Flatpack Projects
Film, and then some

Happy birthday, Electric

Ian Francis
Tuesday 22nd December, 2009 Posted by Ian Francis

While you're consuming your bodyweight in minced pies and mulled wine over the next few days perhaps raise a glass to Birmingham's Electric cinema, celebrating its centenary on Sunday and almost definitely the oldest cinema in the UK. Earlier this month the current owner Tom Lawes staged a whistle-stop tour of the building's last hundred years, from its early days as a news theatre (with punters including George Bernard Shaw) via soft porn intrigue in the 70s and 80s to the carrot-cake-and-Tarkovsky era in the 90s and finally its somewhat more upmarket current guise.

I first encountered it as an arthouse fleapit, and cherished memories of being on the dole in Birmingham are all wrapped up with drizzly Tuesday afternoons watching double-bills along with three or four other punters. Its survival seemed to defy the laws of capitalism. But then as the centenary event made clear, 47 Station Street has led a remarkably enduring, chameleon-like existence as it shapeshifted from Electric to Select to Tatler to Jacey to Classic to Tivoli and back to the Electric, while all around it bigger, sexier cinemas have bitten the dust.

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This shot is from the 30s Tatler period (not Prohibition-era Chicago, believe it or not), when the cinema shot its own newsreels. We got a tantalising glimpse of original footage from their launch event, and an insight into the building's creepier side thanks to a letter from an employee who worked there in the 50s. At that time there was a mortuary next door, and he was told that during the war the basement had been used as a store for dead bodies. He also recalls attempting to wake a punter at the end of the night and finding that he had shot himself. "My happiest years, and I hope the cinema always is there."