Opened on 22 September 1910, the Duke of York’s lays claim to being the oldest cinema in continuous use in the country, its beautiful frontage instantly recognisable from photos of a bygone era.
In the beginning
Built at a cost of £3,000, the visionary developer of the Duke of York’s was former actress Mrs. Violet Melnotte-Wyatt. The cinema was named after the London theatre of the same name which she and her husband Frank Wyatt had built in 1892. The name also coincided topically with the accession to the throne of George V, Duke of York.
The cinema was erected on the site of the old Longhurst’s Brewery, the rear part of the malthouse saved and adapted to become the cinema auditorium. Described as a conversion by the leading Brighton architects Clayton and Black, a new Edwardian baroque-style façade was built. This included two shops, selling flowers and French pastries ‘shipped from Paris’.
The cinema benefited from the latest facilities. There was an electrically operated, rather than hand-cranked, projector. Tip-up seating was provided for 800, including two boxes, with admission prices from threepence to sixpence and one shilling. Music to accompany silent films was provided by an American organ and electric piano. Fan air-conditioning could clear the air in three minutes, important in an age where there were large crowds and different levels of personal hygiene compared to today. The carpet was Wilton. Indeed the original advertising summed up the experience: “Bring Her to the Duke’s – it is fit for a Duchess” .
A well-organised and fashionable opening was staged by Mrs. Melnotte-Wyatt, with a distinguished gathering. In his understated address, the Mayor of Brighton, Alderman Edward Geere, referred to cinema’s ‘growing popular favour’, which was shared by all present and in particular by Eddie Scriven who had established one of the town’s first picture halls, the Empire Picture Theatre in Hove, the same year. Following songs sung by Harlow Cleveland, tea was served and a varied programme of short films presented, including G.A. Smith’s (Hove) Byways of Byron.
Even in its early days, the Duke of York’s had a tendency to quirkiness. Before every performance the manager encouraged the audience into a rendition of ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ from the orchestra pit.
Between the wars
Mrs. Melnotte-Wyatt sold the cinema to Jack Channon, director of Sussex Picturedromes Ltd. towards the end of the First World War. The cinema remained in the hands of the company until 1963, and apart from a brief spell of owning the Bijou cinema in Shoreham, it was the only cinema it operated.
Sound was installed in the cinema in 1930 and in 1937 the Duke of York’s was closed for one week ‘For extensive alterations, re-seating and redecorations’. A press report from the time gives a flavour of the changes:
“The whole of the interior has been very tastefully redecorated on modern lines. New seating has also been installed. There is a new screen and the sound apparatus has been overhauled and modern attachments added, ensuring the production of perfect sound. The walls of the auditorium are covered in pastel shades of orange, pink and grey and this, combined with the ultra modern neon wall and ceiling lighting, gives a marvellous effect. This is believed to be the first interior lighting of its kind in any Cinema in the country, and, combined with the new festooned curtains and interchangeable lighting effects is certainly charming and is greatly admired.”
Bargain matinees of 6d. and 1s. were popular at this time and children were admitted to evening performances at reduced prices. This was most likely in response to increased competition in the form of the large and ultra modern Gaiety in Lewes Road which had recently opened.
During the Second World War the Duke of York’s seems to have fallen into a sad state. There was serious vandalism, suggestive of understaffing and it became rather antiquated, being one of the last cinemas to issue tickets using a system of metal tokens which were handed to the usherette by patrons as they took their seats. In 1946 a new sound system was installed at a cost of £1,280 along with new Kalee projectors for £945.
Changing technology and challenging times
In 1956 the biggest alteration to the cinema took place. The proscenium opening was reconstructed to allow the introduction of wide-screen CinemaScope. The old 15ft screen was replaced by one which was 28ft wide by 12ft high. This happened without closing the cinema, the owners being ingenious with the use of scaffolding, for fear of losing patrons to rival cinemas. The alterations were needed to stay in business, since non-Scope alternative prints were no longer being offered.
The introduction of CinemaScope had a very positive initial effect on attendance at the Duke of York’s. There was now seating for 750, presumably with the first few rows of stalls being removed as being too close to the screen for comfort. However, The Duke of York’s remained an also-ran among Brighton cinemas. It played old double bills on Sunday and then double bills of slightly newer pictures starting on Monday and Thursday for 3 day runs.
Film vs. bingo
In 1963 the cinema was bought by Peter Drew-Bear, who had joined the cinema as chief projectionist in 1947 and had risen to become the manager. To meet demand from the local elderly population, bingo was introduced in 1965 on two evenings a week, Fridays and Tuesdays and continued until 1970. There were two changes of film programme per week, one running for Sunday and Monday, the other for Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Bingo had already taken over two former cinemas in the area, the Essoldo in the centre of Brighton and the Rothbury at Portslade, as well as the Ritz in West Street and the Hippodrome live theatre.
