The Rio cinema (left). Inset: artist Sam Nightingale. And, right, the People’s Picture Playhouse. Rio cinema picture by COLIN O'BRIEN
Published: 15 June, 2012
by AMY SMITH
CINEMAS can evoke memories of first kisses, screaming at a horror film, or the collective sobbing at a tragic romance.
Artist Sam Nightingale is interested in whether these memories can last beyond the building’s presence.
He has photographed more than 40 sites in Islington where cinemas previously stood. Some buildings still have echoes of their past, such as Blacks clothing store in Upper Street, while others have vanished, replaced by office blocks or housing estates.
The photographs feature in Mr Nightingale’s exhibition “Spectres of Film: Islington’s Lost Cinemas and other Spectral Spaces” at A Brooks Art gallery in Hoxton Street.
The project began 18 months ago and evolved from his interest in the relationship between still and moving image.
Through his research Mr Nightingale came across the lesser-known hero of early cinema – RW Paul, an Islington engineer and film-maker who purposely launched a projector on the same day in 1896 as the famous Lumiere Brothers, thus giving birth to public cinemas in the UK.
Some early cinemas were known as “people’s palaces” and the architecture would reflect this name with elaborate façades, gilded plasterwork and heavy velvet curtains.
But as the craze for moving images grew, many temporary cinemas or “penny gaffs” popped up all over Islington, taking over shops, the back of terrace houses and, in one case, the entire ground floor of a factory in Rosebery Avenue.
Dangerously overcrowded, uncomfortable and often highly flammable from the nitrate film stock, these cinemas changed management and function frequently.
The advent of “talkies” and stricter legislation meant that a lot of the penny gaffs had closed down by 1930. One customer of the The People’s Picture Playhouse in Skinner Street described the experience as “like a large square barn, one storey and rather tatty, probably needed a regular fumigation against vermin”.
Quoted in the book Islington’s Cinemas and Film Studios, he added: “The atmosphere inside was almost humid, even in winter it was stifling. In the interval the attendant used to spray some concoction of water and scent into the air. This was always welcomed by the audience.”
Mr Nightingale believes that the history of the lost Islington cinemas can also provide insights into the changing local and social history.
“The experience of cinema has changed so much,” he said. “It was an event, as much about the space as the screen. It was a more collective experience – people would go to the toilet by the screen and everyone would shout ‘close the door!’ because the audience were used to musical halls and that more participatory experience. It’s now all concrete boxes and an immersive experience within the image.”
However, his project is not purely an exercise in nostalgia but a re-evaluation of the sites as “spectral spaces”.
“It’s really about architecture, a site that holds a memory and reactivating that history,” said Mr Nightingale.
“History should be alive and living and real.”
• Do you have memories of the Saturday morning pictures at the Copenhagen Cinema? Or anecdotes of first dates at the Victoria Cinematograph Theatre? Mr Nightingale is interested to hear from anyone with photos and memories of the old Islington cinemas. Find out more at www.islingtonslostcinemas.com
• Sam Nightingale – Spectres of Film is at the Brooks Gallery 194-196 Hoxton Street, Hoxton and Shoreditch, N1 5LH, until June 30, 07876 594 398
There are two upcoming opportunities to meet Sam Nightingale in person and discuss this project:
Both events are free but places are limited. To book visit www.abrooksart.com