Nestled in a fairly nondescript area on the North-Westerly drag out of Worcester sits one of the most iconic 1930s buildings in the city: a towering symmetrical red brick monster called Northwick.
It can catch the unsuspecting motorist by surprise, and you simply can’t help but be impressed as you drive past. Appearing from virtually out of nowhere, and surrounded by a mixture of different period 20thC houses and shops, one couldn’t say it blends in with its environment. A huge neon lit fin soars into the sky flanked either side by robust angular wings. It’s almost fortress-like appearance is enhanced by narrow outer windows running virtually the full height of the upper storeys (looking more like arrow slits than anything designed to let light in). Below this there is a more traditional 1930s curved canopy with long wide steps leading up to a row of double doors.
Designed by Charles Edmund Wilford to be used as a theatre, it was quickly converted into a huge 1109 seat cinema. Run by an independent operator that also ran the Scala cinema in town, it opened its doors on 28th November 1938.
As with many cinemas of this era, the increasing popularity of television in the 50s & 60s meant it struggled to continue attracting sustainable numbers to the box office. On September 10th 1966 Northwick closed its doors as a cinema, screening Dean Martin in ‘The Silencers’ and Audie Murphy in ‘Arizona Raiders’ on its final day. By the end of the month it had reopened as a bingo hall, changing hands several times until finally shutting again in 1982.
Concerned for its future, in January 1984 Historic England gave Northwick grade II listed status. The building then stood empty for almost 10 years until it was resurrected, opening in June 1991 as a venue for live entertainment and the occasional film on a temporary screen. This only lasted until 1996 when once again it was boarded up.
In August 2003 a planning was made to demolish the building and construct flats on the site, but these were objected to by the Cinema Theatre Association and were thankfully rejected by the local council.
Its current owners, David and Helen Gray purchased Northwick in 2004 and extensive restoration works began to return the building to its original glory. After 18 months of collaboration with local and national heritage conservation departments, Northwick reopened as Grays of Worcester, a high end interior furnishings showroom.
While you can’t help but be impressed by the exterior, it does nothing to prepare you for what awaits inside. As you stand at the back of the auditorium you are greeted with the last remaining complete work of interior designer John Alexander. Moulded from fibrous plaster, either side of the proscenium arch are trios of over-life-size mythical figures ascending a golden staircase. They point skyward while surrounded by a feast of scrolls and curls, all up-lit from the treads. Standing below them one feels almost intimidated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the odd visiting child has been concerned by their presence over the years!
Looking up further, the ceiling still features all the original light fittings surrounded by yet more decorative plaster work, painted scroll borders and intricate golden air vents. Exploring around you’ll find original signs for the toilets and stalls, correct doors and handles along with the odd glimpse of period Art Deco carpet.
Wilford designed 10 theatres in England, as of 2016 only 4 including Northwick survive. Cineworld in Chelsea is the only one still operating as a cinema, The Regal in Bridlington is a Gala bingo and the Century cinema in South East London is reportedly derelict and vacant. These facts alone make it a privilege to be able to visit Northwick in 2016 at all, but what’s more astounding is that it’s managed to survive virtually unmolested these last 78 years.