At one point Peter Drew-Bear considered splitting the cinema – films downstairs and bingo upstairs but did not proceed due to the cost. On selling the cinema in 1976, he summed up the challenges he faced: “You can’t obtain the basic commodity, which is film. The film production industry has contracted so much. the big monopolies take the best films and throw the remains to the dogs. I could take any amount of rubbish but I can’t get good quality products that will take good money for fifty-two weeks a year. It’s a very competitive industry and Brighton is a shocking town for competition. We haven’t made a loss, but Jean (Mrs. Drew-Bear) and I could have gone out and earned more doing any job.”
The new owner was Victory Theatres, a company headed by Victor Freeman who ran the Regal cinema in Bognor Regis and took over the Classic Cinema in Littlehampton, turning it from films to bingo. In 1977 the cinema was screening double bills of recent mainstream films for seven day runs, opening full time on Thursday, Saturday and Monday, with an evening performance on other days and children’s programmes in the afternoons during the holidays.
In April 1977, the Duke of York’s was due to switch to bingo on four nights of the week and with declining film attendance and continuing support for bingo, this must have seemed like a good idea. However, in the same month, it was announced that ABC’s huge Astoria in Gloucester Place would be closing in early May for conversion to full-time bingo. The widely regretted loss of the Astoria may have had the incidental effect of keeping the Duke of York’s going as a cinema, although it appears that Victory Theatres had further applications for a bingo licence and permission for gaming machines refused. Victor Freeman died and Victory Theatres put the cinema up for sale.
The start of the arthouse revival
In 1978 Tim and Aubrey Partner of Pavilion (Chelmsford) Ltd acquired the lease. This father and son team ran a cinema and bingo hall in Margate. They concluded that Brighton was more than adequately served by bingo halls and that if booked in a slightly unorthodox way, taking up the slack from the Brighton Film Theatre, which catered for arty tastes, the cinema could deliver good results. The Duke of York’s was in the ‘second run’ category, playing films after the Rank and ABC outlets.
It staggered on with a mainstream revival policy until 1981, when the cinema attracted the interest of the team headed up by Pat Foster that had launched the Little Bit Ritzy at Brixton as an art house club. They took over the lease, making modest repairs and reopened after a month in October 1981 with an art house policy. The opening film was The Aviator’s Wife, followed by Solaris. The landlord at the time appears to have been the council, said to have acquired the property to allow for possible future expansion of the adjacent fire station. The number of seats was around 460, barely half of the original seating capacity. Club membership was a minor formality, added to the price of admission on the first visit. The cinema embarked on the programming policy it maintains to this day.
Disputes, dancing legs and debts
In 1983 the cinema was put on the market as a going concern with an asking price of £25,000 by Rosier Films, owned by London property developer Gerald S. Hitman who had teamed up with the leesees. At the time it was making a modest profit and had a cult following among Sussex University and Brighton Poly students.
Bill Heine, who ran the Penultimate Picture House and Not the Moulin Rouge Cinema in Oxford acquired the lease. The cinema closed on 7 June 1983 after the world premiere of the British film The Ploughmans Lunch and there was a delay in completing the takeover and a dispute about damage to the screen, doors and other parts of the building. Further damage to the screen happened during an unofficial punk concert on 23 July. The cinema reopened on 4 August to a matinee showing of the musical Annie, which was cancelled after no-one showed up. The subsequent performances of Frances and Fassbinder’s Querelle took place with more success.
Little money seems to have been spent on the cinema during this period and the cinema became endearingly shabby. However when the Not the Moulin Rouge Cinema in Oxford closed in 1991, its fabled 20ft can-can dancer’s legs were transferred to the outside balcony of the Duke of York’s.
In August 1994 the Penultimate Picture Company collapsed with debts of £150,000, leading to uncertainty about the Duke of York’s future. Receivers continued to run the cinema as a going concern and several bids were received.
A new era
City Screen, an expanding art house chain, became the new owners on 14 October 1994. The ownership crisis also seems to have resulted in the Grade II listing of the Duke of York’s in November 1994.
With ambition to build the Duke of York’s into one of the foremost arthouse cinemas in the country, the cinema was extensively refurbished, with alterations including the back rows of the stalls and balcony being taken out to create a concessions counter downstairs and a bar upstairs. The can-can legs were hoisted by crane onto the roof in 1995, clearing the balcony to become an outdoor seating area for the bar.
The Duke of York’s has continued to show a mix of mainstream and alternative foreign sub-titled films to a wide local audience. To keep pace with entertainment trends and customer demand, the cinema has diversified to host music gigs, comedy, special events such as the CineCity Festival and the Eurovision party, as well as screening live events, such as opera from the Metropolitan in New York, National Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet from Paris.
There is a recognition from current General Manager Jon Barrenechea that the Duke of York’s has reached a ceiling of what it can achieve as a single screen cinema, with admissions double the national average for single screen cinemas. The listed building status means that splitting the building into more than one screen is not feasible.
City Screen has publicly expressed its wish to purchase the fire station next door, should a new home be found for the fire station. Plans include 4 / 5 screens, restaurant, bar, gallery and office space, potentially making the Duke of York’s the largest arthouse cinema in the country.