Independent Cinemas Setting the Standard in London – Part One

Ever longed for an Independent Cinema that offers substance rather than the mundane experience offered by multiplex theatre chains? In the first of this two part guide, EyeOnLondon’s Cinema Club reviewer, Henry Scott Irvine, takes us through London’s Indie Cinema scene where a quiet revolution is underway, spearheaded by a cadre of independent cinemas. As guardians of their heritage, these venues keep the flame burning for all kinds of films and bring communities together in the process.

The Garden Cinema

39-41 Parker Street, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5PQ. 2 Cinemas https://www.thegardencinema.co.uk/about-us

The Best ‘New’ Cinema in London

This two-screen Indie cinema opened in March 2022 after some delays due to the COVID crisis of 2020 to 2021. There are two screens – a 76-seater and a 40-seater. A third is promised. The programming boasts that The Garden is “A new kind of Independent Cinema”.

It is indeed a hybrid of new International Art House Films, members’ voted choices, thematic seasons, and director fortnights. Add to that exemplary Film Festivals that are hand-picked by the team, which break the mould, and are refreshingly well-curated. The building has utilised Art Deco fixtures that look as if they were rescued from the former ‘Art Deco’ Embassy Rooms in Tottenham Court Road, while the basement bar area has a wine vault feel about it, with choice bottled Dutch ‘Bok’ Beers and Craft Lagers, all at good prices. Add to that a friendly staff and well-priced tickets. This cinema needs your support. Please go there.

The Lexi Cinema

194 Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Rise, London, NW10 3JU. 2 Cinemas https://thelexicinema.co.uk/TheLexiCinema.dll/Home

The Best Family & Volunteer-Run Cinema

This voluntary-run Indie of some 75 seats only opened in 2008. It is housed in a former turn-of-the-20th-century community hall, which retains some of its original Edwardian decor. Former Soho cinema manager, movie aficionado, and cinema historian, Ken Roe, reviewed it thus, “The Projection is digital and the programming promises to be an eclectic mix of mainstream and Art House films, both new and old releases. Staffed by volunteers, it is operated by the Pinkham Lighthouse organisation and any profits go to charities. The name ‘Lexi’ is the owner of Sally Wilton’s daughter’s name. On 17th May 2021, a second screen with 30 seats was opened”. Situated near to Kensal Rise and Kensal Green Stations where Overground and Underground lines will take you back into the West End and south of the river.

The Rio Cinema

107 Kingsland High Street, Dalston, London, E8 2PB. 2 Cinema


The Best Community-Run Cinema

The last independent cinema of its kind in London with its original balcony remaining fully intact, The Rio dates back to the Silent Cinema era. It opened as a movie theatre in 1915 as The Kingsland Empire. It was remodelled as an Art Deco styled cinema by architect Frank Ernest Bromige in 1937 when it became a Classic Cinema, screening repertory films. During the 1960s it changed its direction and became The Classic Cartoon Cinema. In 1970 The Jacey Tatler chain of cinemas acquired it as The Tatler Cinema Club, peddling their mantra of ‘champions of continental cinema’, a euphemism for softcore porn viewed by hardcore corn lovers. The corn got even better during the intermission when strippers wandered around selling 99’s and raspberry ripples. Two years later the cinema went ‘bust’, but not in the hardcore sense. An Independent local businessman bought the building and opted for screenings of Elvis Presley movies, Kung-Fu classics, and Bollywood. Two years later The Rio closed.

Since 1979 The Rio has been continually community-run. It was taken over by a cooperative of local residents as a not-for-profit cinema. They received National Lottery funding in 1996 to restore the cinema from Flea Pit to fully reupholstered glory. Yet, oddly, painting the interior blue and pink. The Rio Cinema became a Grade II Listed building in 1999. Mayor Khan aided the Rio cinema in 2017 with GLA funding, in order to fully restore the exterior and add-on a 31-seat cinema in the basement. The cinema is now visited by people from all over London. The Rio has a vast repertory program running weekly, mixing “First Runs’ with major movies of past and present. Many of which are discussed on stage by experts and those involved in the films in question. The Rio is served by two nearby train stations, Dalston or Dalston Kingsland. The cinema still needs your continued visitor support. Please go to The Rio and enjoy being inside an old school movie theatre. Almost the last of its kind in London.

The Cinema Museum

Elephant & Castle, 2 Dugard Way, Renfrew Road, London SE11 4TH. 2 Screens. 1 operative.

