The Phoenix Cinema is an independent cinema in East Finchley, London, England, that was built in 1910 and opened in 1912 as the East Finchley Picturedrome. It is the second oldest continuously-running cinema in the UK (the Duke of York's Picture House, Brighton is the oldest), and shows mainly art house films.
It is distinctive on East Finchley's high road by its large neon sign on the side of the building. Its patrons are Benedict Cumberbatch, Maureen Lipman, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Michael Palin, Bill Paterson, Victoria Wood and Mark Kermode. It is run by a trust for the community.
The Picturedrome (1910-23)
The 1909 Cinematograph Act introduced laws to make cinemas safer. As a result, more purpose-built cinemas began to appear from 1910 onwards including this one. The Phoenix Cinema was built in 1910 by Premier Electric Theatres, however the company went bankrupt before the cinema could be opened. In 1912, the building was purchased by businessmen who had been involved in setting up East Sheen Picturedrome. They finally opened it as 'The East Finchley Picturedrome' in May 1912 with 428 seats. The first screening was of a film about the tragic Titanic ocean liner which has recently sunk. The natural fall of the land was utilised for the sloped seating with the screen at the High Road end.
The Coliseum (1924-36)
In 1924, the cinema's name changed to the 'Coliseum'. In 1925, the cinema was sold to Home Counties Theatres Ltd, which also owned the Athenaeum Picture Playhouse and the Summerland Cinema, both in Muswell Hill. At this time, the typical programme was silent movies accompanied by live music, plus variety acts such as singers, magicians and comedians. But in 1928, British cinema went through a huge transformation when the first sound film, The Jazz Singer, featuring the voice of the film’s star Al Jolson, premiered in the London's West End. Cinemas across London started the transition to sound and on 22 July 1929 this cinema was the first in the area to show a sound film, screening Al Jolson's latest The Singing Fool.
The Rex (1937-75)
In 1937, the building was redesigned and rebuilt in a more art deco style and reopened as the 'Rex' in September 1938. From short silent presentations, often part of stage variety shows with musical accompaniment, film had moved on to full-length sound feature films as we know them today. The major alterations of 1938 were a response to competition from the new 1000 seater "picture palaces" being built by chains such as Odeon, ABC and Gaumont in the surrounding area.
So in 1938 the cinema underwent a transformation, reopening in September as The Rex with a new modernist façade by Howes and Jackman and
Renowned cinema interior designers Mollo & Egan redesigned the auditorium. The original 1910 barrel vaulted ceiling was retained, but decorative Art Deco panels were added along the walls. The auditorium was reversed, with the screen moving to the opposite end. This involved considerable alteration to the flooring to create a rake for the seating. The colour scheme, like today, was red, bronze and gold.the number increasing to 528. A projection box was built over the foyer to satisfy the requirements of the Cinematograph Act 1909, with shutters over the windows to the auditorium which could be closed in case of fire. A pair of Kershaw Kalee II arc film projectors with RCA sound heads and an RCA high fidelity 6-valve amplifier were installed. Behind the screen were two RCA loudspeakers, where they remained for over 60 years. Modern heating and ventilation systems were also installed. These alterations together with the improved sight lines from the seating raised the standard of the Rex to meet those of its north London competitors.
The front of the cinema was transformed by architects Howes & Jackman with a move to the sleek lines of 1930s art deco architecture. The turrets and decorative plasterwork were removed to give the exterior a more 'modern' look. Glazed black tiles set against cream plaster and a new canopy stretching across the width of the cinema were accompanied by a neon sign with the new name, The Rex.
The Rex opened as an independent cinema compiling its own programmes, unlike the nearby chain cinemas, whose schedules were decided by their allied production companies.
Advertising from 1938 reassured the public that "If it is good it's on our screen". There was a full programme with a double-bill of two features, a major and minor release, a short and a newsreel, all at the same prices as the chains. Advertising, neglected by the Coliseum, was embraced by The Rex and it was always keeping up with innovations from the larger distributors.
The Rex's programming policy in the late 1930s allowed it to tailor its presentations to its public's tastes. British films were therefore favoured and popular films were presented that had previously gone round the big circuits, allowing patrons to see films they had missed elsewhere or to see a favourite film a second time around. Sunday showings of older films and a standard mid-week change of programme (when the circuits were holding a film for a whole week) provided a rich diet for even the most enthusiastic cinemagoer.
In 1973 the Rex was acquired by the Granada Group. Within weeks the programming policy changed to commercial circuit releases and the previously steady increase in admissions stalled. The EFNA (East Finchley Neighbourhood Association) produced a petition and an accusatory article, Granada Wrecks the Rex, was published by Keith Lumley resulting in a new owner and a programming policy reversal
The Phoenix (1975-present)
The cinema took its current name in 1975 when it was purchased and run by the distribution company Contemporary Films and concentrated on showing independent, foreign and specialist films, as it does today.
