Orla Foster

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Remembering the Gaumont

During my placement with the Liverpool Echo back in November I was asked to write a short filler piece about a community-led cinema which was starting up in Anfield. The project was based at the Liverpool Lighthouse, and the people behind it planned to screen Casablanca that Friday. On speaking with the organisers, I quickly became interested in the project and wanted to see the cinema for myself. I decided to jack in a day re-wording council press releases and went down to find out about the project instead.

The Liverpool Lighthouse is a creative space located on Oakfield Road, also known as the Urban Gospel Music and Arts Centre. Since it opened in 2005, the centre has played a key role in the planned regeneration of Anfield, with LJM Group, the organisation behind it, seeking to address the needs of people living in the area. Consequently, the Lighthouse offers a diverse range of community-engaged projects and support programmes, from large-scale educational schemes― namely, the free school it plans to open later this year ― to facilitating more recreational pursuits. Currently the centre also provides maths and English tuition for asylum seekers and refugees, as well as craft-making workshops and tea dances for older people. Elsewhere in the building, aspiring musicians can work on their projects in a purpose-built recording studio and take part in drama and dance workshops daily.

Long before any of this, however, the building was a cornerstone of the community for quite a different reason. In its incarnation as the Gaumont Palace Cinema, the building attracted countless audiences week upon week, and was a hive of social activity for young and old alike. Interestingly, it seems this section of Oakfield Road has a long tradition of providing entertainment ― the site was originally home to the King’s Hall Variety Theatre, which was built in 1912 and demolished in 1913. The following year, the Gaumont Palace was unveiled; a majestic art deco building very much in keeping with the style of the times.

Back then, of course, cinemas were a common sight in every neighbourhood. There were four Gaumont Palaces in Liverpool alone, the other three based in Dingle, Allerton and London Road. The Anfield branch was impressive ― with its 40 foot proscenium and 1,600 seats, it had the capacity to hold a substantial crowd of film-lovers. It was also, notably, the first cinema in the UK to screen The Titfield Thunderbolt (made in 1953, and more wholesome than it sounds), which was Britain’s first technicolour film.

Like many cinemas, however, the Gaumont eventually fell into decline and was forced to close in 1960, signing off with a final screening of Audrey Hepburn Western The Unforgiven. After a stint as a hardware store, the building was sidelined for a little while before being transformed into the Liverpool Lighthouse in 2005.

Speaking with those involved with the centre, it’s clear that today the Lighthouse has a busy and diverse programme of events. As with most community and arts organisations, the threat of funding cuts looms in the foreground, but for the time being the people involved are still managing to put on events by virtue of a creative, resourceful approach.

After the Casablanca credits had rolled, I spoke with some of the people who attended the event, including Morris O’Hara and his wife, Joan. Their recollections of coming here were still vivid. Morris remembered the Gaumont particularly fondly, as his father, George, was employed here, and would often get Morris casual shifts during the school holidays. He recalled the Gaumont in its prime, when his family would spend many afternoons watching the newest releases ― sometimes for hours at a time, as the films operated on a loop. Unfortunately for Morris, this also meant being dragged to musicals with his older sister, but he balanced it out with a healthy string of Westerns. So he has mostly affectionate memories of the Gaumont ― give or take a few showbiz numbers.

“We used to come here during the war as a way of keeping entertained in difficult times,” he told me.

“It was escapism for us. Whenever there was an air-raid, the film would be stopped for a few moments so the manager could walk across the stage and ask the audience if they wanted to go into the bomb shelter or carry on watching the film. Most people were keen on finding out the ending, so they just stayed in their seats.

“I never went to the matinees though. You had to be tough to go the matinee.”

While we were talking, another member of the committee, Billy Murphy, joined us to chat about his memories, many of which involved the opposite sex. With a wink, he claimed never to have actually seen a film ― due to being too distracted by whoever was beside him ― and had the following advice to offer: “If you were courting, you always had to pay the full shilling for a balcony seat. You’d have to make sure you impressed her.”

Meanwhile, Morris’s wife Joan recalled the opulent aesthetic of the building, and how exciting an outing to the pictures used to be. In an age which pre-dated all-night drinking, leisure hours were usually confined to 7-10pm, so you had to make sure the time was well spent.

