features picked out in gold, silver, black and dark brown. A bespoke carpet was ordered from a specialist firm, which consulted its historical files to create a pattern of silver leaves on a mulberry background. New seating, made to a traditional design and upholstered in deep red moquette, was supplied by another specialist company. “They look like period cinema seats, but they’re vastly more comfortable,” said Trinder.

The restoration was planned long before Covid-19 disrupted the world. Funds had been raised by a £1 levy on ticket sales, donations and the sale of seat plaques. By the time the cinema closed at the start of lockdown, contractors had been appointed and orders placed with specialist suppliers.

“We were committed by then,” said general manager Matthew Vass-White. “We’d planned for a five-week refurbishment. If there was a very slight silver lining to lockdown it was that it gave us more time to do the job.”

The Regent had been riding the crest of a wave, with record-breaking years in 2018 and 2019. “Last year, we had 155,000 admissions and were named top independent cinema. We went into lockdown from a better position than some independents, but we can’t sustain zero income forever,” Vass-White said.

When the cinema reopens on 12 November, with a screening of a Michael Ball and Alfie Boe performance that was cancelled during lockdown, a maximum of 170 seats out of 509 will be occupied because of Covid-19 restrictions. The cinema’s cafe – usually run by the trust’s 200 volunteers – will remain closed but people will be able to buy a drink from the bar. The pandemic means the cinema will be operating at a loss for the foreseeable future. “Reopening is a way of reducing our losses, rather than making money,” said Trinder. “Every person who comes through our doors helps. If we ever get back to break-even point, I’ll be absolutely delighted.

“This is a critical moment for cinemas. Forty per cent of cinemas in this country are run by independent operators. Those with small reserves will be pushed under, but the big multiplexes will rebound.”

He reserved particular fury for the distributors of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, who pulled its release for the second time this month. “We were just about to show the Bond film when we closed in March. We were going to reopen with it in November. It would have been a shot in the arm for struggling cinemas.”

As well as reducing its capacity by two-thirds, the Regent has invested £10,000 in Covid-19 compliance equipment and has doubled its cleaning operation. But Vass-White said he was constantly – and anxiously – awaiting further changes to Covid-19 regulations.

“The future is unknown for all independent cinema operators. We have fantastic community support, so we’re hopeful. And at the moment, we’re all good to go.”