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
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.
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.
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.
“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.