ABC Cinema Blues – Tunbridge Wells

ABC Cinema Blues – Tunbridge Wells

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I always considered it a shame that Tunbridge Wells was going to lose the ABC Cinema. To be fair, I’d never been but I just prefer the vibe of smaller independent cinemas. They are enjoying somewhat of a resurgence as people baulk at the wanton wallet rape and generic offerings practised so readily in the larger out of town cinemas.

No Entry signs up on the boards at ABC Cinema

For such a long time the decaying cinema was a blot on the Tunbridge Wells landscape. Plans came and went. In reality, the site was owned by an investment company as part of their property portfolio. With land prices soaring their duty was of course to maximise their return on investment, to serve their shareholders. The principal parties interested in the site are cut from the same cloth. On go the negotiations.


An Opportunity

While it lay there slowly crumbling I began to wonder what the interior might look like? Years had passed and I wondered how I would go about photographing the interior. What might I find? Peeling paint? A rich carpet of dust? Light rays filtering in through the detritus. The slow decay of a once grand building? [pullquote]Ghostly hints of former splendour, like the eerie ballroom of a long sunken ocean liner.[/pullquote] It was exciting, a little scary and I knew that I’d either have to ‘trespass’ ( Good heavens…in Tunbridge Wells) or deal with more red tape than a flag waver at a North Korean military parade. Did I have the time and stomach for it?

Time Ladies and Gentlemen

Time, or should I say procrastination and indecisiveness, eventually got the better of me. Tunbridge Wells Borough Council acted to force the owners to demolish the buildings. It felt like a missed opportunity. I had wanted to preserve a little bit of local history in my own way, probably from a more abstract perspective, to seek beauty amongst the decay. Not a portrait of a derelict building, not a documentary series but to carefully pick out but a few details and preserve them, like a householder rescuing a few treasured personal possessions from the rubble of a once loved family home.

I had ‘recced’ the site, studying the exterior on a number of occasions (okay I was looking for the best way in). I was intrigued by the fact that beyond the blue shuttering, lay this once vibrant, now sadly condemned building. Coffee was drunk, I paced, attracted the suspicion of many a passerby as I set my camera up making images of seemingly nothing that caused more than the odd furrowed brow. It appears that these days if you stand still for too long you ‘worry’ people.

What lies beyond?

Then suddenly there was activity, the hardhats and hi-vis vests began to multiply, the pigeon coo was replaced by the increasing hum of jackhammers and thumping diesel engines. As the pendulous wrecking balls began to sway, the cinema, that missed opportunity and a ‘project’ that would remain unfinished, was heavy on my mind. The finality of it all was starting to feel a little like an unwelcome metaphor for other ideas that had come and duly gone in my life.

Carpe Diem

The images I did come away with were made on one of these ‘planning’ days. Very much on the outside looking in. Blue was very much the dominant colour. It remains that way. A colourful reminder to seize opportunities, to knock down doors, to not be afraid of what lies on the other side of the hoardings.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Helen Smith

    I am a lover of watching films on the big screen. I grew up watching a huge range of titles at this cinema. From Disney classic animations, to James Bond and just about everything in between. During the summer of 1978 I queued every week of the long school holidays with several other 13 year old girls to see Grease (sometimes not managing to get in on my first attempt and having to wait a couple of hours for the next screening to come around (there were only 3 screens!) and having to get someone to hold my place in the new queue while I ran down the high street to the phone box by the station to phone my mum to let her know I would be catching the later bus home).

    I had many dates there in my teens and twenties. Alan and I had our second date there, intending to get on with some serious snogging, but ending up sitting open-mouthed and wide-eyed at David Cronenburg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch!

    I joined other fans of a certain sci-fi trilogy made in the mid 70s and early 80s and starring legendary characters with gorgeous names such as Han Solo, R2D2, C3PO, Princess Leia and Darth Vader for a one-off marathon of all three classic films in one sitting back in 1988.

    Aside from these personal memories of films that were shown there (other venues were and still are available for this purpose) I also hold great affection for the legions of staff that worked there and made sure we were sold the correct tickets from the little booth (there was only one), or who sold us the bags of Sunkist popcorn, Maltesers, fun sized Mars Bars and Marathons and cans of warm Pepsi and Fanta. The little old ladies (they were always little and old) who showed us to our seats in the dark and who sold tubs of ice cream from little boxes in the aisles in the intervals. They always executed these tasks with a smile, or passed comment on how nice we looked, or wished us a pleasant evening. Of course the gamechanger for me and my friends when I was still at school was when Martin Francis who was two years above us got a part-time job at the sweet counter and would GIVE us free drinks and sweets when the Manager was distracted.

    I was so upset when the place finally closed its doors for the last time and, before the ugly blue hoardings went up, I would walk past the building and look wistfully up at the boards above the entrance doors where the names and times of the films used to be advertised. When the place closed for good, someone either forgot to take the black lettering off those boards, or left them there on purpose (as if sticking two fingers up at the people in suits who didn’t give a toss anymore), for they bore the legend “Phil & J i e Mon Tue”. I’d like to think they were left over from what I like to imagine was the epic last night farewell party the staff threw for themselves in the foyer the night before it closed and someone had put their names and the days they worked up there for posterity, but the passage of time and wilful neglect had somehow meant that some of the letters were lost forever.

    The cinema might not be there anymore, but as long as I have the power of recall, my memories will be in the ghost of that precious building.

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