Filmhounds Magazine

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A Celebration of Cinemas – Theatr Colwyn: How the UK’s Oldest Operational Cinema Continues To Move With the Times

8 min read
Filmhounds Magazine

The past year has been a difficult one to say the least. Separated from friends and family and kept in the confines of our own home as a three-month lockdown slowly crept towards an entire year's worth of isolation, many of us have found ourselves escaping reality through the small screen to help us get through.

For many of us though, the small screen is simply not enough. Sure, Netflix is chill, Disney's new offering is a plus, and Amazon's streaming service is now in its prime. But nothing quite compares to braving the elements, grabbing a box of popcorn and a fizzy beverage, trying your darnedest not to spill either as you reach for that cinema ticket you thought would be safest in your now-unreachable back pocket, and then – finally – taking your seat as the lights dim, the projector bulb flickers, and the world fades out as the latest big screen experience tantalisingly fades in.

is FilmHounds' chance to celebrate our local places of celluloid (and digital) worship, to shine a light on the picturehouses that have been making movie magic for years and who are ready and waiting to welcome cinemagoers back after a long, mad, and challenging year for film.

For my contribution to the series, I've chosen to put a spotlight on in , North . Not only is it the UK's oldest operating cinema-theatre, with an over hundred year old history, but it is furthermore a pillar of the local community and a bright, burning beacon for the arts – a home from home for me and many more. 

I spoke to Theatr Colwyn's manager Phil Batty about this incredible institution in British cinema history, and how he and the team at Theatr Colwyn have worked tirelessly to embrace its past, confront the challenges of the present, and look on hopefully to the future.


Could you tell me a little bit about Theatr Colwyn and its history?


Of course. Theatr Colwyn originally opened as a public hall in the 1880s. It's one of the oldest buildings in Colwyn Bay – we're actually older than the Church! It's a famous building because it's been a theatre, cinema, and flipped between either or both over its 100-odd years of life. We were famous as a repertory theatre many, many years ago, and yet we've got sort of the public hall history and cinema side running through. You've got old painted hand bills downstairs from 1923 when we were showing films from , Margaret Talmadge, and stars like that… so yeah, all that was very, very popular in the olden days. And we've always been open! Well, almost. We've only ever been shut twice. Once was when the roof burnt down, and they had to raise the funds to rebuild the roof, and then again about a decade ago, when we had a revamp. But as I say, we've always been open and operative otherwise, so technically Theatr Colwyn is the oldest operating licensed theatre-cinema in the UK. And to loop back, that came into effect basically in 1909 when two things happened. The films got certificates, so therefore it could be rated what to let the age of kids in, that kind of stuff, and electric lights also came into the building, which made it easier to power the projectors, so the old gas-lights went! [Laughs]


Brilliant! So could you talk me through what your involvement personally and professionally with the cinema is? 


I'm the manager of Theatr Colwyn. I came to the theatre, gosh it must have been about 25 years now, which is a shame ‘cause I don't think the train robbers got that long! [Laughs] But yeah, we were just a theatre again at that point, and then we changed. We put a new roof on and asked our local Town Council  for some money to reinstate the cinema, ‘cause it'd been gone for a couple of years, and they said yes! So we popped all the equipment back in, it was sort of second hand stuff, you know, but it was good stuff, and that got us open on 35mm films again. What was really, really odd, was by putting lots of cinema screenings back on it actually sparked interest more in the theatre side of things. And on a personal level for me, because we're in Colwyn Bay, just up the road from one of the poorest wards in Wales, to be able to offer affordable tickets to the local community is really, really important.


Definitely. Where does your own love for cinema come from? And what are your earliest memories of going to the big screen as a kid?


I lived in Leeds originally, so it was the ABC Minors Cinema, the children's film foundation films, they're the oldest ones. And then mid to early teens, you know, sneaking into see Grease *allegedly*. So every time Grease comes on the cinema or on the telly, it brings a smile to my face. 


So what do you think the future of cinema is in this post-pandemic world, and how are you guys at the Theatr Colwyn preparing to step up to the challenge of bringing people back?


