History of the Alhambra
History of the Alhambra
Built in 1913, the Keswick Alhambra is one of very few UK picture houses that have been in continuous operation for over 100 years. Here are a few key dates and snippets from our history, courtesy of Ian Payne, who produced a book from material gathered to mark the Alhambra’s Centenary (Will You Take Us In, Please?: 100 years of the Alhambra Cinema in Keswick, Bookcase 2016). Available at the Alhambra!
I applaud the Alhambra and the people of Keswick for managing to hang on to this iconic symbol of community and shared history and I applaud the fact that over a hundred years since it was built, you can still go there, watch a film, and be entranced, moved and transported to other times and other worlds.
Registration of the Keswick Alhambra Theatre Company with £2,000 capital.
The first managing director was Herbert ‘Tom’ Pape, followed by fellow Director John Denwood, who had worked as a Film Exhibitor in the United States.
Messers I Hodgson and Son (still in business today!) were entrusted with building work. Final accounts record construction costs as £651 14s 8d.
Grand Opening of the Alhambra, 22 January, with Quo Vadis. (Although in fact, due to a technical hitch, the inaugural show had to be abandoned. Quo Vadis was aired the following day, after a spare part arrived by train!)
The advent of cinema was not welcomed by all. Keswick's Canon Rawnsley was one of many who pressed for initiatives to ameliorate the "abuses of the cinema," which included "incitements to dissipation, grossness, illicit passions, theft, robbery, arson and homicide by the presentation of moving pictures dealing with sensational, sometimes erotic and criminal incidents."
The British Board of Film Censorship declared 'U' films suitable for children, while 'A' films required children to be accompanied by an adult.
Children in Keswick often found ways to sneak in unaccompanied: attaching themselves to a random adult in the queue: "Will you take us in?"
Movies were silent until 1930: films were accompanied by a piano, or on special occasions a small band.
There was a pianist called Titchy Byers ... some of the children that were here used to get sweets opposite at Houghtons and they used to throw them and nuts at him while he played... A lot of them got thrown out!
The Alhambra did screen the first ever talking picture, The Jazz Singer, in 1927, but in the absence of sound facilities, the show, featuring "the world's greatest entertainer, Al Jonson," was voiced live by "Mr Fred Bucknall, the popular Yorkshire Baritone, who will render the full and necessary vocal accompaniment for this wonderful film." - Keswick Reminder advert for the film.
The Simpson family's County Entertainment Company took on the lease of the Alhambra: they ran the Alhambra Theatre as a cinema alongside the Pavilion as a Palais de Dance and cinema, and the Victoria on Borrowdale Road a concert hall. Harry Simpson (who was National President of the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association in 1943), was later succeeded by his brother, Jack Simpson, who owned and managed the Alhambra for 30 years.
The Alhambra was equipped for TALKIES by the British-Thomson-Houston system. "We can with confidence ask our patrons to compare the system with any other apparatus in the country."
Gold Diggers of Broadway was screened with "100% natural colour."
World War II. Keswick was busy during the war: far from any risk of bombing, it provided a safe haven for holidays and honeymoons, besides hosting evacuees and servicemen: the army ran a driving school in Portinscale, and several hotels were taken over by St Katherine's teacher training college and Rodean girl's school.
The cinema showed newsreels and public information films: an important part of the war effort on the home front - informing and educating as well as entertaining.
An evacuee recalls that children could get free seats on certain Saturday mornings, when the Alhambra had a "waste paper drive". The weight of your contribution determined the class of seat you got.
A local lad came in with a small parcel wrapped in newspaper - we all laughed as it seemed to be such a small amount. However, it weighed very heavily when put on the table - it transpired it was the family bible, with a huge brass clasp! He was ushered upstairs, much to our chagrin. His victory smirk was short lived, as his father arrived to claim the Bible back!
Saturday morning matinees for unaccompanied children were a raucous affair.
I remember the front rows were full of screaming kids and I mean screaming kids... It cost 2d to sit in the front row with all my friends and we used to look right up at the screen at the Lone Ranger and his Indian companion... After the performance we would run into the woods firing our cap guns and shouting 'Hi Ho Silver'.
After seeing the Wizard of Oz we would cycle four abreast down the Borrowdale Road singing "We're off to see the wizard" at the top of our voices!
Before the Saturday matinee started was also where, on occasion, differences of opinion got sorted out round the corner in High Street... As one grew older it took on an added attraction as the place to take a girl.
