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Closure of Penrith cinema would be a 'tragedy' - claim

‘When you go to a cinema, you are sitting in the dark, there is a hush as the curtains open and then the Pearl & Dean music begins. It’s almost a religious experience.”

Alhambra cinema photo
Assistant manager Angela Gilmore

To Darren Horne that is why cinema matters. And that is why he and thousands of other people are not just upset but angry that Penrith’s only cinema is closing down.

Darren has been manager of the Lonsdale Alhambra Cinema in Middlegate since the current leaseholder Alan Towers took over five years ago. Alan invested more than £75,000 in refurbishing the foyer, fitting new carpets and seats, installing new heating and sound systems and modernising the building throughout.

The investment shows the moment you step inside. The interior has a plush, comfortable feel to it. It’s no surprise that audience figures have doubled since Alan took over, from 30,000 per year to 60,000.

Even the foreign and non-mainstream films it features on Sunday evenings attract large audiences, with cinema-goers coming from as far away as Manchester.

So Darren cannot understand why the cinema has to close in seven weeks’ time. Neither can thousands of other people in Penrith and beyond. And their reaction has surprised him.

“I knew people were going to be upset and sad to see us go,” Darren says. “But I didn’t realise that the anger would be so widespread.

“One of the joys of having an independent cinema is that we get recognised wherever we go.

“In the supermarket, people will come up and ask what films are showing next. You might never see the management of a big multiplex but people know us by name. We have a relationship with the audience.

“Every single day people have been calling in and telling us how angry they are, asking what they can do.”

The anger is reflected in the thousands of people who have put their names to petitions online and on paper, demanding that the cinema is saved. Within four days there were 4,000 signatures.

One of the names on the list is that of actor Richard E Grant. He has a special relationship with Penrith as the 1987 cult comedy Withnail & I, in which he starred with Paul McGann, was partly filmed there.

Many of the names on the petition fear the effect the closure is going to have on the town, and that is one of Darren’s main worries.

“If they were getting rid of us to build a multiplex we could understand it,” he says. “But when we close the entertainment options in the town will be practically down to zero. It is horrific.”

Assistant manager Angela Gilmore is close to tears as she talks of the closure. “I was devastated when I found out,” she recalls. “I had to leave the room.”

And the upset it has caused among others in Penrith hasn’t surprised her.

“There was one boy who’s just turned nine and is now old enough to come to the cinema by himself. Now his mum has had to tell him he won’t be able to. He was crying his little heart out.”

When it closes Angela will be unemployed. “I’ve loved being here and I thought I would have another five years,” she says.

“I’ve just bought my first house but I might not be able to keep it now. It’s been a great place to work since Alan took over. We’re a really close team.”

Leaseholder Alan is the third generation of his family to be involved in cinema management. He used to hold the lease on the Lonsdale Cinema in Warwick Road in Carlisle and is the owner of the Lonsdale in Annan.

Graves Cumberland asked him to take over the leases of the Lonsdale cinemas in Penrith and Keswick five years ago.

He recalls: “I knew I could do something with them. I thought there was the potential to increase the number of films shown.”

Refurbishing and modernising the interior in Penrith was an immediate priority for him. “I get a lot of my kicks when I hear people saying: ‘What a nice place that was,’” he says.

Another part of his approach was to offer a broader range of films, and not just the Hollywood blockbusters. Every weekend the ‘Sunday Alternative’ features foreign or independent movies – the sort of films that the big multiplexes ignore – and they attract regular healthy audiences of 60 or more.

“We show everything from the blockbusters to the non-mainstream movies, so there’s something for everyone,” he explains.

“We don’t just go for the films that sell the most Pepsi and popcorn.”

After seeing audiences double during his five years at the helm, he was hopeful he could recoup his £75,000 investment over the next five.

“I did think I would get 10 years here,” he says. “It isn’t as if the business is in difficulty.

“There are an awful lot of independent cinemas that are struggling. We aren’t one of them.”

Alan understands the public anger but says: “I’m not the sort of person who gets angry. I just think it’s just terribly sad.

“This is the best of my three cinemas. It’s profitable and everybody in the town seems to want it to continue. And yet it is disappearing,”

Owners Graves Cumberland also operate a bingo hall downstairs from the cinema which is not making money and want to put it and the cinema on the market as one unit.

