Search Form
font size: Increase | Decrease | Reset
Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

The Cinema in Norwich

The Cinema in Norwich

Carlton Cinema, All Saints Green
Carlton Cinema, All Saint's Green

Ask most people today about cinema in the City of Norwich and they will think of two Multiplexes, one at Riverside and one in the Mall, the Hollywood in a former Odeon, and Cinema City making use of the former Stuart and Suckling Halls.   To those rather older, memories will go back to the great days of Hollywood and the British film industry when the city could boost a dozen cinemas - four circuit houses which got the new films first, then the subsidiary houses where films could be 'caught', if missed the first time around.  There was also one that didn't survive the air raids of 1942 seeming to specialize in the type of 'B' western film which would have been at most a supporting feature in a more 'upmarket' house.  

Indeed there have been others, some dating from the very earliest days of the twentieth century.  The very first cinema in Norwich, screening 'Franco-British' pictures was at the Assembly Rooms on Bank Plain.  Not far behind was the Agricultural Hall, later the home of Anglia Television, where 'Jury's Imperial Bioscope Pictures' in 1906 included scenes from the Royal Tour of India.  In 1907 the Victoria Hall in St. Stephen's Street opened as a cinema.  David Elgood says "....the projection room was not totally enclosed.......".  It seems a hole in a sheet of corrugated iron allowed the light beam to reach the screen and seating was long, hard, wooden forms.   From 1912 to 1922, the Prince of Wales was functioning in Vinegar Lane near Foundry Bridge, behind what became the Grosvenor Rooms.  It had wicker chairs that creaked alarmingly but afternoon tea was served and pensioners were admitted free to certain matinees.    There were others: the Alexander in St. Peter's Street (now occupied by the City Hall); the Globe in Chapelfield,; the Astoria in Cowgate  (in the Alderman Norman School); and the Enterprise in Northumberland Street, remembered for its exclusive film of the 1935 Jubilee celebrations.  All had disappeared by 1938.              

From 1915 to 1930 silent films were shown at the Thatched Theatre on All Saints' Green, later incorporated into Bonds Department Store, now John Lewis.  David Elgood says, "The Thatched was to see the sound era but not take part in it".

Neither must we forget the Hippodrome in St Giles which opened as the Grand Opera house in 1903 and later had periods operating as a cinema, notably for seven years in the 1930s.  Even the Theatre Royal has served as a cinema in its time.  It is however the four 'big boys', Carlton, Odeon, Haymarket and Regent, that live in the memory of many of us as the core around which cinema in Norwich revolved.

The Circuit Cinemas

The Carlton was opened in 1932 by Mr. V.E. Harrison who owned a collection of cinemas in Norwich and the market towns of Norfolk.   An impressive house, it was soon taken over by the Odeon circuit.  The historian of the Norwich cinema, David Elgood, describes it as the first purpose-built sound cinema in Norwich.  Its spacious auditorium was used on more than one occasion for orchestral concerts and for stage shows, The Halle Orchestra performed there.  The building survives as a Bingo and Social Club.  Before its closure it had become known as the Gaumont.

The Odeon opened in 1938 and was the largest cinema in Norwich -  and indeed in East Anglia.  In the same ownership as the Carlton, these two cinemas for a time often showed the same film for the week.   It says something for the size of the Norwich cinema-going public that this was financially viable.  Large and very well-appointed with its own car-park, the Odeon was an impressive performer for many years, even if it did seem a little way from the centre of things.   In 1951, when Norwich was one of the provincial centres for the Festival of Britain, the Odeon, shorn of some of its front seats in the stalls, became the Festival Theatre with such as Sir Thomas Beecham remarking upon its good acoustics.   It was demolished in 1971. A new Odeon was built as part of the Anglai Square development.  This was a smaller house but with a fine auditorium, and it survives as the Hollywood cinema.  J. Arthur Rank and his Odeon cinemas are now just a memory.

The Haymarket opened in 1911 as the Picture House seating only 350 people, and it was closed in 1921 to be demolished and rebuilt.  Further enlarged in 1929 and known by its location, it brought a distinctive presence to the city.  A rather long auditorium gave it the feel of a theatre rather than a cinema.  Nevertheless it had its distinctions: the sixth cinema in the country to introduce 'talkies', it was here Al Jolson sang his way into audience hearts  -  and history  -  with The Singing Fool.   In 1929, the Haymarket featured the first talking newsreel produced by Twentieth Century Fox and called British Movietone News.   The Haymarket closed in 1959, after a spell of being known as the Gaumont.  At its closure, this name was transferred to the Carlton.  The Haymarket stood on the south side of Hay Hill, opposite St. Peter Mancroft Church and Weavers' Lane.  After demolition, the site was taken by the Peter Robinson store and it remains in retail use today.

