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The Opening of the Astoria – Brixton’s ‘wonder cinema theatre’

1 Nov

ImageIn the evening of Monday 19th August 1929 Brixton was in a state of excitable chaos. Despite the special parking that had been arranged for guests arriving by private motor car, Stockwell Road had become completely impassable. (I like to imagine laconic 1920s road rage, flappers gesticulating with cigarette holders etc).

The first to arrive had been a group of schoolboys, who took up residence on the steps at 8.45am. Through the course of the day they were joined by as many as 10,000 others in a queue that wound around the block and beyond. Some waited with the hope of securing one of the limited tickets to the gala opening night. Others just wanted to see the celebrities due to appear. But despite the crowds and the inevitable disappointment for some, the South London Press cheerfully reported that, ‘the greatest good humour prevailed’.

The management of the self-proclaimed ‘new wonder cinema theatre’ had been expecting, and no doubt hoping for this reaction from the locals. The Astoria had taken two years and £250,000 to build, and would be in competition with around nine other nearby cinemas. But Wall Street hadn’t yet crashed, the twenties were still roaring and the people of this popular South London shopping area were ready for a bit of West End glamour: 2.3 million tickets were sold in the Astoria’s first year.

When those who had been queuing all day were finally admitted they can’t have been disappointed. In the centre of the marble-floored foyer, flanked by huge bouquets of flowers, water flowed from a mosaic fountain into an engraved glass trough. The glamorous celebrity guests ascended staircases that climbed the foyer walls to reach their seats in the circle, passing an elegant tea terrace furnished with low wicker chairs. It was all thrillingly modern.

ImageThe previous Friday the Brixton Free Press had printed a special (no doubt paid for) supplement that listed every last detail of the new cinema. ‘It can safely be said that the directors of the Brixton Astoria have left no stone unturned in their endeavour to produce the cinema du luxe’ they gasped. But even four pages of gushing 1920s advertorial weren’t equal to the splendid auditorium in to which the first night crowd now flowed.

Trees and vines climbed the elaborate façade of the huge proscenium arch. Mock-Renaissance statues stood importantly in alcoves, among columns and urns, beneath a mini Rialto-style bridge from which singers would perform. The auditorium itself was crowned with huge copper dome, (large enough to cover the centre of Leicester Square! – the management jovially declared) on which lighting produced a ‘morning, noon and night’ effect. In her memoir of growing up in 1930s Brixton, Dora Tack remembers a ‘moon’ in the night sky that moved across the dome over the course of the picture. Even the carpet was designed to look a bit like a lawn, complete with crazy paving.  It was the start of Hollywood’s romantic golden age, and a replica of a classical Italian garden probably seemed an entirely suitable setting for watching its films.

ImageThe enormous safety curtain was raised at 7.15pm (it weighed 8 tons! – some murmured) to the South London Music Club singing the national anthem. Conservative MP Nigel Coleman took the stage to a fanfare, something I’m sure many modern Tories would love to see reinstated. He thanked owner Arthur Segal for choosing Brixton for the first of his Astoria cinemas (four more would follow in Streatham, Finsbury Park and on the Old Kent Road; all beautiful, but none so grand) and praised nominatively determined cinema architect Edward Stone for his remarkable design.

The main picture was Al Jolson in The Singing Fool. The film was a year old, why had they not shown a premier? – the South London Press wondered. Perhaps it was chosen as a guaranteed hit, or maybe the Astoria didn’t want to be upstaged by something new on opening night. As the follow up to The Jazz Singer, the first real ‘talkie’, The Singing Fool was actually quite an appropriate choice for an era perched between silent film and synchronised sound.

ImageThe gala night concluded with dancing by the Brixton Astoria’s Hudson Girls and music from the Astoria’s own in-house orchestra. ‘It is probable that no orchestra in the world has ever enjoyed playing to an audience in so magnificent a stage setting’ sighed the Brixton Free Press, a little ridiculously. The last 45 minutes of the performances were transmitted on the wireless by the BBC, the first time a broadcast had ever come live from a cinema, which was quite a coup for manager Charles Penley.

For the first few years of its life the Astoria would continue to show both silent films and talkies, alongside a variety programme. Odeon stopped most of these live performances after taking over in 1939, preferring to concentrate on the more lucrative business of showing films. The building survived both German bombers (nearby Quin and Axtens department store was almost completely destroyed in 1941) and the 1950s trend for ‘modernising’ that led to the ABC (now the Electric, formerly the Fridge) and the Classic (happily restored as The Ritzy) losing much of their original features.


