Sunday 24 September 2023

Developing Situation

An interest in the history of a local building can give rise to a great deal of frustration if, as part of that interest, one develops a desire to see what lies within, but it transpires that the interior is inaccessible. This frustration is particularly acute if it proves impossible to find any photographs of said interior.

A site that had eluded me until recently - a holy grail of Nottingham cinema interiors, if you will - was the cinema on Long Row that opened as The Picture House in November 1912 and closed in January 1930. I was confident that original features would still be in evidence, because the building that contained the cinema (33 Long Row) was listed in 1990 and the listing detailed a number of surviving features.

Particularly exciting were the following two sentences:

'To the rear of the site is the former auditorium of the Picture Palace [sic] Cinema, 1912, floored in at a later date. This retains its segment-arched moulded plaster ceiling and over the proscenium arch, a plaster relief of galleons.'

Detail from Ordnance Survey map
showing the location of the Long Row Picture House
(1913 revision, published 1915)

An Evening Post article from October 1912, anticipating the cinema's imminent opening, provides details of its layout and features:

'A vestibule or lounge stretches for a distance of 120 feet from the front to the entrance of the picture theatre, and from this lounge access is obtained also to the oak café in the basement and to the dainty Wedgewood café, and a second oak café on the first and second floors respectively. The decorative features of the lounge are Jacobean, and it is not only fitted with pay box, cloak-rooms, and offices, but will serve as a covered waiting place for visitors who are unable to obtain seats until patrons who preceded them have had their share of the "continuous entertainment." The cafés, it may perhaps be explained, are intended for the service of teas and light refreshments, and contain facilities for reading and writing...The picture theatre designed to accommodate about 600, and is both comfortable and picturesque. The general style of architecture may be roughly described as Renaissance...the quite handsomely furnished with substantial oak panellings on the walls all round...Two groups of tip-up seats are provided on the ground floor...a balcony has been erected with rather more luxurious seating, and four side bays, which are to be furnished with lounges...A particularly striking plaster ceiling and some artistic figures form a great feature of the decorations...a double orchestra is already engaged.'

The proprietors were clearly aiming to attract a higher class of patron, and the Post was of the opinion that, '...internally...there is no more picturesque hall of entertainment in the city'.

Michael Payne, in his book Going to the Pictures: A Short History of Cinema in Nottingham, states that 'Throughout the era of silent films, the Long Row Picture House together with the Elite were the leading cinemas in Nottingham.'

1,500-seat super cinema The Elite, which had opened in 1921, began showing 'talkies' in 1929 and seemed to have a prosperous future ahead of it. For the Picture House, however, all good things were to come to an end somewhat sooner than anticipated.

By the end of 1927, its owners, Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (PCT), had purchased the much larger Hippodrome Theatre on Goldsmith Street, revamped it and re-opened it as a cinema (it later became the Gaumont). Sound was installed there just after the Elite in 1929, but it seems that this was deemed uneconomic at the Picture House, which closed on 4 January 1930. The seating and equipment was quickly removed and sent to other PCT cinemas.

The Evening Post shed a little light on the matter by reporting, shortly before the Picture House's closure, on a meeting of the Notts. and Derbyshire branch of the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association, at which a Mr Joseph Pollard had opined that 'this was yet another outcome of the "talkie" menace, since the Long-row theatre was too small to justify its being wired for talking pictures.'

Mr Pollard also 'held the opinion that, sooner or later, the popularity of "talkies" would wane, as soon as the novelty had exhausted itself...He contended that the theme of talking films was very much restricted, and no "talkie" could ever be produced against such a spectacular background as some of the very successful silent films.'

We all know how that played out.

The Picture House premises were subsequently taken over by Lyons and there have been various layouts and occupants in the years since. Most parts of the building, including the former auditorium, have, however, been empty for over a decade. The ground floor space that fronts onto the Old Market Square seems now to be separate from the rest of the building and is currently occupied by Coral.

33 Long Row, former home of The Picture House

While walking along Norfolk Place between Upper Parliament Street and the Market Square recently, I noticed some scaffolding on the exterior of what I knew to be the former Picture House auditorium, and an open door leading to a set of stairs.

I didn't have to think twice. Bounding up the steps before anyone could shout, 'Oi, you!', I emerged into an open space, and, glory of glories, there it was - the former cinema auditorium...not in the best of shape, it has to be said, and, it transpired, in the process of being converted into flats, but still... a dream realised.

I quickly took several photos with my mobile phone camera before, as if by magic, a chap in a hard hat and hi-vis jacket appeared. Our brief conversation went as follows:

'Hi. I'm a local historian and I'm interested in former cinema buildings. I wonder if I can speak to someone about having a look around, please.'

'Are you one of them that's making us keep all this?'

'Erm, no.'

'Hang on, I'll get the Site Manager.'

Reader, to cut a long story short, I persevered over a number of days in my attempts to gain permission to have a proper look around, even investing in some PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), but I was led on a merry dance with no resolution, so finally, I gave up, comforted by the knowledge that I had, at least, spent a few minutes in the hallowed space.

The planning documents for what, in its final form, looks like an elegant conversion include a deliciously detailed Heritage Impact Assessment document and can be viewed on the Nottingham City Council website (go to, type in the reference 22/02420/PFUL3 and choose the second result). During the application process, the Civic Society and Nottingham City Council's Conservation Officer questioned some aspects of the plans, and this led to the submission of a revised application (the one referenced above). In particular, it is great news that the plaster ceiling and proscenium arch features referred to in the Historic England listing will remain visible and in communal space, though only partly in the case of the ceiling.

Here's to all those individuals who keep developers in check and help to ensure that at least some of 'all this' lives to tell the tale.

The former Picture House auditorium
(view south towards the proscenium arch)
(author photo)

The plaster relief above the proscenium arch
(image sourced from the Heritage Impact Assessment document
and edited to highlight the feature)
(click to enlarge)

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