The projectionist ... sometimes let us in to the projection room. Two projectors were needed to give a seamless viewing instead of having to stop and change the reels... Behind the projectors was the editing and splicing equipment in case of a break in the film.
Moss, a sheepdog from Threlkeld, and his owner J Relph, were afforded a standing ovation when they appeared in person at the Alhambra screening of Border Collie: "the wonderful local sheepdog film actually filmed in your own district."
Parts of The Clouded Yellow, starring Trevor Howard and Jean Simmons, were filmed in Borrrowdale, with the stars staying in Keswick, and a few locals appearing as extras. The film was screened in Keswick in February 1951 - but at the Pavilion rather than the Alhambra. (Never one to miss a trick, and as an institution with a long memory, the Alhambra showed it in January 2014, for the Centenary celebrations!)
Films and newsreels on the death of King George VI, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth Tour were followed closely at the Alhambra: television reception in Keswick was still limited.
Jack Simpson sold the business to Graves (Cumberland) Ltd., though he continued as manager for some 10 years afterwards. Graves owned the freehold of the Alhambra until 2016, and was responsible for its direct management until 2006. The Graves Group (still in operation today) was a large, Workington-based company, which ran cinemas, dance and bingo halls in Workington, Maryport, Whitehaven and Cockermouth.
Graves oversaw a number of physical and technological changes in the following decades:
The sweet shop/booking office adjoining the Alhambra was sold, with a new layout featuring ticket and refreshments directly facing the entry doors. The balcony was refloored and new seats fitted (the end of the double seat ‘chummies’ era).
Carbon arc lamps were replaced by Xenon lamps.
Cinemascope was introduced: a bigger screen, and improvements to the sound system, including the installation of Dolby.
A tower system replaced the two projectors, allowing projectionists to splice film reels together onto a single reel for uninterrupted showings. Splicing and splitting, of course, have their own inherent risks.
The programme provided a huge range of films, with twice nightly screenings Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat, single performances Tues and Thurs, and a Saturday afternoon matinee.
Nonetheless, dwindling audiences by the late 60s meant the Alhambra was threatened with closure. Concerned picture goers launched a petition to keep the cinema open. Graves’ pragmatic response was to apply for planning permission to add bingo to the repertoire. From 1967, Monday and Friday became Bingo nights: Bingo machines were fitted to the seats on the left hand side of the stalls.
The 1970s were a lean time for the Alhambra, and for British cinema. By 1979 there were no shows on a Saturday; it was a 4-nights a week operation. The Alhambra had always been a ‘second-run’ cinema, generally showing films a week or more after the west coast cinemas had screened them. Other forms of entertainment - music, disco, and theatre, were also more widely available, with the increase in car ownership and the new 3-lane A66 rendering neighbouring towns more accessible.
Barbara Graves took over management of the Alhambra in 1982, for Graves. She made valiant efforts to promote the cinema, engaging in an internal facelift, shrewd marketing, and heartfelt appeals to ‘use it or lose it.’
It was Barbara who persuaded Graves that the Alhambra should show some first run films. The first of those, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, proved her point: all four screenings sold out in one day, with queues backing up along St. John’s street, and emergency confectionary re-stocking required! Nonetheless, the cinema did have to close down for most of the winter months (November to March), until 1989.
From left to right: Barbara Graves, Tom Rennie, Joan Green, Helen Smith
Tom Rennie was appointed manager in 1991. By this point, the Alhambra team was shrinking: Barbara would be supported on any night by an usher(ette) on each floor, someone on the cash desk, and the projectionist. Tom managed with less staff, but was fortunate enough to have Joan Green on hand as Assistant Manager - a stalwart who had started at the Alhambra in the 1970s.
Long tenures are the norm at the Alhambra: Assistant Manager Helen Smith started out as an usherette in the early 2000s, both still going strong at the time of the centenary in 2014.
The Keswick Film Club was set up by Tony Martin, to bring “more World cinema and films that don’t often get a chance to be seen to a larger audience and in the process, support our local cinemas.” Besides a single weekly show through the winter months, the Keswick Film Club staged the “first film festival of the new millennium” on 18 February 2000. In 2006 the Club won the first of many accolades: Chair Rod Evans received the British Federation of Film Societies ‘Film Society of the Year’ award from Anthony Minghella.
