Legendary showman Pat Church is on a mission to save cinema
For more than 50 years Pat Church has been the face of cinema in Bury St Edmunds. As the town’s Abbeygate Cinema does its best to fight the effects of Covid, Pat Church talks about his continued passion for the moving image
Pat Church is a showbiz institution to the people of Bury St Edmunds. For the past 50-plus years he has been the face of cinema in the town. Even though he is semi-retired, you can still find him in the foyer dressed in his dinner jacket and bow tie, greeting customers, and making sure that everyone has a great time – for Pat that is what entertainment is all about.
He joined what is now the much expanded Abbeygate Cinema in Hatter Street as a projectionist in February 1965 before venturing into management in the 1970s. Talking to Pat makes you realise that here is a man who loves what he does for a living – he lives and breathes cinema.
Stories about his time in the industry abound and when you ask: ‘when did this happen?’ he dates incidents to what films were showing at the time – “We were showing Lawrence of Arabia at the time so that must have been late 1962.” He worked as a projectionist in Peterborough before moving to Bury.
His love for the art form has also given him moments of anguish in recent months as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic has kept audiences away from their local cinemas. “We’ve done everything we can to make the auditorium as safe as possible, it’s cleaned between performances, there’s socially distanced seating, it’s a shame that people have been slow to return but it really does threaten our future if audiences don’t pick up in the near future. I’ve never known anything like it.
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“I think it’s a confidence thing. We’ve got to get the message out there that it is safe and remind people that watching films on the big screen is still the best way to see a movie – I think it is the only way. It’s all about having that collective experience which you can still do while social distancing.”
Pat’s has invested his heart and soul into the Hatter Street venue and although the cinema has rejoiced in many names and had many owners over the years – Cannon, ABC, Star, Odeon, MGM and Hollywood – it has always been run with the love of an independent cinema, thanks to Pat’s strong connection with audiences.
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“I love meeting people and talking to them. It’s about making people feel at home, making everyone feel as if they are part of one big family.”
Although, as a former projectionist Pat loves the feel of 35mm film-stock running through his fingers, he is also enthusiastic about the developments that digital technology has brought.
“I think the NT Live theatre performances and the live music and ballet broadcasts have been fantastic and have opened up the cinema to a wider audience – that’s why I still get dressed up to greet people at the door, it’s all part of that special theatrical experience.”
After a lifetime of showing films, the cinema has provided some special experiences of his own. His most treasured memory? Screening rushes of The Witchfinder General to star Vincent Price.
“The Witchfinder General was being shot at Lavenham and the film production crew partly took over the Angel Hotel at the rear of the cinema and approached us about hiring of the cinema (after hours) for the purpose of screening the previous days `rushes’.
Pat said that on the first night they had to wait what seemed an age for the film crew to arrive with the footage.
“We didn’t really know what to expect and was told the film they wanted to see would come with them. We waited for what seemed like an eternity, staring out of the portholes, waiting for the film crew to arrive. Suddenly the bottom exit doors opened and in flowed about 30 people all with glasses in hand. It seemed they had all come from the hotel bar straight to our nearest door and were having a high old time, then as if right on cue, John Coquillion, the chief camera man and his assistant came in with an armful of film tins and proceeded to tell us in what order they wanted to view them.
“Being new film stock we had to don these white cotton gloves in order to handle the stock without any finger marks. During this time the evenings became the highlight of our days and gave us a completely different insight from exhibiting to film making. It became the same ritual each night. A procession from the hotel bar into the cinema to see yesterday’s filming.”
Usually the audience was made up of the director Michael Reeves and the camera crew but one night there was an extra face among the usual crowd. “In strolled Vincent Price, the star of the film, who had come to see his sequences. I had shown most of his films through the years but to see him in the cinema was something else.
“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.”
Other highlights during the early years included securing screening rights to Akenfield on his first day as manager in January 1975 and earned the cinema not only a small fortune but established his reputation as a showman, particularly when he had something to promote and Akenfield had lots of local interest.
“Another high point was a visit by Nigel Havers for the opening night of the big film of the year ‘A Passage To India’.
But, being a small cinema, the threat or closure of sale has been a constant worry lurking in the back of his mind. In 1985 what had been Star Cinemas were sold off to the Cannon Cinema chain.
Cannon decided to close Bury because it was such a small and then a run-down operation.
Pat and chief projectionist Frank rolled up their sleeves, donned their DIY hard hats and decided to refurbish the cinema themselves and invited ‘head office’ to review their work and perhaps reverse their decision.
The plan worked. Not only was the cinema saved but Pat later earned himself the title ‘Manager of the Year’ along with several other awards during the 18 years of Cannon’s reign.
Then changes of ownership came thick and fast: Cannon was bought out by MGM, briefly, the venue became part of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire before being sold off to the revived ABC circuit, then it was merged with Odeon before being re-opened as part of the Hollywood independent chain.
Salvation came in February 2010 when the little Hatter Street cinema was rechristened Picturehouse Abbeygate and became part of the arthouse Picturehouse empire after Pat made overtures to then senior director Mrs Lyn Goleby.
Picturehouse invested in the venue installing new digital projectors and remodelling the auditoriums before financial pressures caused Abbeygate to be sold off and become its own self-sustaining business.
And still Pat remains a constant presence in the life of the cinema. On his 70th birthday he signed over his position as manager to his deputy and became a semi-retired front of house manager.
“The Abbeygate has three marvellous screens with a newly designed entrance and a premier screen to be proud of but, all of a sudden we have another challenge – the Coronavirus pandemic – but I am confident with the support of our loyal audiences we can ensure that the Abbeygate survives for another 50 years.”