Spotlight: The Vauxhall Cinema Club

Birds Eye View is bringing cinema back to a key London suburb! Tom Symmons reports…

Cinema has come full circle. Serving Vauxhall and Kennington, the Vauxhall Cinema Club at The Workshop returns to the spirit of cinema’s earliest beginnings, well over a century ago, when Londoners were the first in the country to experience this exciting and revolutionary new medium at exclusive, ad hoc screenings.

Purpose built movie theatres soon sprang up across the capital to cater for growing popular demand. From small and intimate ‘electric theatres’ seating a few hundred patrons to large and luxurious ‘dream palaces’ that could seat up to four thousand, cinemas became a central feature of every local neighbourhood. By the 1930s there were well over 400 movie theatres in the city, and in the Elephant and Castle alone – an area once dubbed the ‘Piccadilly Circus of the South’ – there were over 40 venues.

ABC Elephant and Castle (closed)

ABC Elephant and Castle (closed)

Londoners flocked to their local movie theatre on a regular basis to be awed and entertained by films from Hollywood, Britain and beyond, and to keep abreast of world changing events. Movies and news reels provided local communities with a window onto another world. During the first half of the 20th century, film technology rapidly improved and cinema became ever more sophisticated, evolving from simple short films to the feature length narrative format that we know today.

But cinema going also offered many other pleasures and served an important social function within local communities: local cinemas were a place of courtship and to meet friends and family. Equally, they were places of refuge from poor and cramped conditions, and the stresses and strains of domestic life.

Stepping into the grand and luxurious interiors of the dream palace was like entering another world. However, cinema offered more than escapism: it sparked popular trends and shaped cultural values, and was an important barometer of social change and site of memory and nostalgia.

The Regal Cinema Kennington – opened 1937, closed in the '60s

The Regal Cinema Kennington – opened 1937, closed in the ’60s

Sadly, in the era of television and the multiplex, cinema’s social function has greatly diminished. The local movie theatres and the sense of community they provided have long disappeared. The Regal Cinema, for instance, a 2000-seater venue on Kennington Lane, opened in 1932 and served the local community for almost 30 years before it closed to film in 1961, and subsequently reopened as a bingo hall. Recently converted into a supermarket and luxury flats, the original and elegant entrance and facade has been retained – a palimpsest of its former glory days as a local picture palace. Opposite stands another important reminder of the area’s rich entertainment heritage – The Cinema Museum – which is housed in the Lambeth workhouse where Charlie Chaplin, the global movie icon who pioneered the medium, temporarily resided.

The space that Birds Eye View and The Extraordinary Travelling Film Show are using was previously a fire engine workshop. The huge industrial building, now called The Workshop, is a new temporary community and events space in the heart of Lambeth. Alongside the London Fire Brigade pop-up museum and the new Migration Museum, the space is home to charities, social and start-up enterprises and artists, all with creativity at their heart.

Vauxhall needs cinema and this why our film club is important – for making cinema local again. This time with a female flavour. All welcome. Book for the Vauxhall Pop-Up Cinema happening May 18, June 14 and July 5 here.