Tag Archives: brixton academy

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.

Things I Think You Should be Aware of in Brixton in 2012…

17 Jan

Congratulations if you’re reading this. Because, according to a widely discredited ‘study’, yesterday was the most depressing day of the year. And you made it! So well done, everyone.

Now that’s over, what does the first few months of 2012 have going for it? Well, diaries at the ready as I have compiled a list of Brixton happenings that I Think You Should be Aware of.

Both firstly and foremostly, DROP EVERYTHING (oh, soz, was that your new iPad?) because tomorrow evening is the second Meet Brixton. A sort of Brixton fanclub, it’s a chance for people who live, work, or just quite like it here to meet up for a drink. This time you shall find us in Dogstar. More details here. And a write up of the last one here, if you still can’t quite picture what I’m on about.

If you didn’t get tickets to the Maccabees at the Academy on 26th January and like staying up late, you can still jump on this particular bandwagon at the after party at Brixton Jamm. The band are Djing. A tenner in advance and I reckon it will be rather popular. Expect most of the Guardian’s music journos there at least, asking for receipts at the bar.

The following Saturday, the 28th to be precise, Kaff Bar is hosting their first Rockabilly night. So if you’ve been doing those Monday classes at Electric Social, this is your chance to properly show off. Everyone else, let’s just whap out the circle skirts and have a nice time.

Good news for sprogs and breeders of sprogs – Brockwell park playground reopens in March. It’s been closed for a while as part of a £5 million Brockwell refit, but I’m sure it’ll look great once it’s up and running again.

On 1st March Los Van Van are playing the Electric. A twenty piece ‘dance orchestra’ formed in 1969 in Havana, they are one of the most influential bands in modern Cuban music. If you don’t want to pay £23 for a ticket then at least check them out on Spotify, as they sound great.

The Windmill would like to recommend that you book tickets now for US band Those Darlins, gracing their establishment on 4th April. Hailing from Tennessee, by the sound of it they are a little bit country, a little bit retro-rock with a touch of punk. If you can imagine such a thing. The Guardian says:

‘Once heavy on the hillbilly, these southern girls have ditched yee-haws and ukuleles to be a power-pop proposition’

Whereas Time Out Chicago helpfully adds:

‘Their jangling shuffle explores the middle ground between the Go-Go’s and Merle Haggard. Yeah, that territory exists. And the chicken there is delicious

Er, ok.

On 27th and 28th April US band Foster the People play Brixton Academy. Yes, yes, the ones with the annoying tinny ‘run run run’ song. Stay with me here. The record is very over produced – trying perhaps to cover up the fact that the singer sounds a little like Alvin, of Chipmunk fame – but BUT when I saw them at Latitude last summer they played a brilliant indie-pop set to a packed and madly bouncing crowd. It will be fun. And I think you should go.

SO, what have I missed out? Add suggestions to the comments below please thank you.

The Friday Feeling

9 Dec

Well, it’s Friday flippin’ Friday again and we’re heading full tilt towards Christmas. If you’re one of those people who dislikes the whole tinselly debacle I’m afraid it’s just tough, as Brixton is conspiring to Shove It In Your Face this weekend.

It sounds like it will be the usual fun and frolics at the Village tonight. Oh, but with a cardboard log cabin. No, I don’t understand either but am definitely going to go and investigate. Grand opening is at 7pm.

Coldharbour Lane is going to be the scene of a craft-and -Christmas-off this weekend. Which will no doubt equal a whole lot of bunting. The New Vintage  is back at Living Bar on Saturday from 11am. If you didn’t make it last time there’s a post and some photos here. The Christmas cheer will be provided by a three-part harmony group called Swinging in Heels (no, not that kind of swinging) who will be singing festive tunes.

Not to be outdone, rival gang/market the Crafty Fox a few doors down at Dogstar is countering with a Christmas decorating workshop. They get points for stamina too, setting up shop both Saturday and Sunday.

I’m looking forward to some crafting smack-talk.

On Saturday night the Windmill is hosting ‘a festive evening of post and electro punk and mince pies’. Proving wrong all those doubters who thought punk wasn’t a pastry-friendly genre. 

