Lean dreams in the dark

By - Wednesday 26th March, 2014

Why did the little cinema in Katharine Street Croydon refuse to die?

9AM, Monday February 24th 2014. A procession of early arrivals at the Croydon Visitor Centre discovers that you can’t, after all, purchase tickets there for the New David Lean’s re-opening. People’s frustration really shows, and the number of early-morning callers and the extent of their disappointment tell a powerful story. Why did the little cinema in Katharine Street have such a hold on enthusiasts that after it was unceremoniously cut by Croydon Council in the spring of 2011, they refused to let it die?

You may say I’m a dreamer – Phillip Howard, Heather Hardie, and Adrian Winchester of the Save The David Lean campaign Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones.

Campaigners Adrian Winchester, Phillip Howard and Heather Hardie are cautious at our meeting on February 27th – conscious there’s a way to go before the David Lean is re-established with daily screenings. Still, in April 2011 when Croydon lost what Time Out magazine memorably described as “the jewel in its crown”, to have come this far would have seemed like a dream.

Closure was abrupt and the campaigners questioned the council’s statement on savings it. £160,000 was stated as the cinema’s cost but £20,000 of this represented fixed costs and the cinema’s £10,000-15,000 pa advertising revenue was disregarded.

First press coverage of a Save the David Lean Cinema campaign appeared in the Croydon Advertiser on June 17th 2011, supported by Ronnie Corbett and Julian Fellowes. Ronnie Corbett’s appeal to save “this darling place was the catalyst for what followed, and Adrian Winchester’s response, “Let’s make this happen!” doomed him, as he wryly observes, to a leading role in the fight. By July 2011 a campaign committee had been formed.

Adrian Winchester worded his goals carefully, since funding as before appeared unrealistic

Austerity is with us whether we wish it or not and Adrian Winchester worded his goals carefully: since funding as before appeared unrealistic, he requested commitment from Croydon Council to engage with any constructive proposal for the cinema’s continuance. As support began to grow, an online petition gathered 1500 signatures.

In February 2012 the council discussed Community Asset Transfer (CAT) – making the auditorium available to volunteers at a peppercorn rent to run as a business. Two social enterprise groups, one consisting of members of its former staff, were present. So were representatives of the Curzon cinema group, suggesting a number of possible ways forward.

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet’.’ The David Lean auditorium will re-open without its original name. Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones.

But CAT withered after council-run operations were moved into the clocktower, making parts of the space included in the proposal unavailable. Lack of progress frustrated the campaigners – in Adrian Winchester’s words, 2012 felt like ‘limbo’ – and attempts to hire the cinema also stalled after the cost of recalibrating its digital projector was revealed as £5000, a sum the council would not pay. Political support in Croydon was badly needed.

In February 2013 Adrian Winchester met Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central, who expressed his support. It’s possible Gavin Barwell reflected that losing a resource for the arts when people committed to its continuance are ready to maintain it isn’t very ‘Big Society’ – and I understand there are to be elections. Perhaps I am too cynical. It is believed he contacted council cabinet member Tim Pollard in writing – Pollard’s predecessor Sara Bashford having been instrumental in closing the cinema. Pollard’s shadow, Councillor Maggie Mansell, presented the campaigners’ petition to two council meetings.

In April 2013 Croydon Council’s Head of Facilities proposed that the campaign present screenings in Katharine Street – first direct contact with campaigners and a significant breakthrough. The council was now willing to pay for recalibration and refurbishment – developments for which a councillor later gave credit to Gavin Barwell. In July a meeting was held in the former cinema’s projection box. The ground was shifting.

Having closed the David Lean Cinema, the council could not be seen to re-open it

The David Lean cinema never really went away. Its name had survived in Croydon throughout the campaign although confusingly in two places. One was the Fairfield Halls, under the working title ‘David Lean at Fairfield’. The campaigners could not help but see this as a sly attempt on the part of Croydon Council to suggest the cinema had not really been axed at all – and it was certainly reported as such. They, however, feeling much had been lost in the transfer to Fairfield, had begun well-supported free film screenings above the Spreadeagle in Katharine Street.

It’s ironic, therefore, that the cinema returns nameless. Signage above the entrance has been changed and directions refer only to the ‘cinema and auditorium’. A member of council staff commented that having closed the David Lean Cinema, the council could not be seen to re-open it.

As support widened, films were shown by campaigners at Purley Festival, South Norwood Arts Festival and the Croydon Heritage Festival in 2013. The re-opening of the cinema on its original site appeared in Croydon Council’s calendar of events in January 2014. Opening night was 27th March with a screening of Basically, Johnny Moped, about the Croydon band graced by Captain Sensible, before he formed The Damned, and directed by his son Fred Burns.

The projection box is key to everything and the campaigners emphasise the role of Stephen Furley, formerly the cinema’s relief projectionist, who became a campaigning stalwart. They wish to thank him for all he has done.

The Clocktower arts complex opened in 1994. It supported a variety of cultural activities: a mixture of arthouse and intelligent mainstream movies, children’s theatre, live performance, art and photography shows. It was for all ages, but not accessed by all sectors of Croydon society. So why should people who prefer carrot cake to popcorn get their own cinema?

The David Lean Cinema matters because diversity matters. Hollywood pounds us with gunfire, T&A and superheroes to the point that too many don’t realise cinema is more than that. Those 68 seats in Katharine Street can awaken people to possibilities of which they may not otherwise be aware. The little cinema exists for the same reason Croydon schools run a scheme called Sound Start – you see kids from West Croydon walking along with their violins. Most won’t play them after completing the programme – some might. But all have their horizons broadened. And for those who do arthouse the David Lean is readily accessible for all. It enriches everyone’s experience of film.

The New David Lean looks to the future with cautious optimism. Croydon’s council elections in May may impact on its future, and it must break even with two weekly screenings (Thursdays 2:30pm and 7:30pm) before fulfilling its hope of more. Demand for tickets is strong and its staff, from ushers to projectionists to IT support, is voluntary to keep costs down. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Croydon Visitor Centre (020 8686 9706 for opening times), or by dialling 0333 666 3366 (£1.50 charge) as well as online, and a new website is under construction.

The jewel in Croydon’s crown sparkles once again, but remember – it isn’t safe yet.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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