The last of the 'big four' was the Regent, in Prince of Wales Road close to its junction with St. Faith's Lane.  It had opened in 1923 with The Prisoner of Zenda. Owned by the Alexander Picture House and Theatre Company, it was sold in 1929 to Associated British Cinemas.  This lead to the long-standing association with Warner Brothers and it was at the Regent that pictures starring such as Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney made their first appearance in the city.   There was something very individual about the Regent, and not just the attractive fish-pool behind the ticket-office.  The house possessed a ballroom and a restaurant and, in its earlier days, put on variety shows that were some of the best to be found in Norwich.  The stage and dressing rooms were there until near the end of the cinema's life. 

The Regent, latterly divided into three auditoriums and known as the ABC, lasted longer than any other of the 'big four' but succumbed as the twentieth-first century dawned to the modern competition of the multiplex.  To some picture-goers of a certain age, not least the writer, it had a unique place in the affections.

The Other Houses

What perhaps may be described as the secondary cinemas of Norwich are a fascinating collection.   Mr. V. E .Harrison, who built the Carlton in 1932, had in the same year erected the Capitol on Aylsham Road.  It was originally intended to install a circle but this never happened and the cinema with the Lido ballroom next door, was later to be incorporated into the Norwood Rooms.  In 1938, Harrison built two more cinemas in the city: the Regal on Dereham Road near St. Benedict's Gate and the Ritz opposite the Larkman Public House.   The latter was built in twenty-one weeks and, after closure, became a tyre depot.  The Regal, with its interior loosely based on that of the old Odeon, although much smaller, is now a public house. 

Two of the second-line cinemas had opened as early as 1912:  the Electric, later the Norvic, on Prince of Wales Road close to the Regent; and the Cinema Palace, later the Mayfair, in Magdalen Street with its rear adjoining the very large car-park of the old Odeon.  The Electric was the second cinema in Norwich to present a feature length taking film and, in its early days, the variety acts were almost as popular as the films.  In the circle, patrons could take advantage of the free teas in the Tea Lounge!  Pearl White serials were very popular at the Electric.  In 1949, the cinema was refurbished and opened as the Norvic and in 1954 introduced Cinemascope films to Norwich with The Robe.   The Norvic closed, quite without notice, one Saturday afternoon in 1959.  An office building stands on its site.

The Cinema Palace having become the Mayfair, was the first to close its doors as television made its impact.  It had been very popular in its day and had made its own film in 1913 of the Norwich City and Leicester Fosse F.A. cup-tie.  Its site was taken first of all by a bowling alley and later by Anglia Television studios.

The Theatre de Luxe opened in 1910, in a building dating from 1831.  Indeed it contained a part of a much earlier, historic building which still stands in St. Andrew's Street.  Before the cinema, the building had housed a bazaar to encourage female domestic industry and, at one time served as the Norwich Polytechnic Institute.  With a children's Saturday matinee - admission set at four pence, it had its faithful adherents.  The supporting film was invariably a 'quickie' Western and the 'TDL'  was also known as the Ranch House'.  The screen there having seen many a saloon brawl, the cinema closed in 1959 with an act of vandalism, the 'patrons' at the last performance doing several hundreds of pounds worth of damage.

Cinema was also housed in one of the city's most delightful buildings.   With the opening of the Assembly House in Theatre Street due to the generosity of the Norwich shoe-manufacturer, Mr. Jesse Sexton, the Noverre cinema was established there in 1950.  Of great comfort and individuality, the Noverre was a delightful place..  A visit there, together with the many other good things the Georgian Assembly House provided, felt an occasion.  After a little while, the Norfolk and Norwich Film Theatre was based there, one week in four.  This was the forerunner of Cinema City.  The film theatre showed a wide selection of continental and other films not normally to be found in the more commercial cinema.  The then Leader of the City Council felt that what was risqué elsewhere became art when it reached the Noverre!  Be that as it may, these were wonderful days for Norwich cinema.   Wonderfully well supported in its earlier days, it closed due to a lack of patrons as the century neared its end.  The raked floor was covered and the space became a multi-purpose suite.  All was soon to be affected by the disastrous fire that swept through the Assembly House.  With the re-opening, a cinema club was formed and today, the Noverre Visual Arts Society has film among its activities and thus keeps cinema alive in this most charming of venues.

A very different place was the Empire in Oak Street, worth remembering if only for the tales surrounding its admission procedures.  Did a large jam-jar really get you a seat?   What is certain is that J. Arthur Rank never considered taking it under his wing! Another cinema largely depending upon sage-brush and the saloon, it closed in 1940 and was destroyed by German bombs in 1942.

The city almost had another cinema:  in the 1950s the foundations were actually laid of the Plaza on Plumstead Road, on the left-hand side leaving the city and close to the Heartease shops.  Television and falling attendances meant building was not continued.

The story of cinema in Norwich extends over more than a century, the moving image still working its magic.   From the travelling showmen who entranced the visitors to Tombland Fair to the comforts of the multiplex, the entertainment provided has been a vital part of the Norwich scene.  It is interesting one of the prime outlets for cinema in Norwich today, Cinema City, makes use of an historic building.  Norwich can never quite escape its history.  Nor should it try.

  • Elgood, David.   City Cinemas 1903-1978.  A Brief History of Cinema in Norwich.   Norfolk and Norwich Film Theatre, 1978.

Andy Anderson.                 

March, 2009