'And the rest is history' - story of town's golden age cinema

Pat Church has worked at Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds for over 55 years. Picture: Sarah Lucy

Pat Church has worked at Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds for over 55 years - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

In a side street off a town centre stands a cinema with a history of highs and lows worthy of the big screen itself.

Abbeygate Cinema in the historic heart of Bury St Edmunds has shown moving images to audiences since the 1920s.

It has had multiple different ownerships and names, suffered a fire, was split into a cinema and bingo hall and been on the brink of closure more than once - only to emerge as an arthouse cinema much-loved by its loyal customers.

Old photograph of the cinema. Picture: Contributed

Old photograph of the cinema - Credit: Contributed

Cinema legend Pat Church, 74, who for years was general manager there, spoke to us about the history of Abbeygate, the town's last remaining cinema from the 'golden age' of the silver screen.

The building in Hatter Street was called York House, and is believed to have got its name after the Duke of York stayed there. 

"How anybody looked at that and thought that's a cinema I will never know. I'm glad they did," said Mr Church, from the town.

Abbeygate Cinema manager Pat Church

Pat Church outside Abbeygate Cinema in Hatter Street - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Opening as the Central in 1924 with one auditorium, it was a music hall with films projected onto the screen between the acts.

Cinema then was more of an information service than for entertainment, showing news reels from around the world.

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It wasn't until 1936 that full-length films were shown, after owners Bostock did away with the music hall following a severe fire that burned out the back of the building and built a new projection room. 

A newspaper cutting from February 1985 about the town's picture houses 

A newspaper cutting from February 1985 about the town's picture houses - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Mr Church said: "That's how it became a full-time cinema. There was massive excitement; the first time you had actually seen moving pictures.

"It was a big event, family event. Possibly all you had at home was a radio."

The year 1936 also happened to be when Odeon opened in the town, on the site of the former Cornhill Walk shopping centre, taking business away from the Central and its sister cinema the Playhouse, that was next to where M&S is now.

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The Eastern Counties Omnibus Company bus station, now McDonalds, and the Focus Cinema, formerly the Odeon - Credit: Archant

Mr Church, who is now semi-retired but works casually as front of house manager, said: "It [Odeon] was purpose-built and completely outshone everything else for years to come.

"Something had to give. The Bostocks sold off the Playhouse being the prime site and everything moved back to Central."

In 1959 Bostock pulled out of the cinema business and businessman Harold Miller bought the Hatter Street site and named it Abbeygate.

Pat Church has worked at Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds for over 55 years. Picture: Sarah Lucy

Pat Church began working at Abbeygate in 1966 as an assistant projectionist - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Seven years later Mr Church, aged 19, came on the scene from the cinema he was working at in Peterborough that was about to close.

"Abbeygate at that time was advertising for an assistant projectionist," he said. "I got out my map to look at where this strange town was and came along for an interview. The rest, they say, is history."

Mr Church remembers events in his life through the film titles at the time, for instance the day his son was born Ben-Hur was playing in screen one.

Pat Church working in the Abbeygate Cinema as a projectionist

Pat Church working in the Abbeygate Cinema as a projectionist - Credit: Contributed

The first film he showed at Abbeygate Cinema was Sands of the Kalahari, featuring Stanley Baker, on a Kalee 12 projector on 35mm film.

Back then, audiences got two films a week, an a film and b film, with a news reel in the middle.

The turbulent 80s and 90s

The 1980s marked the start of a turbulent time in the cinema's history, with a succession of short-term ownerships.

Star group, whose main interest was in bingo, bought the Abbeygate in 1985 but had sold it within a year to Cannon Cinemas, and others followed.

Pat Church is now semi-retired

Pat Church is now semi-retired - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Star group split it into two smaller cinema units and a bingo hall, with the bingo closing in 2005.

Mr Church said: "It was awful time. We didn't know whether we were coming or going. We were struggling to encourage one company and another to stay in Bury St Edmunds.

"Virgin Cinemas didn't even want to know. They were only here six months."

Mr Church said there was a lot of uncertainty in the film business in the 80s/90s and a "serious shortage" of quality films coming out of the studios. Television had also taken over and videos had come onto the market.

"For the first time ever you could watch a film in your own home," Mr Church said.

Abbeygate Cinema in Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds, has had many owners over the years

Abbeygate Cinema in Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds, has had many owners over the years - Credit: Rachel Edge

The 80s was also a time of financial uncertainty due to the recession, but Mr Church said one of the benefits of being a small cinema in a side street off a town centre was it didn't cost as much to run as the large venues in cities.

"It gave us a chance of survival that we grabbed with both hands," he said.

Becoming an arthouse cinema

In 1999 the Hatter Street cinema moved over from ABC to Odeon, but the new management had made it clear to Mr Church that once Cineworld opened its multiplex in the town the smaller cinema's doors would close.

The cinema was under real threat, but it looked like there could be "life after Odeon" under the Hollywood Film Theatre banner.

The first film Pat Church showed at Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds was Sands of the Kalahari, featuring Stanley Baker

The first film Pat Church showed at Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds was Sands of the Kalahari, featuring Stanley Baker - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The very same day in 2005 that the cinema was ready for business with its new branding, Cineworld with its eight screens opened its doors in Parkway.

But faced with the new competition and financial difficulties, the Hatter Street cinema was still not safe from closure.

Hollywood had a meeting with Mr Church where he was told the cinema would shut its doors in one-week's time - but the closure was not something he could just accept.

Mr Church sent an open letter to as many independent cinema operators as he could, with one surprise reply from Picturehouse Cinemas that proved to be the turning point for the cinema's future.

Mr Church said "Our audience was differing from a multiplex audience. We wanted to do things we couldn't do.

"The only way was to change the ownership over to an arthouse cinema. Picturehouse fulfilled every promise they made to us. 

"They completely refurbished and updated the cinema to a high standard, which everybody loved."

Picturehouse, which ran the cinema from 2010 to 2016, introduced satellite projection, opening up to events from around the world, such as the Bolshoi Theatre.

Abbeygate Cinema today

In recent years Abbeygate Cinema, run by Abbeygate Cinema Ltd, has undergone major refurbishment, which has seen the addition of a new foyer and restaurant, as well as a 180-seater premier screen taking the total number of screens up to three.

And there are further plans for more improvements.

The refurbishment when 'phase one' of the Abbeygate Cinema expansion was completed.

The refurbishment when 'phase one' of the Abbeygate Cinema expansion was completed - Credit: Rachel Edge

Loyal customers have played a huge part in raising funds for building works and Mr Church said he was very grateful to them.

He said: "They knew how much it meant to the town and myself really. Mostly people I know by name; they are not customers any longer but friends. It's because of them the Abbeygate is still here."

Taken after the completion of 'phase one' of the Abbeygate Cinema expansion.

Taken after the completion of 'phase one' of the Abbeygate Cinema expansion - Credit: Rachel Edge

Mr Church added throughout his time at Abbeygate he had had a great team around him, without whom "the cinema would have no history".

Visit Abbeygate Cinema's website.


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