A trolley clatters past in 1950

But, of course, the Astoria was too big to go on as a cinema forever. It was closed by its owners, the Rank organisation, in 1972, by which time only the circle was open anyway. There was talk of demolishing it, but fortunately it was awarded listed status. Various doomed projects came and went  – mainly based around live music and nightclubs, with even talk of an indoor skatepark at one point in the early eighties.


The Astoria in the 1960s

In 1983 the Astoria opened once again as the Brixton Academy. Rather than dancing girls and black and white movies, the entertainment on this occasion was reggae band Eek A Mouse. Live music had always been a part of the Astoria, even in its cinema days. It has seen performances from Shirley Bassey, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among many, many others. Carling’s sponsorship in 2000 led to the brand’s name being affixed, then replaced by O2 in 2006.

There’s still often queues along Astoria Walk, alongside the right hand side of the Academy, where those Brixton cinema goers waited to see get a glimpse of the first ‘landscape cinema’ and watch their favourite Hollywood stars on the big screen. About which I’m sure Mssrs Segal, Stone and Penley would be pleased, even if a little unsure about the musical style of the entertainment, and probably the lager in plastic cups.

Many thanks to the Minet Library Lambeth Archives, and particularly to Clive and Rachael at the Cinema Theatre Association who are brilliant. Any errors very much my own.

Parklife: a summer’s day in Brixton’s historic parks

30 May

 Finally FINALLY it feels like summer. Good weather in London makes us disconcertingly chipper, sending us scurrying to the nearest ‘outside’ to drink Pimms, get strap marks and examine the blisters from our new sandals. I’ve written about my favourite beer gardens here already, so below is a bit of a celebration of three lovely parks in the Greater Brixton area, all originally created between 1889 and 1907, and all more than worthy of a picnic.

(Just remember, barbecues are not allowed – you don’t want the fire brigade coming to douse your sausages.)

MYATT’S FIELD opened as a Victorian urban park in 1889, and still retains enough if its turn-of-the-century charm to want to make you skip around it with Mary Poppins and Dick Van Dyke. Amongst the pleasingly formal ornamental flower beds stands a bandstand and a summer house, as well as community greenhouses and a sweet little mock Tudor café.

The land was donated by local do-gooders the Minet family, but is, rather democratically, named after Joseph Myatt, a market gardener who once grew his veg where the park now stands. Interestingly, they layout was designed by a lady called Fanny Rollo Wilkinson, who was Britain’s first professional female landscape architect. Cool, eh?

Food?: The community-run Black Cat café, which uses fresh produce from the park’s own greenhouses and sells cake baked by locals is by the bandstand. It didn’t always seem to be open during its advertised hours in the spring, but hopefully it’ll be more reliable over the summer.

Sporty stuff?: There’s (free) tennis courts, a basketball court, and a children’s splashy pond thing, if that counts as a sport. It probably does if you’re two.

Anything else?: On Sundays throughout the summer there’s a programme of music scheduled in the band stand, more info here. The cafe also runs a number of food-based community events, such as cooking classes and lunches.

RUSKIN PARK is an Edwardian gem. Named after opinionated Victorian and mummy’s boy John Ruskin, Ruskin Park it was opened with the help of strong local support in 1907 and enlarged just three years later. During the First World War the park was covered in tents and temporary huts to house the wounded from the trenches who couldn’t all be treated in nearby King’s College hospital (interestingly this happened at Myatt’s Field Park too). Nowadays you’ll still find lots of the features that would have been familiar to the park’s first users. There’s a rather snazzy band stand, a nice pond, and over 40 species of tree. A portico (porch thing + wall) and sundial from one of the houses demolished to make way for the park make for quite unusual garden ornaments.

Food?: The cafe opened for business on 16th May. It’s next to the playground and serves drinks, snacks and sandwiches. (There was a mention of halloumi.)

Sporty stuff?: There’s an all-weather five-aside type pitch, tennis (free at the weekend), basketball and one of those things where you practice hitting a cricket ball.

Anything else?: The website for the community gardens is rather lovely – it features regular updates about what’s been planted and how you can get involved. 

Beautiful BROCKWELL PARK is of course familiar to all Brixton dwellers. But it’s also the best park in London so it would be a shame to leave it out. The land was bought for the public and opened in 1892 in response to the growing population of Brixton and the Victorian belief that Parks Are Good For You.

The campaign to create the open space was led by Thomas Bristowe, and MP for Norwood. However, he didn’t live to see visitors enjoying the new open space, dramatically dropping dead of a heart attack on the steps of Brockwell Hall after the park’s opening ceremony.

