River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Down Memory Lane

November 2013

The story of when the cinema came to Brandon

We find ourselves sat amongst an audience inside the Church Institute on a freezing January evening in 1914 and at the front of that audience a certain Mr Frederick Gentle, Brandon Councillor and Butcher, is informing us about the incredible expedition of Amunsden at the South Pole. At various moments during the evening slides are projected onto a large screen to further illustrate the points he is making.  Now I haven’t brought us here to announce that these projections are the forerunner to Brandon’s cinema; that might be stretching it a bit far, but instead take a look at the young man who is operating the gas driven slide projector that evening.  He’s of slight build, and I can add that he is aged about 24, and the town knows him as the youngest son of the rather wealthy furrier Palmer Lingwood.  This young man’s name is Stanley Lingwood.  Stanley works with his father, who co-owns the family’s huge furrier business along London Road (where Tesco now stands) and his family live in a big house along the Avenue, aptly named Avenue House.  Stanley is the one who will bring cinema to the town.

We have left the winter of 1914 behind us and now catch up with Stanley on a pleasant summer evening in 1916, although it’s a different Stanley.  Tonight he is dressed in khaki and kneeling in deep mud, cutting away at barbed wire.  Six months after we saw him at the Church Institute war was declared and Stanley immediately enlisted into ‘Kitchener’s Army’ and following a year of training he is in France to fight the Hun.  Tonight he is clearing a path through no man’s land for the morning attack by the British in the  what will later be seen as the beginning of the battle on The Somme.  We have been spotted!  German artillery shells explode around us and we follow Stanley back to the safety of the British trenches and we barely escape with our lives.  In the morning we feel the ground shuddering under our feet and Stanley feels it too.  We hear that the British have just exploded a huge mine under the German lines and suddenly the fighting erupts and the British advance into no man’s land.  We stay with Stanley, who is held back in the trench in reserve, and so thankfully we do not witness the gruesome fate of those Tommie’s as they are mown down in their thousands.  However in the following days we share Stanley’s shock when he is tasked with retrieving the rotting corpses from the mud and taking them behind the lines for burial.  For now we shall let Stanley get on with it and rejoin him a few months later.

We are inside a room with high ceilings and there’s a smell of disinfectant and as we familiarize ourselves to our new surroundings we can see it’s an English summer outside and we realise that the mud and trenches from Flanders are gone.  This is a hospital ward.  A British hospital for that matter, and before us is Stanley lying in a bed with a Red Cross nurse tending to his badly wounded hand.  The nurse tells Stanley his war is over and he’s lucky not to have his hand amputated, so he’s not leaving ‘Blighty’ in any hurry.  She is right and a year later, in the summer of 1917, we see Stanley is back in Brandon having just been pensioned out of the Army because he is, as his Army papers label him, “disabled”.

Stanley has encountered much misery since we first saw him on that wintry evening in 1914 and now to add to his woes on September 6th 1917 his 67-year-old father dies following a long illness.  We can only guess as to what, if any, inheritance Stanley receives but that autumn he is flushed with cash and purchases a 500-seater wooden cinema from a company in Oswestry, Shropshire.  Where will Stanley erect it?  Well he can keep an eye on the cinema from his home because he places it right next door along the Avenue, between the family home and the Church Institute where we first caught up with him.  He names the cinema ‘ELECTRIC PALACE’ and in it he shows the silent movies of the day and one of the first films is an epic called ‘Civilization’ which dramatizes the sinking of the Lusitania.  His cinema is also a hub of the community and local schools are allowed to use it to put on their annual shows and on occasion political rallies and trade union meetings are held there.  Above all this Stanley has not forgotten the generosity shown by those nurses to him in his hour of need and uses his new building to host charity events to raise funds for the Red Cross Society.  We shall now leave Stanley as the town heads towards the 1920s and we shall return a generation later.

Its now in the 1930s and the building is looking a bit sorry for itself. As we enter into the cinema we see poor Stanley at the front of the auditorium apologising to the audience because the film projector has once again broken down.  The audience is not impressed and they throw their orange peel at him to mark their displeasure.  This small frail man is not receiving the same adulation from the town as he did when he left for war twenty years previously.  To make matters worse someone comes down the aisle during the interval to spray insecticide amongst the seats.  The cinema is literally a flea pit!  Lets not hang around here too long and I suggest we return next year, after Stanley has sold the building to someone who has cash to modernize it.

So before we head back into Brandon let me brief you about what happens to the cinema.  The new owner is Mr Ben Culey who already owns a modern cinema in Thetford, and he sees this Brandon one as primitive in comparison however the site does offer potential.  In March Ben brings a slice of Hollywood to Brandon and we could have gone to see ‘King Kong’ in all its glory, but the film that interests me most is ‘The Invisible Man’, which is destined for screening in the early part of June.  I’m sure the film will be every bit as good as Mr Culey’s review, which is printed in the local newspaper, but sadly the town will be denied the movie.  You see just six months after Ben Culey purchases the wooden cinema it burns down to the ground.  No one can prove how the fire starts but you should know that local suspicion is aroused when Mr Culey immediately announces a new modern cinema will be built on that same site and a Culey family member is given the contract to build it.  It seems every cloud has a silver lining!  We are more concerned with what history tells us has happened rather than listening to the rumour mill, so let us now go to Saturday morning of 9th June 1934.

