I had heard of the Electric Cinema in Birmingham before, but I had never been, so when a deal came up on voucher-a-day website Living Social, I thought what better way to spend my first time at the UK’s oldest working cinema than with a tour of the facilities and a screening of a classic Hollywood movie.
It is a very small boutique cinema around the back of New Street Station, which you have to keep your eyes peeled for, as unlike big multiplex cinemas, it doesn’t stand out against the surrounding shops. From the outside it doesn’t look like much at all, just a very tall, narrow space. It has the very traditional white board above the entrance that you would expect to see the name of a movie on, but it simply states “The Electric Cinema”, and if you look right up to the top of the building there is a 1920s inspired sign reading “The Electric”.
Arriving just before the doors opened, we had to wait outside amidst some road works, in this very urban setting, but when the doors were released and we were invited inside, the sounds of drilling gave way to the murmurs of vintage jazz music.
As part of the Living Social deal, a choice of tea or coffee was included, and having a look at what other refreshments they offered, I was impressed that they served a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, as well as a wide selection of snacks, such as hummus, olives, chorizo, cakes, cookies and ice-cream; a nice change from nachos and hotdogs, and at reasonable prices too.
The tour began with a talk by the manager about the history of the cinema which was established in 1909. Between then and now, it has had several periods of closure, most notably during the bombing of Birmingham in World War Two.
Like most cinemas back then, they only showed news reels; keeping the public informed long before television came along. Bicycle boys would be loaded up with these 35mm news reels that were to be delivered to every cinema across the UK, and there were a lot of cinemas back then. The drawback to this was that by the time the audience viewed a particular reel, the news was no longer relevant. Say one news reel was about a member of the royal family being ill, by the time most people saw it, that person had died. In an attempt to counteract this, the owner of the Electric Cinema requested some employees to go out around Birmingham to create news reels, effectively creating local news.
For a period of time, the Electric Cinema moved from showing news reels to showing cartoons; something that would become known as the Tuppenny Crush, reflecting the price of tickets and the amount of children getting through the door to watch cartoons whilst their parents would have shopped at the old Bull Ring.
When they began showing regular films, cinemas had to show a certain percentage of British movies, unfortunately, British movies were not that great. So staff at the Electric had to come up with a way to fill their quota AND get customers through the door; the solution? British made soft porn. According to the current manager, these were mostly documentaries about nudists.
From then the Electric had a few changes in ownership and some periods of closure before the current owner purchased it in 2004. He is very into films and wanted to use the space as a film studio. Deciding to use the upstairs space as the studio, he restored the main screening room downstairs and once again the Electric Cinema was open for business, showcasing a variety of mainstream, foreign, independent and classic movies.
The cinema was such a success that the decision was made to turn the film studio area into a second screening room. Since then the cinema has gone from strength to strength with its art deco designs and sense of nostalgia.
The basement area houses old 35mm film reels, enhanced by time with a coating of dust, which enriches these feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality. But when you learn that during World War Two, the Chinese restaurant currently next door to the cinema was a funeral home, and due to a high body count, the basement of the Electric was used as a morgue area, you feel less nostalgic and just a little bit creeped out.
Moving out of the basement, classic movie posters line the wall up to the projection room where the sheer size of the projector and the film reel, and the power of it are just bewildering. A reel will pass in front of the projection light at 24 frames a second; and if a frame (or cell) spends too long in front of that light, it will catch fire.
As the group sat down to the screening of classic movie Singin’ in the Rain, I tried to comprehend that what I was viewing was actually a series of still images moving through the projector at high speeds; connecting what I saw in the projection room to what I was seeing on screen. I quickly forgot about that though as the film continued and I took full advantage of the waiter service the cinema has on offer for those sitting on the sofas.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Electric Cinema. Everything seemed a lot calmer and less commercial than some multiplex cinemas are, and there was something about it that just made me happy. Maybe it was the atmosphere, or the art deco style, or maybe the great drink and snack choices; it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I love it, I just do.
Check it out for yourself: http://www.theelectric.co.uk