Food?: There’s a functional and inexpensive café at the top of the hill with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. Although sadly its rather tired interior doesn’t match the stature of the prepossessing Brockwell Hall. John Blades, a wealthy glass manufacturer, built it in 1813 – having knocked down one at the bottom of hill in favour of something with a bit more of a view. For something a bit more substantial, the café/restaurant in the Lido is all about British produce, nice booze, and unfussy cooking. (It’s also all about queuing on a sunny weekend, but hey ho).

Sporty stuff?: Tennis, volleyball, basketball, a bowling green, a bmx track, and then there’s a path round the park’s circumference is a veritable running circuit at the weekend. And of course there’s the lido (unheated) and a gym there too.

Anything else?: The walled garden is a particularly lovely spot. And there’s a brand spanking new adventure playground finally due to open at the start of June. On summer weekends you can even visit the model railway at the Herne Hill gate for the hilarious spectacle of two grown men travelling about 100 metres balanced on a really tiny train, while looking a little angry. Brilliant.

Brixton’s Titanic Victims

14 Apr

In April 1912 two men left Brixton to travel to New York via Southampton on RMS Titanic. One was a working class Englishman, the other was a wealthy American, who had been travelling in Europe on his honeymoon. Both lost their lives at around 2.20am on 15th April, when Titanic disappeared bow first into the freezing Atlantic.

W H Egg, aged 34, packed a small suitcase and left the small flat that he shared with his wife on Trent Road, Brixton for Southampton. He had successfully applied to be third class steward on board the Titanic, receiving a monthly wage of £3 15s, and had been ordered to report for duty at 6am on 10th April, the morning the Titanic set sail. An experienced steward, his previous ship was the White Star Line’s RMS Majestic, been retired from service the year before. At one point this ship had been captained by a rising star in the merchant navy, John Edward Smith, who would be Egg’s new captain on board the Titanic.

Daniel Marvin and his new wife Mary would have left the house in which they had been staying in leafy and upmarket Acre Lane in a flurry of activity. They had been honeymooning in Europe for four weeks, and probably had plenty of luggage to take back to their native New York. Travelling first class they had paid £52 2s for their passage, more than a steward would earn in a year, and no doubt arrived at the docks at a far more leisurely hour.

Daniel was 18 years old and the son of early filmmaker Henry Norton Marvin. After Daniel and Mary married in front of their family, they repeated the ceremony so it could be filmed, making it possibly the first wedding ever to be committed to celluloid.

When Daniel realised that the Titanic was sinking he helped his wife into lifeboat 10. She said afterwards that his last words to her had been, ‘It’s all right, little girl. You go. I will stay.’ She described him throwing her a kiss. But that was the last she saw of him.

In the October following the sinking, Mary gave birth to his daughter. She married again the following year, but almost never spoke of her experiences. One story has her, much later in her life, throwing the films that Daniel made of the Titanic and their honeymoon in the river.

58 Acre Lane and 1a Trent Road

58 Acre Lane, where Daniel and Mary had been staying, and the home of W H Egg at 1a Trent Road now

Public Sector Strikes in Brixton, and Red Ted

30 Nov

Well happy strike day my public sector friends.

It all seems to have gone off well, despite Louise Mensch’s dastardly yet brilliant attempt to break the strike on the Today programme last week by encouraging people (I say people, she obviously said ‘mothers’) to take their children to work with them if schools closed due. I’m sorry but even Arthur Scargill would have packed it in if other people’s children were playing with his stationary and careering around his office on wheely chairs and  during the miners’ strike.

If, like me, your private sector job took you out of Brixton today, have a look at the pictures on the Urban 75 blog to see what shape the protests took here.

The last time the country was subject to governmental cuts at this level the infamous ‘Red’ Ted Knight was leading the Labour Lambeth Council. Hero to some, villain to others, comedy Communist to many, he seems to have been a human embodiment of the word ‘staunch’. Red Ted was elected to lead the Labour council in 1978, was strongly opposed to the cuts imposed by the Tory government elected in 1979, making enough noise that he became known throughout the country. I have to admit I didn’t know much about him until I visited the town hall during Open House London over the summer. But he sounds like a fascinating character!

The antics of Ted and some other very left-wing types earned them the moniker ‘Loony Lefties’ from their opponents. According to this article he once flew to Nicaragua (on public money) to tell the revolutionary socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front that the people of Lambeth felt solidarity with their struggle. I cannot begin to imagine how confused they must have been – ‘dondé esta Lambeth José?’