Its 5am.  Look there’s a thin trail of white smoke coming from the wooden cinema and we are not alone in seeing it.  Mrs Linge, who is returning home from caring for an elderly person, has also seen it and she is now running off to fetch the Fire Brigade.  While she has gone we watch as the fire spreads rapidly and the roof is engulfed in flames.  Its twenty minutes later before the Fire Brigade arrive on the scene and the fire has been so ferocious that the roof has already collapsed and the building is virtually gutted.  The only positive for the firemen is that they manage to prevent the fire spreading to the operating room, which is only part of the cinema not made from wood, but of brick instead.  It is ironic that the cinema’s previous owner, Stanley Lingwood, who still lives next door and has been awoken by the commotion, is assisting the firemen by allowing them to run a hose from his house.  It all in vain and after 15,000 gallons of water are used the firemen call it a day.

We can see that Ben does not hang around to announce a new cinema for the site because a large board stating, “Super Cinema to be built on this site, to be opened in October next, to hold about 500 people” is erected on top of the burnt carcass of the first cinema.  So lets now go to October and see that new cinema.  Oh, there is nothing built and we can still see but the rubble of the previous one.  In the latest edition of the Thetford and Watton Times someone has written in complaining the young people have no where to go and are taking to hanging around on street corners and, to use a modern term, are in danger of being rowdy and anti-social.  Where is the cinema?  It seems Mr Culey has had to alter his original plans and it’s not his fault the new cinema is delayed but more down to the red tape he has to cut through.  He is still committed to bringing a most modern cinema to the town and everyone should know that the delay is costing him financially because he had booked several top movies in advance to be shown at the cinema and these still have to be paid for.  To silence the agitated residents he releases details of his new cinema, to be called the ‘AVENUE CINEMA’, in the local newspaper, dated 3rd November 1934.

When the building has been completed we shall return and walk through those front doors and marvel at the most modern cinema of its time.

Welcome to Brandon 1935. Its late January and we can see that work has finally started on Mr Ben Culey’s new cinema, in fact since the first brick was laid on Thursday December 6th 1934, it has rapidly been transformed into a new modern cinema building and inside there is a flurry of activity with gas fitters, carpenters and plumbers all hurrying to finish their jobs before the planned opening date for the middle of next month.  The plasterers are busy applying ‘snowcrete’ to the exterior walls and crews are inside carefully plastering the interior.  It seems that Ben has co-designed the building himself and with the assistance of the West Suffolk County Council architect he has a building which will pass the most stringent regulations UK can throw at it and give Brandon an asset it can be proud of.  If we need proof of this fact then we shall return for the official opening of the cinema, at 2.15pm on Monday 11th February, 1935.

So here we are, outside the cinema and there’s already a crowd of people eager to get inside and take a look.  First impressions are good.  There’s an ample car park at the side for cycles and motor cycles, and even for cars if anyone is wealthy enough to have one, and from the car park a side door allows patrons into the cinema.  However the front entrance is more interesting and we are welcomed by a huge neon light spelling out the cinema’s name ‘ AVENUE’.  The doors are opened and the crowd begin to enter the cinema, so we should do likewise.  We pass through the front doors and are met by attendants taking people’s coats and placing them in the cloakroom.  The floor is laid with rubber tiles that make it easy on the feet, and it seems that comfort is the most over riding factor built into the cinema.  We take our seat in the auditorium and the colour scheme is striking, there are pale blues and orange hues and the main curtains are dove grey on a stage built from good old British oak which is handy if anyone wants to hold a small concert in the building.  There are some fantastic scenic decorations, painted by Mr Eustace Register, of King’s Lynn, which depict views of the Bay of Naples and the Italian Lakes adorning the auditorium.  Ben Culey goes to great length to tell everyone of how modern this building is.  Apparently it is constructed from 25 tons of British steel, it has a ventilation system that can deliver 10,000 cubic feet of clean air per minute, patrons comfort is paramount and each seat has 16 springs and hot water radiators keep us warm on this February afternoon.  The very latest acoustic boards have been installed on the walls to further enhance the patrons experience and the very latest British designed projectors make this one of the most modern cinemas in the region.  Mains electricity has yet to reach the cinema and so it employs a 21 horsepower crude oil generator to power the electrics, and there is a second one as back up, which should be enough to power 50 homes.  And the guy who won the electrical wiring contract?  Well he was Mr John Culey, I bet he’s a family member!

The excited audience are hushed to silence and Mr Culey’s bank manager stands up before the audience to make a speech before he declares the cinema open.  Firstly he apologises to everyone because the official opening was postponed because it looked like the work was running behind but due to the work of the engineers over the weekend it was put back on at the last minute.  Anyway he said he had very great pleasure in opening the new cinema, and extended a hearty welcome to the residents of Brandon.  Now its time for the very first movie at Brandon’s new cinema, its called ‘One Night Of Love’, and stars someone called Grace Moore, its not one I’m familiar with but it has panoramic views which allows the projection equipment to truly show off what it can do.  Unlike today’s cinema we get a second movie and in today’s interval Mr Len Sewell entertains the audience with a recital on his piano-accordion.

The new cinema sells out for weeks after the opening and even during the Second World War people from outside Brandon are bussed into the town to visit the cinema.  On one occasion during the war the landlord of the Flowerpot Inn takes Ben Culey to court because queues are so massive to get into the cinema that they are blocking the entrance to his pub.  The case is thrown out, Ben Culey is seen as a benevolent man in the town and he has brought a cinema to the town that is the envy of the district.

Darren Norton

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