The Most Enjoyable Cinema Experience in a Museum

The Cinema Museum has been screening films since 1998 at its current historic location – His Master’s House & Buildings – a workhouse where Charles Chaplin was forced to work as a young boy alongside his mother. The museum houses a vast collection of cinema artefacts, movie memorabilia, books, and cinema magazines. Where else could you pick up a mint condition copy of a November 1972 edition of Films & Filming for two quid? Nowhere! This quirky independent Cinema Museum screens films from multiple formats such as Super & Standard 8mm, 9.5 mm, 16mm, 35mm, and digital formats. It is run by volunteers who are all experts in their chosen areas. The Museum has been fighting to gain funding to stay afloat. Recently they said, “At last, we can buy our home! After 15 years of campaigning, The Cinema Museum’s future looks bright. At last, we have a chance to secure a permanent home for the Museum and save our well-loved, unique heritage building. We just signed a 4-year lease with our landlords, Anthology (part of the Life Story Group) with an option to purchase the Master’s House buildings for £1 million. Do you want to help us to make this happen? You can make a donation at https://tinyurl.com/5wttnepe”.

The upcoming season of films at the time of writing? Bioscope Movies (Classic Silent Movies), Film Noir, Kim Newman’s Gothique, ‘The Losers’ Motorbike Movies, Rock ‘n’ Roll Movies, Women & Cocaine, and Exploding Cinema’s Film Festival. The nearest tube is The Elephant & Castle. The Museum is situated behind Brook Drive near to the former South Lambeth Hospital’s actual movie location for Michael Winner’s Death Wish 3 (1986) and Nic Roeg’s Bad Timing (1980). All since redeveloped into modern housing.

The Electric Cinema

191 Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2ED. 1 screen. https://www.electriccinema.co.uk/cinemas/portobello

The Oldest Independent Cinema in Britain

The Electric opened on 24th December, 1910, as the Electric Cinema Theatre. It was the first 600-seater cinema in the land to be built for the sole purpose of silent motion picture screenings. It remains of huge historical significance. The Electric’s nearest cousin was The Electric Palace, now called The Gate Picturehouse aka The Gate, Notting Hill, which opened in April, 1911. Asides these two, there is only The Electric Palace Cinema, Harwich, which opened on 29th November, 2011. Portobello’s Electric is similar to The Electric Palace, Harwich, which is the oldest purpose-built cinema to survive completely intact in Britain. Portobello’s Electric has equal cultural importance.

Decades of decline occurred, however, while the Portobello Electric Cinema was usurped by London’s grandiose Picture Palaces with spectacular balconies. By the 1960s, The Electric was reduced to being nicknamed ‘The Portobello Flea Pit’. Nobody went there. Salvation came in the shape of a 1969 weekend repertory Film Club, creating ‘All-Nighter’ screenings. These film shows were curated by Peter Howden. His programming was second to none. As a consequence, the owner asked him to take over the cinema full time. Howden did so right through until 1983. These were the glory days of this venue. Along with The Essential Cinema in Wardour Street, Soho, these cinema venues became the template for The Scala’s programming in Charlotte Street and later Kings Cross. Two clever examples of Howden’s Electric double billing? Joseph Losey’s The Servant, doubling-up with Woody Allen’s Zelig, or Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up, coupled with Nic Roeg & Donald Cammel’s Performance.

The late 1980s saw economic difficulties for The Electric and the fight to save it from closure went on for the best part of 20 years. In 2001, a local philanthropic businessman, the founder-owner of Monsoon, Peter Simon, donated 2 million pounds to fully restore the cinema to include upgrading the projection and sound facilities. In addition, the cinema’s seating was reduced to include 98 brand new bespoke leather armchairs with adjacent tables, plus two leather sofas to the rear. The Electric Cinema was reopened and operated by Cityscreen, a small cinema chain that exhibited mostly independent Art House films. Trouble, however, struck once again when a restaurant next door burned down, causing smoke and fire damage to the cinema. Nick Jones’s ‘Soho House’ empire offered a rescue package via a takeover, acquiring the venue building, adding an upstairs members club, an adjoining restaurant, a new in-house cinema bar, plus additional sofas as front-row seating. There was massive interior redecoration and restoration. Soho House now owns the Electric ‘brand’ and has opened another three-screen version of The Electric inside the former BBC TV Centre in White City, incorporating member-only screens and member-only facilities.

If ever there was a litmus test for the times we live in? The Electric’s regeneration is just that. The yuppification of Portobello Road is now complete. The trustafarian sons and daughters of the executive classes can now enjoy a new playground that is a plush cinema of significant cultural heritage. Thereby diminishing the independent cinema experience for the rest of us. Why? A sign of the times.

The Electric in Portobello Road has the hipster vibe of Soho House’s ‘members-only’ clubs, but it is still open to the general public. By gaining an augmented audience via Soho House’s memberships, in my visitor experience, a coterie of entitled types now use the Electric to make all manner of noise. Many use their mobile phones during the screenings. This happens in spite of on-screen warnings to the contrary. The punters are encouraged to eat, drink, and order more. Ultimately ruining the movie-going experience for ‘we’ cineastes. All as a direct consequence of the Electric’s new in-house Restaurant & Bar. Everyman Cinemas are emulating a similar trend. Much to the annoyance of many. Claimed financial gains made via food and beverage sales, have led to dwindling audiences. These nouveau ‘Drinker-Diner Cinemas’ have been derided by both locals, and the wider public.

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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