In 1984 the Tories passed the Rates Act, which limited the powers of local government to set their own budgets. In response, Lambeth council refused to set a budget at all and everything ground to a halt. Some no doubt admired their resistance to pressure from national government, although according to a current Lambeth councillor these actions cost so much money that Lambeth borough is still paying it off.

Red Ted still lives in Norwood, and crops up occasionally at meetings of various organisations. Apparently, to be heckled by him is a great honour.

Going Underground

17 Nov

Did anyone hear an interview on the Today programme this morning with an entrepreneur called Ajit Chambers who wants to turn lost tube stations into restaurants and tourist attractions? I was still waking up admittedly, but it sounded pretty interesting.

There are no abandoned tube stations in Lambeth as far as I know, but there is a ‘deep level air raid shelter’ at Stockwell. In 1940 work started on some new Underground tunnels fitted with beds, first aid posts and toilets at eight different locations. Initially the deep shelters were kept for government workers, but once the flying bombs, or doodle-bugs, started coming over in 1944 they were opened up to the general public. The thinking went that after the war they could be used to create an ‘express’ tube into the City.

Here’s an example of a deep air raid shelter, but I’m afraid I don’t know which one it is.

Interestingly, one map I found had the Stockwell shelter marked as a US base, but I haven’t managed to turn anything up. Do leave me a comment if you have any ideas!

Having once housed terrified Londoners, the deep air raid shelters in Clapham South, North and, Common and Stockwell went on to provide cheap accommodation for the schoolchildren visiting the Festival of Britain in 1951 and, more importantly for the history of Brixton, those who had just stepped off the Empire Windrush in 1948. Now many deep air raid shelters are used as a highly secure storage for sensitive archives…

The subterranean history of Stockwell goes back even further than this however. Stockwell to King William Street (near Bank) was the first proper tunnel to be built on the London underground (which must show something of the likely occupations of most Stockwell residents at the time). However, sharp bends and steep inclines meant the electricity supply to the new-fangled tubemabob was often inadequate, and the train on occasion had to make several attempts at getting into the last station. Which means we can exactly date the ‘sorry, I got stuck on the tube’ excuse to 1890!

The Victoria line was completed in 1971, so not really any historical quirks to be found at its south terminus. In fact I’m not sure there’s anything particularly exciting about Brixton tube station! However, walk just a hundred metres or so under the railway bridge and you will be standing above underground tunnels of a different kind. The first purpose-built department store in the UK, Brixton’s Bon Marche, opened in 1876. The store was connected to the staff accommodation (which I think is the grand but dilapidated white terraces just past Gresham Road, but I could be wrong) by tunnels. One for gentlemen and once for ladies, obviously. And possibly a cat flap for Mrs Slocombe’s pussy. I am assured by a reliable source (oh, ok, Brian in the pub) that these tunnels still exist…

Electric Avenue – the Victorians go shopping

1 Nov

Waaaay before Eddy Grant stated his intention to rock down to Electric Avenue, this Brixton road was pretty famous already. Why? Er, well because it was electric. See?

In 1888 it became the first shopping street in Britain to be lit by electric light. Between the 1860s and 1880s trams and trains had linked Brixton to the city, lots of house building took place and Brixton became really very rah indeed. Bloody gentrification.

(Brixtonites can get an idea of how minted the residents of their street were in 1898 on this online map. Drawn up by Victorian philanthropist Charles Booth as part of his huge social investigation into causes of the desperate poverty he saw in London, he mapped most of London in this way.)

Bon Marche on Brixton Road/Ferndale Road opened in 1877 as London’s first purpose built department store; the new building also included accommodation for 50 staff who back then were expected to live on the premises. Morley’s opened up the road in the 1880s, and rival drapery store Quin & Axtens was situated on the opposite side of Ferndale Road. It also looks rather grand on thr right in this picture from 1910, with Bon Marche on the left.

Back on Electric Avenue, shoppers were protected from bad weather underneath stylish glass and wrought iron canopies, that apparently survived to the 1980s. I saw someone had asked on one of the Urban 75 forums a while back why everything in Brixton is naming itself the ‘Electric’ something or other. Well, I guess this is why. 

By 1947 Brixton was still being referred to as the ‘Oxford Street of the south’. It’s funny to think that the street that now houses our – much loved, but rather different – market was the Kings Road of Victorian London. Here’s a great picture of Electric Avenue decorated for Christmas in 1908.


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