A couple of weeks ago I went along to one of the Hidden Spaces events – a behind the scenes tour of The Electric Cinema. It started with a fascinating talk by the Manager, and his enthusiasm not just for the Electric, but for the history of cinema, made for a really interesting look through the past 100 years of the theatre.
Over the years The Electric has been a silent movie theatre, a news theatre, even an adult theatre, moving through all these phases in the history of British cinema to its current revival showing a wide range of popular blockbusters which allows them to show foreign and art-house films alongside.The behind the scenes tour that followed was equally as unexpected, finding a hidden recording studio in the basement, and a huge projector sitting alongside state of the art digital projection equipment in, funnily enough, the projection room. (Which, by the way, was very tiny and very warm!) You can find a history of The Electric on their website.
The Electric is the oldest working cinema in the country but this got us thinking about other cinemas that have found a home in Birmingham over the years. For instance there was a cinema on the corner of Ethel Street; and one occupied the premises of the Piccadilly Arcade. When you take the time to look up at the buildings around you, it becomes obvious.
The Ordnance Survey maps we hold for Birmingham give an indication as to just how many cinemas there were . On the 1918 map you can see The Picture House, located next to the Theatre Royal. Although it didn’t last long, The Picture House and Café appears in the 1919 trade directory with Ernest A. Plumpton as manager. It closed around 1926 and would become the Piccadilly Arcade. There were approximately 60 – 70 cinemas in Birmingham during the 1920s, going by how many were listed in the trade directories at this time.
A few years later, on the Ordnance Survey map for 1937-8 we find 4 cinemas alone within a fairly short distance of New Street Station. Initially I had only spotted 3 – the Electric of course, the Odeon on New Street, and a picture house on the corner of Ethel Street and Stephenson Street which was once the Forum, later an ABC theatre. It was only when a colleague remembered going to a cinema called the Futurist that I dug a little and realised there was a fourth cinema nearby – in John Bright Street.
Sadly we do not have records for the cinemas, but by using maps and trade directories, we can piece together the comings and goings of these ‘cinematograph halls’. If you search hard enough, you can find photographs online, such as those on Flickr.
The Electric was opened up as part of Hidden Spaces, a project by Associated Architects in conjunction with the Birmingham Post and Royal Institute of British Architects, ‘sharing the secrets hidden behind the facades of Birmingham’.
As part of the project, the public have been able to see hidden parts of buildings that they may have passed regularly for years and not thought further of. For those who frequently make their way through New Street Station, you may have seen the boards offering the opportunity to go on a tour of the tunnels beneath the station. For those lucky enough to have had the tour, I suspect they won’t forget the experience in a hurry!
This week’s Hidden Space is the Municipal Bank at the top of Broad Street which is holding an exhibition of its history and runs from 20th of June for eight days. Having been there a couple of years ago to see an art installation, I can certainly recommend going along to have a look. Although this looks to be the last in the current schedule of events, there is a wealth of information on their website which takes you behind the scenes of some of Birmingham’s most well-known, and not so well-known, hidden spaces.