In Conversation : Allen Eyles

Interviewee: Allen Eyles

Interviewer: Christina Reading

Date of Interview: 23rd March 2010

Allen Eyles has conducted research on the Duke of York’s over the last 20 years. He has investigated the cinema as a building and, more recently, the people involved throughout the cinema’s history and the films that have been shown there. He discusses

On initiating his interest

Allen Eyles’ research into major cinema circuits led him to the Duke of York’s cinema.

“I was always interested in films and I became interested into cinema buildings when I started to see them either saw them being carved up into several smaller cinemas or being converted into supermarkets or just being pulled down. So I started taking an interest in that and I suppose it was a bit of a challenge as there wasn’t much information into what were interesting cinemas and what weren’t. I was perhaps one of the first people to get into, kind of, researching this area which led in the end to my writing histories of the major cinema circuits.”

As the editor of the magazine Picturehouse, he was able to develop his investigative history in the 1980s with greater freedom. He soon gained expertise in cinemas as spaces and became increasingly interested in the Duke of York’s position within their history.

“In editing Picturehouse we had a debate arise as to what was the oldest existing operating cinema in the country and a number of other places were put forward, which had basically been cinemas around from around 1910 or even earlier , but most places…dramatically later on so they weren’t really quite the buildings that they were in 1910 been earlier on so I reached the conclusion that the Duke of York’s is the oldest  operating cinema that has pretty much the feel of when it opened in 1910.”

Being one of the few people to take such an interest into the cinema’s history, an article by Allen Eyles was put onto the Duke of York’s website. This eventually led current General Manager Jon  Barrenechea asking Allen to extend his investigation, leading to his recent book on the subject.

He recalls his personal relationship with the cinema having lived in Sussex.

“I had gone there quite a few times and seen it in its early arthouse days…It was difficult to know what was on there because you had to pick up fliers…[as it] wasn’t advertised in Sussex…I don’t recall the Duke of York’s ever advertising, but you have to appreciate it was probably not possible to advertise in all the papers for that size of operation.”

On the research process

Allen has a close connection to the local history centre in his research, giving him access to other works and information available on the cinema.

“It’s now the local history centre. A lot of work had been done in Brighton by other people. There was a book published by, quite a good book though curiously organised, by a man called D. Robert Elleray called a Refuge from Reality. A lot of work had been done by a local historian called John Montgomery in a series of newspaper articles and individual cinemas, which he had collected into a book that was never published but the manuscript, although it was missing when I did my original research on the Duke of York’s but a it’s now, or a photocopy, a bound photocopy, has been found.”

Allen has found that Montgomery’s book features information on the cinema apparently gained through hearsay, making verification and furthering of these details difficult. Indeed Allen later discusses the gaps within our knowledge of the history of the Duke of York’s, such as the lack of film archives, early photographs and individual’s memories.

On the historical context of the cinema

It is important to place the cinema within the Brighton scene.

“They [smaller cinemas] could be economic if cleverly operated and so they all when through stages of being turned over to being arthouses for mainly a student audience and that got them through the dark days of the 1980s when there was an absolute plummet in attendances at British cinemas, since when of course there has been a revival on the back of the multiplexes…which has made it fashionable and worth doing.”

On the building itself

A great deal of Allen’s work has focussed on the cinema as a building.

“The DOY has a very fancy exterior for what one might have expected. That in itself is quite imposing even without the edition of the cancan dancer’s legs, which are a kind of anachronistic touch on its Edwardian frontage. A lot of cinemas of that generation tend to get partly modernised by having a modern front slapped on them but this was such a big frontage that no one ever contemplated doing that. Inside it was seemingly relatively plain but the problem is we don’t have many early photographs of what it looked like internally…It does seem to have been a sort of fairly plain building though the front of the balcony did have a more elaborate decoration than it does now. It is possible that some of the decoration was knocked off in the 1930s to make the cinema look a bit more modern.”

These elaborate exteriors were not common in the early 20th century and Allen suggests the Duke of York’s exterior may have been the most elaborate in its earliest days.

Although the beginnings on the cinema are important, Allen professes the significance of the change in the cinema and the different pressures it has faced throughout its 100 years. This fascinating, involved story lies at the heart of his work.

“I don’t think the life of a cinema should be ignored.”

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