We're going to open on the 28th May, which is a week after we've said we can reopen, so we're being cautious. We have a very, very safe procedure in place, with two metre social distancing on the way in and around the seats, and then masks, ventilation and all that kind of thing. Sanitation regularly too, so it's all very squeaky clean and safe. The people who came to us in August time were very, very happy, so it's great that people can come out and feel safe again, ‘cause the last thing you want is to come out to enjoy yourself, and be worried about too many people being close to you, that kind of stuff. But also, social inclusion is a big thing – we haven't seen or talked to people, or seen people smile for a very, very long time – so getting everybody back out and feeling comfortable is key for us. We meet and greet everybody that comes to our doors because we're small and we can, and we remember our customers. We have such loyal customers that come time and time again, whether they love the film or hate the film, because they know they've got somewhere to go where they're free to relax. Also, we have our volunteer stewards to see you to your seats. At the moment we can't use them, but with the vaccine rollout going so well, hopefully we'll be able to bring them back soon – they keep banging on the door saying ‘when are you opening?' [Laughs]


Over the last year a lot of people have, understandably, been flocking to streaming services for their film fix. What do you think it is about bricks-and-mortar cinema that gives film fans a reason to switch off the TV and get back to the big screen? 


Firstly, we have to remember there's an enormous amount of people who do not have those streaming facilities at home – a lot of the older generation especially. But also going back to the cinema, well it's a night out, you know? We could all stay in for the next 100 years at home, not socialising or mixing with people, and everybody's finding that it's been great mixing with people on Zoom. But actually, you need somebody, a real live person stood in front of you sometimes, you know? That real connection is amazing. And it's that social aspect of going out and doing all those things that we would have done in normal life that we need, you know? I think people will be absolutely champing at the bit to go out to the cinema, because you know that there'll be a place to go to enjoy films and seeing people. When you look back at the 80s, when we had money troubles and things weren't great in the country, people still went out to the cinema just to enjoy themselves. It's the same now. 


Absolutely. Obviously, you guys are a multipurpose theatre-cinema, so I was wondering if you have any information for us in terms of plans for the reopening slate of films and live theatre performances?


Generally we do a broad spectrum of films, mostly the popular films that we know are gonna attract our audience. But we also do a lot of specialist films; foreign, world cinema, indie pictures, you know? We've actually got an exciting one coming up of a film Eddie Izzard made near here, . Celyn Jones, one of our patrons, from the Monty Python, worked on it, and because they were down the road in Llandudno, they actually brought Eddie Izzard to do a show one night, so he did an hour stint on stage. Eddie Izzard, world famous, comes to little Colwyn Bay to do an hour's show, brilliant! Hopefully when we show ‘Six Minutes to Midnight' from June 10th-12th, Celyn will come and introduce it, and we might have a message from Eddie Izzard again, wherever she might be in the world!


That's ace. One thing I think is definitely quite uniquely fitting for Theatr Colwyn, is the opportunity for theatre and music livestreams going forwards. Are you guys planning on having more of those event cinema screenings?


That's definitely a sort of third string to our bow, with the theatre, the cinema, and now the screenings on top. We can do everything, you know? It's interesting that with the screenings for the National Theatre, people will come and watch people, on a cinema screen, in London, watching a show live on stage! Half the people think it's a cinema screening, and half the people think it's a live show, so at the end half the audience clap and half the audience don't know if they should clap! [Laughs] They're great though. Instead of having to travel to London on a train, maybe staying overnight, you get the same experience here for a lot less. And we're diversifying too because it's not just National Theatre, it's music events, Formula One, and in fact we are very supportive of our Welsh rugby team, because usually they're on the BBC, and we screen those sometimes for free in the auditorium for people to come and watch them. Like I said earlier, it's just being in that social environment that counts. Occasionally we've had a choir sing the National Anthem before the rugby starts and stuff like that, it's really, really good. And we go to town, make it all red and green in the auditorium for the colour of the flag as well. We're very fortunate, we're in the entertainment business, we get to play, which is what it's all about, it's nice. But yeah, livestreams are very exciting for us at Theatr Colwyn. 


Just before I leave you to get back to readying up for reopening, is there anything you'd like to say to the people waiting to come back?


I can't wait to book in those first few screenings, to be stood there at the front door. I think it's important to be there to meet and greet you all with the rest of the staff, and fingers crossed, a little bit of normality is going to be turned back on come May 28th, and we can start appreciating life and what we have got once again. We can't wait!


Theatr Colwyn reopens on May 28th, and you can find out more about the cinema and its reopening plans here.

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