max temp: 13°C

min temp: 11°C


Bury’s cinema legend Pat Church pens memoir of life in world where dreams do come true

PUBLISHED: 17:58 19 April 2017 | UPDATED: 17:58 19 April 2017

Pat Church celebrates 50 years at the Abbeygate Cinema  in Bury.

Pat Church celebrates 50 years at the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury.


Living legend Pat Church lives and breathes cinema and has done for more than 50 years. He started his professional life in a projection box in Peterborough, relishing the feel of 35mm film running through his fingers.

Abbeygate Cinema Manager Pat Church revisits his roots in the projection room. Picture: CONTRIBUTED Abbeygate Cinema Manager Pat Church revisits his roots in the projection room. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

At the age of 17, he signed up to be an apprentice projectionist seeking to learn a mysterious, almost magical, art which allowed still pictures not only to move but also to talk. “I love the fact that until we went digital the basic process of showing a film was essentially the same. We had 24 slightly different still images running through a projector every second and yet on the screen those still shots suddenly moved and transported people to wonderfully colourful and exciting places.”

Pat joined the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds, where he was manager for 40 years, on February 16 1965 and although the world of big screen entertainment has vastly changed with the advent of digital projection and the rise of NT Live broadcasts, he still relishes coming into work each morning.

Pat Church, now 70, is a champion of independent cinema, still dresses up to meet his public at the door and provides that extra bit of polish and personal service that makes going to a smaller independent cinema a rewarding night out.

After a lifetime of showing films and greeting audiences he has assembled a wealth of behind-the-scenes stories in a new autobiography The Smallest Show On Earth, named after the classic British Peter Sellers comedy which detailed the quirky day-to-day trials and tribulations in a small community cinema called The Bijou.

The young Pat Church working in the projection room at Hatter Street. Picture: CONTRIBUTED The young Pat Church working in the projection room at Hatter Street. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Just as The Bijou was seen to battle against the growing threat of television, Pat frequently had to put up a fight and challenge the money-men when closure threatened.

After 50 years in Bury St Edmunds, you’re still here. It could be said that you are part of the town’s cultural landscape. You obviously still enjoy it and the cinema is thriving, still investing in new screens and equipment, but has it been tough journey?

PC: “I hope I am a friendly face when people come here. I regard our audiences as old friends and always have a chat as people arrive and as they leave. I always get the dinner jacket and bow tie out for the National Theatre Live broadcasts, it all helps to make it a more elegant occasion.

Pat Church at work in his office dureing the early 1990s. Picture: CONTRIBUTED Pat Church at work in his office dureing the early 1990s. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

“It has been a tough journey at times. There have been several occasions when it looked like we may close. I think there were four moments when I thought there was a distinct possibility that we may close but we managed to dodge the bullet and we’re still here. Better than that we are still growing. We have the new bar area and now we are reclaiming the old bingo area and adding extra screens which is something I am really delighted about.”

Pat has always had a hugely personal stake in the cinema because in 1975 he helped save the Hatter Street and made the transition from projectionist to manager.

PC: “I became manager here in 1975 that’s when I helped save the cinema from closure. The owners The Star Group wanted to shut it down. They thought that cinema had no future, that television was everything. We went to talk to them about keeping it open but they told me that they didn’t accept projectionists as managers.

“I went away, developed a business plan, allowing them to keep it open and I managed to win them over. I said give me six months to prove myself and the rest is history. Over the years I have worked for 12 different owners, we’ve had ABC, Cannon, Odeon, Hollywood, Picturehouse – lots of different companies – but they have always kept me on, so I must be doing something right.”

So what is it about cinema that has had him spellbound for his whole working life?

PC: “You can just lose yourself on the big screen. It’s just much more involving that watching something at home on telly. Although I love film, I can see the advantages of digital presentation, particularly with the theatre broadcasts and it provides another reason for people to come out and have a good time at the cinema. For me, it has always been about giving people a good night out. If they have enjoyed themselves then they will come back for more.”

So how did the book come about?

PC: “I’ve always kept notes, letters and diaries from my time in the cinema business and my son Stuart dared me to send a sample chapter off to a publishers who were advertising for manuscripts. They loved it and wanted the rest of it. I said I didn’t have it and it then took me another 18 months to turn my jokes and notes into book form.”

So what’s the book about?

PC: “It’s about everything. It’s about the cinema but it’s also about my life – and obviously the two often go hand in hand. For example I met my wife Geraldine at the cinema. I always say I have been very lucky to have had a partner who understood about my long hours but then again she knew what she was letting herself in for. She lived in a flat with her mother over what is now the cafe and the projection room faced her kitchen window. I hadn’t been here very long, just a few months I think. I was 19 and it was love at first sight. The chief projectionist invited her to come and see The Man From UNCLE film from the projection room and I was in heaven.”

Does he have any special memories from his time working in Hatter Street?

PC: “I love being here but I suppose the one great memory I have is, as a young projectionist, running the dailies or rushes (rough footage) for The Witchfinder General which was being shot at Lavenham. The cast and crew were staying at The Angel and after our last performance they would come here late at night to see the previous day’s footage which had been biked here from London. Occasionally Vincent Price would accompany the director to watch his scenes. The cameraman John Coquillon used to watch the rushes from the projection room so we got to know him very well. For a young projectionist it was thrilling. We felt we were contributing to the film because one or two scenes had to be reshot because of things they saw and didn’t like in the rushes. Those are the sort of things that linger in the memory and stay with you for life.”

The Smallest Show On Earth by Pat Church is published by Austin Macauley Publishers and is available from the Abbeygate Cinema in Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds or online at Amazon.

Comments have been disabled on this article.

From being a stylist in the fashion world, he became famous for making all shapes and sizes look great naked. Now he is bringing his debut live show to the region, full of stories, advice and lots of gossip.

Phill Jupitus, who attended Woolverstone Hall School, in Suffolk, as a youngster, has trod many paths during his career. New tour Juplicity sees him return to his poetry and stand-up roots.

Where is home to you? How a diary has inspired a new play looking at life growing up inside the care system.

The Crucible, by playwright Arthur Miller, is one of the great masterworks on modern theatre. As David Henshall discovers, The Crucible is more than a historical drama it’s a perceptive examination of how communities function and how petty jealousies can tear them apart.

Rural touring champions Common Ground theatre company love to give Dickens a new spin. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to writer-actor-directors Julian Harries and Pat Whymark about the joy of bringing their favourite author to the stage

Suffolk legends and folklore always make great theatre. Wonderful Beast are staging a new production of Return of the Wildman and taking it out on tour. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director Alys Kihl and writer Thea Smiley about this innovative play.

Ipswich dancer Harry Clark returns home this weekend to perform with Scottish dance Theatre at the Jerwood DanceHouse. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him

In an adaption by acclaimed playwright Jessica Swale, who has had huge recent West End success with Nell Gwyn starring Gemma Arterton, Gallery Players present Thomas Hardy’s classic Victorian novel of love, pride and class with a charismatic, flawed female character at its centre.

Oxy and the Morons, by Paul Sirett, Mike Peters and Steve Allan Jones, New Wolsey Theatre, until October 21

Most read

Eating Out in the Broads


Click here to view
the Eating Out


Visit the Broads


Click here to view
the Visit the Broads


Show Job Lists

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter
MyDate24 MyPhotos24