UKs oldest working cinema to reopen after pandemic forced its closure
Written by First Choice Radio on 18 January 2022
The UK’s oldest working cinema is reopening under new ownership nearly two years after the pandemic forced its closure.
The 112-year-old Electric Cinema in Birmingham is preparing to open doors to its two screens once again, after it closed in March 2020.
It was built in 1897 as a music hall but became a cinema in late 1909.
Its new owner, Kevin Markwick, said: “It’s a lovely place to sit and watch a film.
“It’s been through several changes and called a number of things over the years; it was a news theatre, a cartoon theatre and I believe an adult entertainment theatre at some point in its history.
“But it’s here and it’s survived – and that’s extraordinary and it plugs into the whole history of cinema.
“There’s as much Chaplin here as there is Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Mr Markwick, whose family have been running an independent cinema in East Sussex since the 1960s, was approached to buy the freehold by the previous owner, Tom Lawes, and “thought it was something I could do and do very well”.
He added: “A building is not happy to be shut for a year and a half, so it’s been cleaning, bringing the boiler back to life.
“Mainly, the projection equipment, which doesn’t like being turned off – that had to be replaced.”
He added: “It was doing well before the pandemic – we’re just bringing it back to life.”
Mr Markwick said the pandemic had been tough on the cinema industry.
“The studios went charging off to streaming services, with what a lot of us thought was rather indecent haste.
“But I think with (James Bond film) No Time To Die and Spider-Man: No Way Home, (released) over Christmas, I think it is patently obvious cinema has a very big financial role to play in the movie business.
“People want to come back.
“Rather like the famous quote, reports of our demise were rather premature.
“But it has been difficult and we’ve had help.
“We had help from the (Government) cultural recovery fund and we had local help as well.
“It was an existential crisis of epic proportions at times but here we are, opening another cinema.
“Are we insane? I don’t know. Possibly.”
He added: “The opening weekend, we’ve got a few sold-out shows – we sold a lot of memberships. It’s been tremendous.
“I was a little surprised actually – where we are in Sussex, it’s quite a smallish town, and we reach about 100,000 people.
“So coming into a city of 1.2 million people, it’s been a bit like ‘oh, hello, there’s lots of people out there that are interested in what we’re doing’.
“The welcome has been brilliant.”
The building itself has plenty of nods to films – there’s a cocktail menu featuring such tipples as Last of The Mojitos.
The lobby is decorated in £600-a-roll wallpaper from New Zealand featuring the Art Deco print pattern from 2013’s The Great Gatsby.
Mr Markwick’s parents, Pat and Roy, bought The Picture House cinema in Uckfield, East Sussex in 1964 – when he was about 18 months old.
The 59-year-old credits the family’s purchase with his leaving school having “managed to avoid getting any qualifications, simply because it was far more interesting to be at the cinema”.
“I have literally grown up in it,” he said.
“It’s a really privileged position actually because you’ve got this long line all the way through silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck.
“It’s this long unbroken line that we’re all part of and it’s a wonderful thing.
“Seeing audiences react to film is always a joy.”
As an independent cinema, he said “we know who the audience are, we can respond to what they want or don’t want”.
Asked about the long-term future of cinema, he said: “We have a lovely theatre (The Birmingham Rep) two doors up from here – cinema was going to kill theatre off, wasn’t it – and that survives.
“It sounds like a hackneyed old thing but it’s absolutely true that people want to sit and enjoy stories collectively.
“You can sit at home in your pants watching Netflix, but it’s not the same thing as sitting with an audience.
“I don’t care how big your turbo nutter telly is, you still need to get out of the house occasionally.”
His daughter, Katie Markwick, is the third generation of the family to go into the trade, and will be manager of The Electric, employing 13 people.
The cinema reopens to the general public on Friday, screening Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, starring Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, and also Nightmare Alley, featuring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette.
Published: by Radio NewsHub