It’s an incontrovertible yet nonetheless contested fact that Birmingham’s Electric Cinema is the oldest working cinema in the UK. Birmingham can, then, claim an important part in the history of cinema in Britain. The Electric, though, is a peculiar beast. Those who would dismiss its claim to be an historic venue might point out that very little remains of the building of 1910, and so look instead look to the South East – to Brighton’s Duke of York’s or London’s Phoenix (née the East Finchley Picturedome). Of course, it better suits the accepted narrative of arts and culture that such things would belong to the capital or its artistic dormitory town, so The Electric is easily brushed aside by historians and journalists.
In explaining to you how Birmingham invented going to the pictures I will also brush aside any mention of The Electric because going to The Electric is not, you see, going to the pictures.
A cosy evening at The Electric with a ‘This Is Your Life’ of Britain’s oldest working picture house in the company of owner Tom Lawes to celebrate its 100th birthday. Opened in late 1909 it was, we heard, one of the first opened with knowledge of what the 1909 Cinematograph Act would require — which is one of the reasons cinemas had to be specialist buildings.
It kicked off with this (DW Griffith!) very early public information film:
We then had some top flight silent physical comedy, when one of the technicians fell off the stage in the dark, and also a bit of Laurel and Hardy accompanied by a organ played by Steve Tovey, the last full time cinema organist in Britain. A real treat was footage of the re-opening of the cinema as a ‘Tatler News Theatre’ in the early 30’s — these showed newsreels and cartoons and locally shot news. The archive was found in a shed on the roof during work in the 70s and must contain a load of local Brum footage — sadly I can find none online, maybe the owners can be persuaded (or helped) to digitise it.
There’s a great quote from one of the staff at the time on this page on Cinema Treasures (which also give a detailed history of the many ownership and name changes over the years):
“The Tatler, I worked at that cinema 1940-1941 as an operator having previously worked at the News Theare High Street, both of these cinemas being owned by Joe Cohen of Jacey Cinemas. At this time it showed cartoons, newsreels and interest films all with the credits cut out to bring the programme down to 70 minutes and if there was a queue one of the shorts was also taken out.
The staff during my time there were manager La Campe, Billy Watts (star screen reporter and later manager of Percival Mackies Band. A dogs- body Schuman. Lesley Tonks was “General Manager” I have many memories of my time there. I remember a Czeckoslovakian refugee starting there, he was the poster writer named Andre Druker, he went on to open all of the coffee shops in Brum.”
Other treasures found around the building include the master print of Eskimo Nell — funded by The Electric’s then owner Berry Jacobs who was a big noise on the ‘continental’ film circuit.
Tom showed a great deal of the refurb work that’s gone into turning the cinema back into an inviting place in recent years — the roof and the plumbing seem to have contributed to it pretty much falling down. I felt a bit uncomfortable with the way in which the previous owners/management were obviously seen. Business-wise they were crap no-doubt, but for a while at least they brought all manner of esoteric, odd, niche and arty films to Brum — I have fond memories of dozing during triple bills of Italian films in the mid to late 90s.
But what has happened to the ‘statues’ that adorned the front in the ‘art’ days? Called ‘Thatcher’s Children’ representing child poverty, they were removed (without care we heard) by the artist John Buckley (creator of the Headington Shark).
“modelled by unemployed people hung up on coat-hangers.” – will we ever see their like again? We’ll try to find out.