“People were happy to queue around the block to see a film back then,” said Joan. “Even in the rain, people would hang around until they could get a ticket. Children weren’t allowed in by themselves, but you’d see them waiting around outside asking grown-ups to walk them through.

“Then, once you got inside, there would be plush velvet seats and carpets so soft you sank into them. I also remember the usherettes being really glamorous when they brought your ice cream round during the interval. They always looked immaculate.

“We don’t go to the cinema any more, but back then it was a really special occasion.”

Part of the inspiration behind the project was the fact that cinema culture simply doesn’t exist the way it used to. Whereas fifty years ago you would find several cinemas in every neighbourhood, today their popularity is on the wane, with picturehouses often pushed out into the grey environs of retail parks and multiplexes. These aren’t especially inviting locations for older people, a sentiment which Morris and Joan both agreed with. Both said they used to go to the pictures frequently and could still name various former establishments around Liverpool: the Astoria in Walton, the Savoy on West Derby Road, the Lido on Belmont Road, the Cabbage Hall Picture House. Morris recalled the way cinemas in the area used to share their reels, so you could catch the same film on a circuit over a period of time, and get to know it inside-out if you wanted to.

Of course, going to the flicks isn’t an obsolete pastime just yet. The new Odeon, based in Liverpool One, has been successful enough, and you’ll always find a throng of excitable teenagers and the familiar popcorn fragrance at the entrance to reassure you that movie culture is alive and well – here and there. But for older members of the community, there is nothing as accessible as the old cinemas; nothing within walking distance of home. By organising the screenings at the Lighthouse, LJM Group has catered for a section of the community which is often inadvertently overlooked.

Everyone I spoke to was quick to praise the efforts of Martyna Chlost, who organised the project. She made sure that the centre was able to secure funding from Liverpool City Council, and tirelessly met with volunteers to get the scheme underway. The committee held regular meetings to arrange the details of the screening, and most importantly, work out which films people would like to see, with Casablanca eventually selected for its timeless appeal. It had the added advantage that many of the volunteers could remember going to see it the first time round.

“People who come to the Liverpool Lighthouse always tell us so many stories from its days as a cinema,” Martyna explained.

“This is a way for us to recreate the experience, as well as bringing people together to talk about the fun they had.”

The visit wouldn’t have been complete without a closer look at the building, and Richie Burns, who works at the Lighthouse, kindly gave me a full tour. When going in search of old cinemas previously, I’ve often found that they were converted into bingo halls long ago, the original features stripped down and replaced with plywood. Or worse – just a barren car park where a bustling lobby used to be. Even the most revered architectural designs fall on hard times, for example, the Abbey in Wavertree; once grand, later scrubbed down to become a supermarket.

It was therefore impressive to see how many of the Gaumont’s original features were still in place, offering a valuable insight into the cinema’s much-cited former glamour. The Gaumont’s appearance was not uncommon for cinemas of its day, but it definitely offered a bold backdrop for evenings out, far from fusty church halls and drawing rooms. The sharp lines and decadent frontage of the new cinemas represented an optimism and daring, defiantly overstepping the tradition and trappings of the old order with buildings which appeared imposing and futuristic, possessing an elegance entirely their own.

Inevitably, even the most forward-thinking designs end up as period pieces in the long run – if they survive, that is – but it seems fitting that this one hasn’t gone to waste. After all, the Lighthouse remains a large, multi-functional building, used by lots of people – and unlike many former cinemas it is filled with conversation and activity rather than the guttural whirrings of a casino.

Henry Keesz, who works with Martyna for LJM Group, was keen to emphasise that the project will have a legacy beyond the screenings themselves. The team are working on a video project to be screened at future events, assembled from a series of interviews with people who used to come here. The idea is that the interviewees’ memories will be captured on film to create an audiovisual timeline of the cinema’s glory days, while creating a new set of memories for everybody involved.

It’s also hoped that the group will be able to extend the project to cover a broader span of films. Possible themes being considered include a 1980s film night – what could be better? – but they’re hoping to get more people involved so they can find out what would be most popular.

The next screening will be a Valentines Special, scheduled for February. Some of the votes being cast during my visit included Some Like It Hot and Gone With The Wind, but I’ve yet to hear the final result. Either way, it’s bound to be a great occasion, and a little more sociable than sitting in a dark bedroom looking for download links.

2011. Previously unpublished.