In 1983, a property company applied to Barnet Council for planning permission to build an office block on the site occupied by the cinema and the two lock-up garages behind it. Audience patterns were changing and Contemporary Films considered that the cinema was no longer economically viable and took the opportunity to take retirement. The Barnet Planning Committee approved the development but the Greater London Council rejected the proposal. After the consequent public inquiry in April 1984 permission for the office block was granted. Widespread opposition by local residents (with the patronage of Maureen Lipman) finally resulted in yet another change of hands into the Phoenix Cinema Trust, which now relies on its own income and donations to survive. Francis Coleman, who was prominent in the opposition, was the Trust's first Chair.
In 1999 an English Heritage review resulted in some thirty cinemas acquiring listed status in recognition of their historic and architectural importance. Many of the 123 cinema buildings already listed no longer showed films but listing does ensure that the auditoriums or fascias remain as a reminder of the golden years of cinema construction. English Heritage recognised the importance of the Phoenix's original 1910 barrel-vaulted ceiling and the 1938 Mollo and Egan decorative wall panels and in 2000 the cinema received a Grade II listing. As one of the earliest purpose-built cinemas in the UK and one of even fewer still operating as a cinema, the Phoenix is therefore protected from demolition or damaging alterations.
Phoenix Cinema Trust Ltd
The non-profit making Phoenix Cinema Trust Ltd was created by Hazel Sharples (London Borough of Barnet's Arts Officer) with the help of Michael Holden Associates. Francis Coleman with a lifelong career in TV and film production, became the first Chairman of the Trust.
Charles Cooper, owner of film distributors Contemporary Films, wanted to sell the cinema and retire. He had maintained what some call 'Arthouse' standards against heavy odds. Upon his retirement, the fate of the cinema hung very much in the balance. There were several proposals for a sale, but they were dropped when in June 1985 the GLC offered a grant of the same value to the Trust to purchase the cinema and the garages behind it.
The Trust was incorporated as a private limited company on 11 November 1985 and the building and the adjoining land were bought by the Trust in December 1985.
At the beginning of the Trust's ownership, there were barely funds to run the cinema. The heating was antiquated. So was the projection equipment with its carbon arcs. Programming was another challenge. Contemporary Films had won a quota system against mainstream distributors for newly released American and UK films, which meant that the Phoenix was able to 'claim' every fourth or fifth one.
In 1989 the Trust enlarged the upper foyer by repositioning the stairs and creating a new entrance to the auditorium.
Centenary Restoration Project
In 2010 there was a further renovation to celebrate the cinema's centenary, led by the Phoenix Cinema Trust, and designed by HMDW Architects. This introduced a new cafe-bar with a balcony, reworked the external signage and foyer, and restored the auditorium's barrel vaulted ceiling, and Art Deco panels.
References in popular culture
The Phoenix has also 'starred' in many films, TV series and photo shoots, providing the backdrop for anything from educational videos to fashion shoots to TV series and big feature films.
In 1999, the Phoenix featured in This Morning's fashion section to go with 1950s retro fashion. In the same year, teen magazine Sugar shot one of its photo stories there and Marie Claire magazine interviewed 'the five most important women in the UK film business'. James Ferman, the former chairman of the British Board of Film Classification, took a seat to be interviewed by Joan Bakewell for her BBC series My Generation. In 2001 the Phoenix popped up in the new series of Virgin Mobile phone ads and it also appears in the video for the Scissor Sisters track "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'"
Among the cinema's biggest dramatic appearances were in TV comedy in the remake of the classic series Randall and Hopkirk, with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. The anti-hero of Channel 4's off-beat comedy series Black Books came in when his new alarm system locked him out of his own shop and Jeremy tries to impress Zahra on a visit to The Phoenix in series 7, episode 3 of Peep Show.
Neil Jordan chose the Phoenix as an early 20th-century cinema for a scene in his 1994 box-office hit, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. Jordan returned to the Phoenix to film scenes in his adaptation of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair.
The biggest film shoot at the cinema so far was for the British comedy Mr Love, made in 1985 starring Barry Jackson. Set in a local 'flea-pit' and following the adventures of its projectionist, the Phoenix was a major star of the film for which the Phoenix's chief projectionist served as a technical adviser.
- "Francis Coleman: award-winning TV producer and director", The Times, 19 June 2008.
- The Phoenix Cinema: A Century of Film in East Finchley, Gerry Turvey, 2010, published by the Phoenix Cinema Trust.