Community run projects staffed by volunteers seem to be becoming more and more common. Trust owned public houses, post offices, village shops and rural shuttle buses all appear to be on the rise as it becomes less financially viable to run them for profit. My dear old mother donates large chunks of her time to a little shop, set up when the village post office and convenience store closed its doors a few years back. It’s truly commendable, and I take my hat off to those willing to spend half a day or more sat behind the till on the off chance Mrs Kendle from Ivy Cottage unexpectedly runs out of Sheba. I’m not sure when I retire I’d be quite so keen to while away the hours in this fashion, but what if the community project wasn’t a little village shop? What if perhaps it involved re-commissioning and running a 1930’s cinema? I like to think I’d be first in the queue to help, and thankfully I’m not alone, as that’s exactly what the good folk in Tenbury Wells have been doing.
On July 29th 1937 this riverside town would see the opening of a brand new cinema; The Regal. Operated by local firm ‘The Craven Cinema Group’, who owned two other picture houses and managed a further three, Tenbury Regal was a costly project for the small company. Rather than purpose build a new venue, Craven chose to commission established theatre designer Ernest S. Roberts to convert an existing Victorian structure. Positioned in the centre of the town, the building originally housed a couple of shops with living accommodation upstairs. Alterations were made to the houses to create the projection room and foyer, while the 300 seat auditorium was built on land directly behind.
While it may be more common, not all cinemas built in this period had auditoriums decorated with modernist geometric designs and heavy plaster reliefs. Some, particularly smaller ones like The Regal used murals to enhance the escapism of a night at the flicks. Scenic artist George Legge of Bryan’s Adamanta was responsible for several cinema interiors across the Midlands, and Craven chose him for their trio of picture houses. The rear and side walls of the auditorium show Italian rural scenes with lakes, flowers, trees and mountains in the distance. Traditional buildings sprout up, the ventilation system neatly disguised in their arched windows. The odd monkey can even be seen perched on the dado that ascends the space in three horizontal waves.
Craven Group ran Tenbury Wells Regal until 1966 when it simultaneously closed it along with their Craven Arms cinema (below). The latter would become derelict 5 years later and be demolished in 1977. Following unsuccessful attempts to revive Tenbury’s Regal, it was put up for sale in 1970. On the brink of demolition Tenbury Town Council stepped in and bought the stricken building for £12,500 and adapted it to meet the needs of the community. The stage was extended to allow for theatrical performance, and a community centre with kitchen and toilet was built behind. For the next 30 or so years various groups used the two spaces to meet their needs, while film enthusiasts still continued to show movies in the main cinema.
Situated between two rivers, Tenbury is prone to the odd flood during heavy rainfall, but in 2007 the town (like much of the county) experienced catastrophic flooding and the Regal found itself partly underwater. The ingress was so bad that it completely covered some of the lower seats in the auditorium and caused serious damage to the flooring and walls. Rather than try to simply make good the damaged areas for a quick return to use, it was decided that the rather tired old cinema needed a complete restoration.
The funding, which came from a number of sources including a substantial Heritage Lottery Grant took four years to put in place before work began. This included completely restoring the mural, terrazzo flooring, artex wall coverings and reinstating the iconic neon signage outside. Vital structural works were carried out while a new roof was fitted to the auditorium.
Up until this point the cinema was still under council management, but ultimately limited resources resulted in the venue being closed more often than open. To coincide with the post refurbishment grand opening in 2012 The Regal Trust was founded. A not for profit organisation run entirely by volunteers aiming to bring the cinema back into regular use. The Regal is now open daily, with films or live events every evening with community and private use during the day.
I recently visited to take some photos for my Streamline Worcestershire project and was instantly won over by this charming little cinema. In addition to the wonderful auditorium, the foyer is an Art Deco delight, with its original curved glass paybox and gold banding spanning the space. Original light fittings, doors, illuminated signage, balustrades and poster frames are all present and correct, just as they were 80 years ago.
The delightfully friendly lady in the booking office also pointed out their free museum upstairs. Full of old film reels, interactive displays, artefacts and framed prints it’s a wonderful addition to the venue. In a small back room you can see the old 35mm ‘Peerless’ projector on display (it’s now all digital) and there’s even a wall of fame for all the projectionists who have served since it opened.
With a mixture of live and celluloid events, many of which I’m told are sell outs, it looks like this little 1937 venue is going to be the beating heart of the town for many years to come. Well done Tenbury Wells, you’re doing both the community and us Art Deco obsessives proud, I salute you!
A huge thanks to Ian and the trust for giving their permission to photograph the building and for being so accommodating. For further information please visit their website www.regaltenbury.co.uk