BBC Breakfast’s Bill Turnbull launches Aldeburgh cinema’s centenary celebrations
- Credit: Contributed
Long-serving managers of Aldeburgh cinema celebrate the venue’s role at the heart of the coastal town’s cultural life
Aldeburgh Cinema is celebrating its 100th birthday - launching its centenary celebrations with a special screening of South, released the year the cinema opened, and features footage of Sir Ernest Shackleton's epic journey to the South Pole, accompanied by pianist and film music scholar Neil Brand.
The celebrations are launched by former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull interviewing long-serving employee Susan Harrison, who has worked for the cinema since 1961, and former manager and board chairperson Felicity-Ann Sieghart, who took over the running of the cinema in 1994.
Between them, the pair have witnessed many changes within the film industry over the years but the one thing which has kept the cinema going is the fact that it has always been part of the fabric of the town and an important part of the community.
Felicity-Ann Sieghart said that the cinema has always been involved in the life of the town and the fact that it was an independent cinema, with a local board, and not part of a chain, was an important part of its character. "It's also an important part of Aldeburgh's community life because it is one of the few places open in the evening."
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In recent years the character of the cinema was shaped by local legend Letty Gifford who was a board member under previous manager Stephen Reiss, who ran the cinema from 1965 to 1971, and was persuaded to take it over in 1974.
Laetitia Gifford, who also had been Aldeburgh Mayor, shaped the outlook of the cinema for the following 20 years. She also encouraged the cinema to have its own identity away from the Aldeburgh Festival Board which had shaped its outlook thus far.
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Susan Harrison, a close colleague of Letty's, said she watched her go from a film novice to a champion street fighter. "She would march along Wardour Street, where all the film companies are based, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. She knew that the cinema worked best when it combined smaller, independent films with the big blockbusters of the day. For example, it was always important to get the James Bond film on release and she would go in there and beat them down until she got favourable terms. She did the same for ET. At first it was only being released to the big chains in the big cities. Letty wasn't having any of that - she marched into their offices and made such a fuss that they let her have it just to get rid of her. As a result Aldeburgh became one of the first small towns to show this groundbreaking movie in Britain."
Susan said that for a while she was working for Benjamin Britten and the Aldeburgh Festival which had offices upstairs in the cinema and Letty would come and bounce ideas off her. "She would come up and see me in the afternoon asking: 'Should we show this film or that film? Would so-and-so be better? And she would always end by saying: "When are you coming back to the cinema?"
Susan returned to the fold in 1975 and for many was the face of the cinema working both in the office as box office manager. She received the BEM for her services to the cinema in 2012. But, Susan is keen to point out that the reason that the Aldeburgh Cinema has survived is because they have remained a very loyal team.
The third member of their long-serving team was chief projectionist Neville Parry who worked tirelessly from 1964 to his retirement in 2013 and beyond. For festivals, sickness or holiday cover he would cheerfully make himself available to fire up the projectors one more time. In 2014 he was subject of his own documentary film.
Although, Letty Gifford was a force of nature, by the mid-1980s she had reached her 80th birthday and the cinema's trustees were anxious to know what the future was likely to be. So much about the running of the cinema was locked in her head that they needed Letty to train a successor.
Enter Felicity-Ann Sieghart. "I was a friend of Letty's and was a regular customer at the cinema. I was in the process of retiring from my role as a magistrate and one day Letty just bounded up to me and said did I want to run the cinema? "It'll be fun". I was worried because I knew nothing about the cinema business but that didn't put her off. Apparently, she thought that I was just the right sort of person to make a go of it. So I joined the board and then became managing director of the cinema."
Felicity-Ann said that she continued to run the cinema along similar lines to Letty but made conserted efforts to broaden the audience and make it more commercially viable.
One of these new audience expanding enterprises was the founding of the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival which, this year, celebrates its 25th anniversary.
"I was talking about things we could do to boost audiences to my daughter-in-law film-maker Molly Dineen and she said: 'Why don't you put on a documentary film festival?' There's no-one round here doing anything like that.' So with Molly's help and Craig Brown, who lived in the town, who has an amazing list of friends, we put the first festival together.
"The first couple of years was a bit touch and go, but we got some fantastic guests and some great films, thanks to Molly and Craig, and the people of Aldeburgh decided they liked documentary films and the festival has really gone from strength to strength."
To mark Aldeburgh Cinema's centenary they will be screening a selection of Charlie Chaplin shorts as part of the Aldeburgh Festival with Neil Brand as the accompanist. There will also be a children's Disney Party in July and two free cinema on the beach events showcasing Jaws and Grease. August also sees Aldeburgh carnival celebrate the cinema's 100th birthday and, in September, national treasure Sir Lenny Henry will be choosing and introducing the comedy movies that have inspired him and continue to make him laugh.
ALDEBURGH CINEMA TIMELINE
1919: Walter Hill, draper and gentlemen's outfitter, commissions Aldeburgh builder W.C.Reade to build an auditorium and The Aldeburgh Picture House opens in the summer of 1919.
January 1921: Aldeburgh Cinema and Amusements (ACA) is born - the cinema and Jubilee Hall join forces under new joint management. In the 1920s the price of seats for adults is one shilling and sixpence.
1924 - 1965: The cinema is under the management of Raymond Rayner, who lives with his wife in the flat above the cinema. At first, he leases the cinema, then in 1951 buys it from ACA.
1942: Four bombs fall close to Aldeburgh Cinema, killing civilians and soldiers, but the cinema survives unscathed, and stays open throughout World War II.
1965: Stephen Reiss, wartime intelligence officer, distinguished art historian and manager of Aldeburgh Festival, persuades Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears to join others in forming a consortium to buy the cinema after Raymond's death. Stephen Reiss is engaged to choose the films. Benjamin Britten pledges money and support to keep Aldeburgh Cinema at the heart of the town. Lord and Lady Cranbrook, David and Letty Gifford also become shareholders.
1971: Stephen Reiss resigns, and the cinema struggles on with mounting debts under temporary management.
1974 - 1995: Letty Gifford, Mayor of Aldeburgh, staunch pioneer of women's rights, co-founder of the Jubilee Opera, and friend of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, agrees to become chair of Aldeburgh Cinema and is its backbone for the next 20 years. The cinema becomes a hub of artistic life in the town. Letty makes a name for herself in the film world by tackling distributors in London, and demanding that popular films are shown in Aldeburgh as early as - or even before - the top London venues. She creates the supporters club, now known as the Friends of Aldeburgh Cinema, where people pledge financial backing. The annual cinema audience increases to 32,489 - up by more than 10,000 in four years.
1994 -2003: Felicity Ann Sieghart takes over the running of the Cinema. She modernises the box office, improves the cinema's finances, and initiates the celebrated Aldeburgh Cinema Documentary Festival.
1995 - present: Together with her documentary-maker daughter-in-law Molly Dineen, Felicity Ann Sieghart launches DocFest, hosted by writer Craig Brown. He is at the helm for the next 15 years. Actress and local resident Diana Quick takes over in 2010, and in 2017 film executive Jill Green becomes the festival's Artistic Director. The DocFest has become an essential and much-loved part of Aldeburgh's cultural calendar.
2009 - 2016: Tim Rowan Robinson becomes Chairman of the Cinema, updating its management and governance. His work leads to Aldeburgh Cinema becoming a charity - the Aldeburgh Cinema Trust.
2017: The Cinema becomes Visitor Information Centre for Aldeburgh