Alternatively, £20 at Upstairs at the Ritzy gets you a full Caribbean buffet, a glass of punch and a night of reggae at the Rocksteady Christmas Party

And do you know who’s playing the Academy on Saturday night? It’s Ocean Colour Scene! Go on, you LOVED Moseley Shoals. Everyone did, it was the 90s! All together now, WO OH LA LA, WO OH LA LA. The after party’s at the Brixton Jamm. Just in case you want to, you know, sip another rum and coke…



HANG ON: Update on the Log Cabin. There will be no Log Cabin opening tonight, I’ve just seen on Twitter that it’s been moved to next weekend.

The Friday Feeling

2 Dec

Well a very merry Friday one and all. The first Friday of December no less! I’m disappointed not to have an advent calendar, might have to pop out at lunchtime to rectify the situation.

If you’re in Brixton today the Friday food market on Station Road (between 10 and 5) sounds like it could be a good source of lunch. I’ve not been, and I have heard mutterings that offerings are a little limited, but according to Twitter there’s both Korean barbecue and paella for sale today. I think: brilliant.

My Week With Marilyn has finally come to the Ritzy today. I’m not quite sure why it’s taken so long, I guess it’s just capacity. For those that prefer violence to Marilyn Munroe, the Ritzy is also showing Jamaican boxing film Ghett’a Life. I absolutely detest boxing, but this does actually look quite good.

Very happy birthday to Dogstar this weekend – sixteen years of fun and frolics. Time Out reckons it’s the longest running pub-club in the areaso wrap up a can of pedigree chum and head down. It’s free before 10 and a fiver after.

There’s still tickets available for the Kills at the Academy on Saturday. Support act is the excellent (and beardy ) Josh T Pearson, and some band I’ve never heard of – Trailer Trash somethingorother.

The Friday Feeling

25 Nov

Happy Friday everyone, and what a lovely sunny one it is.

If you’re Katy Perry you’ll surely be gearing up for a night of dancing on tabletops, ‘taking’ too many shots and snogging with amnesiac abandon.

If you find that you’re not however, here’s some options for the weekend ahead.

Today is the day for interested parties to book tickets for the Mystery Jets gig at the Brixton Academy next May. The HMV website appears to have a good deal. (Don’t you wish that gig tickets could go on sale a month before the gig? I don’t know what I’m doing in MAY yet dammit!)

Also tonight the Offline Club will be celebrating the reopening of the Prince Albert after a two week refurb with band According to You . Who, according to them, sound a bit like The Jam, the Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes. This (free) weekly night at the Prince Albert is a raucous, friendly and unreconstructed piece of old Brixton and well worth checking out. Just be prepared to stay up very late!

Conversely, for a very recontructed Brixton, head to Station Road on Saturday for ‘The Brixton Experience’. Anticipation builds and we look forward to finding out what on earth this is. According to their facebook page it purposes to:

‘offer local businesses and community groups the opportunity to showcase the diversity and richness of Brixton, and create a modern legacy of success and community engagement’

Particularly looking forward to seeing ‘the modern legacy of success’. That sounds great.

And for something completely different, why not spend Sunday digging in Brockwell park? Stop it, I’m being serious! On the last Sunday of every month there’s the opportunity to join a volunteer group and do some gardening in Brockwell Park. You will be rewarded with biscuits, soup and an sense of enormous wellbeing. More info here.

Dry the River. Another Academy envy.

3 Oct

Just a quick little musical newsflash. (In that it’s news about music, I’m not going to sing it…) If you’re off to see Bombay Bicycle Club at Brixton Academy two weeks Wednesday do make an effort to see the support act. I’ve managed to catch Dry the River a couple of times over the summer and they are well worth leaving the pub early for.

If you quite liked Mumford to start with, although aren’t sure why they sound Irish and had violent thoughts after the 50th play of ‘Little Lion Man’ on XFM, you will quite like them. Or, if you hate Mummers, you might still like them – there’s less jigging about. In fact, Dry the River even have their own lion-based song that ends in the rest of the band gathering around the drum kit and sort of attacking it. It works, honestly.

I don’t know too much about Bombay Bicycle Club, other than that they’re named after an upmarket south-west London curry chain, and that quite chipper ‘Ivory and Gold’ song they did, but they have managed to sell out their Academy gig so no tickets now unless you brave eBay (is that still technically allowed? I’m never sure). But do check out Dry the River, on Spotify at least. No album yet but I’m sure it’s coming. Avoid commercial radio when it does.


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