Both Club and Festival have brought remarkable people to Keswick: Ken Loach, Nicolas Roeg, Andrea Arnold, Dame Janet Suzman to name but a few. Producer Anwen Rees-Myers brought both a film and her husband, John Hurt to the Festival: Sir John then became Patron of the Festival, presenting prizes for the Festival’s annual Osprey competition for makers of short films.
Alan Towers of the Lonsdale City Cinemas Group took on the leasehold of the Alhambra from Graves (Cumberland). Alan’s grandfather, a pianist, had accompanied silent movies before moving into the business, with Lonsdale cinemas spreading from Silloth to Lockerbie, Annan and Carlisle. Alan had shown his first film aged 12! The lease on the Lonsdale Carlisle building was terminating and the building set for demolishing just as Graves offered Alan Penrith and Keswick, so both cinemas benefited from some fine new seats. Keswick inherited a new digital sound system, but the staff remained the same: Alan kept Tom and his crew on.
Alan Towers reluctantly terminated his lease, finding the Keswick Alhambra economically unviable.
Having run the cinema for over 20 years, and with it being just two years short of its centenary, manager Tom Rennie couldn’t imagine letting the cinema close. He took on a 5-year lease from Graves as owner-manager, and was rewarded by a damp summer and the release of both Skyfall and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, giving his new business model a good start.
Technological innovations, primarily the switch to digital from 35mm reels, rendered projection work less specialized and time-consuming: Keswick’s first digital screening was in September 2012: A Royal Affair. Incidents such as the Alhambra’s Friday 13th Titanic disaster became a thing of the past (reels 7 and 9 had been mixed up in transit, so shortly after the Titanic sank, the March 1998 audience of 186 were surprised to see it once again afloat!)
The Alhambra began streaming live satellite events in June 2013, with Helen Mirren starring in The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre, London. Special events from National Theatre Live, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House and other live venues have formed a regular part of the Alhambra’s repertoire ever since.
The Alhambra’s Centenary was marked, fittingly, in the medium of film: the Lake District Communities Fund supported research by Heather Tippler and Helen Hutchinson, with further funding from the Keswick Town Council and the County Council’s Neighbourhood Forum to commission local film-maker Joel Baker. Lights, Camera… Alhambra! was premiered at the Centenary Film Festival, alongside free viewings of classic films from each of the decades in which the Alhambra had operated, as a thank you to Keswick townspeople who had supported the cinema over the years.
The day itself, January 22 2014, was celebrated with a screening of The Clouded Yellow, and an interview with Nick Simpson, son of long-serving owner-manager Jack Simpson. In an echo of the technical glitch that marked the opening of the Alhambra exactly 100 years ago, the mobile phone connection to Film Festival Patron Sir John Hurt was extremely shaky, but his congratulations were passed on, as were those of other cinematic luminaries: Ken Loach, Tony Britten and Judi Dench.
Towards the end of Tom Rennie's 5-year lease on the cinema, Graves (Cumberland) Ltd. offered to sell him the building. At 73 years of age, a purchase on this scale was perhaps a little risky, but Tom’s vision of a ‘Cinema Paradiso’-style family business had seeded in the mind of one of his three children, and his daughter & son-in-law joined him and his wife, Sylvia, in December 2016, to purchase the building and form a new company, Keswick Alhambra Ltd..
Carol and Alan took over day-to-day management of the cinema in 2018. This new website, along with online booking and gift vouchers, a greater variety of films each week, and the advent of niche outdoor- and adventure films as well as an alcohol licence and good year for film in general all helped make 2018 a record-breaking year. A new roof was put on, plasterwork in the balcony repaired, and in 2019 an immensely successful crowdfunding campaign ( https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/keswick-alhambra-restore-the-glory ) helped us Restore the Glory of the auditorium, highlighting many of the unique original features that had been hidden under a century of paint.
The Alhambra survived the coronavirus lockdowns in 2020/21 thanks to various government grants, in particular the Culture Recovery Fund for Independent Cinemas. Alan Hasler bowed out, to secure a more reliable source of income, and Carol Rennie was joined by Jonathan Moore, who, after substantial time spent voluntarily helping Carol with DIY foyer refurbishments, bought in, together with his partner Graham King. On assuming his Directorship, Jonathan commenced a project to install a second screen (tucked under the balcony to preserve the structure, look and feel of the traditional balcony-and-stalls main screen), create a new bar/ticketing area, and open up the frontage of the building.