They have refused to comment beyond a statement saying that “with sincere regret” the bingo operation will close on January 30, adding: “It is with much sadness that we also have to announce that the Lonsdale Alhambra Cinema, housed in the same building, will close on March 3.”

Their decision will bring to an end a history that stretches back 101 years. A man who knows a great deal about it is Mike Best, author of a history of the cinema.

Mike now lives in London but was born and brought up in Penrith and always goes there to see a film on trips home.

“It was built by a local builder called William Forester and was at first called the Alhambra,” Mike explains.

“It opened on January 27, 1910 as an entertainment and variety hall but the films came in fairly quickly.”

Those first films were silent movies but he says: “It showed its first talkie in November 1930, a film called Splinters, but in those days it was still used a lot for variety shows. There were animal acts, ventriloquists and comedians – all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

“During the two world wars it was used a lot for public meetings, but after the war the cinema took over.”

It closed for a few years during the 1970s, but the town had another cinema, the Regent, which has since gone. The Lonsdale Alhambra is now Penrith’s only venue for films.

“It will be a tragedy if it is lost,” Mike says.

Darren, who is also a lecturer in film and media at the University of Cumbria, argues it doesn’t just matter because it is one of Penrith’s only leisure facilities. He explains that even in these days of DVDs, multi-channel TV and downloadable movies, cinemas are still important places.

“People don’t think of films as art – but it is exactly the same as going to a museum or an art gallery,” he argues. “Cinemas are important because they remind us that film is art, it’s not just disposable.”

He describes the atmosphere as “almost a religious experience” and points out: “It can have a massive impact. If you ask anyone their favourite film or the one that has had the biggest influence on them, it will be one they saw at the cinema.”

He adds: “In general it’s still an affordable day out. And for youngsters going to the cinema is often the first chance they get to go out without their parents.”

This is what Dawn Stobbart fears her children will miss out on. Dawn is 34 but first went there on her own aged 12 – the age her daughter is now. So, when asked why she launched the petition, she explains: “It’s because it’s our cinema!

“I was brought up in Penrith and my first step to freedom was coming here when I was 12. Now my daughter’s not going to have her turn.

“We’ve got few enough leisure amenities left in Penrith.”

Paper versions of the petition have been put in most of the shops and businesses in the town. But Dawn has also set up a Facebook page with a link to the online petition. She hopes sheer weight of numbers could save the day.

“In the first four days we got 4,000 names so there will be a lot more by now,” she says.

“If we approach Graves with something viable maybe they will consider it.”

Whether public opinion will be enough to persuade the company to change their mind remains to be seen, but Alan cannot afford to be optimistic.

“I saw this with the Lonsdale in Carlisle,” he remembers. “We hoped we could keep it and look at the state of it now.”

So he will soon have to choose the last picture to be screened there and feels Withnail & I would be a good note to end on.

“It was filmed in and near Penrith so I think it would be suitable.”

And like many classic comedies, it ends with a certain sadness – something many will feel when the curtains close and the lights come up for the very last time.

Have your say

We can't wait for Wetherspoons to open a pub in Penrith, a town we visit fairly regularly. Keen prices and a superb range of real ale, many from local brewers. Supporters of CAMRA. Bring it on!

Posted by Mike Blackstone on 31 January 2011 at 08:46

have been to this great little cinema. I don't know Alan but I know many who do and he has done a great job of that and the other cinemas. WE have seen the same happe to so many other cinemas throughout the country were landlords sell out to the likes of Weatherspoons, who are all so eager to jump on anyone who offers them a cinema building so they can cram as many people as possible in to drinking beer and creating massive profits for them. I have Weatherspoons!!! My advise is for your supporters to lobby your local planners and make sure they never pass planning permission for the cinema to be turned into a pub cause if the owners want to sell this for big bucks to WEatherspoons they will do. Your only hope is to lobby your council at the same time as trying to do your community buy-out.

The same thing happened to the Savoy in Heaton Moor. the owner wanted to sell it to the BArracuda group and I think Weatherspoons but the community objected strongly and the council put a block on it. Thankfully the cinema is still running and open today. Best of luck.

Posted by jonkino on 29 January 2011 at 17:31

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