Day a Hollywood star put Preston on the silver screen

Balcony in the ABC Cinema, in PrestonBalcony in the ABC Cinema, in Preston
Balcony in the ABC Cinema, in Preston
Jessica Hay looks back at the star-studded day when Preston threw open its doors to the what was heralded the most technically advanced cinema in the country

For decades cinemas have been bringing the magic of movies to life and for film fans in Preston.The city once boasted as many as 20 picturehouses and in 1959 a crew from Candid Camera visited town to capture the grand opening of the ABC Cinema which was the most technically advanced cinema in the country when it opened.Located on the corner of Fishergate and Theatre Street, the modern cinema opened to the public on March 14 1959 with the first screening Rex Harrison in ‘The Reluctant Debutante’. The venue’s opening was a fancy affair, and boasted some of the most advanced equipment, technically making it the first of its kind in the world.The arrival of television meant the cinema industry was under threat but it was were fighting back. The glorious ABC was a new and up-to-date cinema where Pathé News division’s ‘Candid Camera’ unit came to Preston to film the opening event. When the big night arrived for the people in Preston, the lights were turned on and everything was set for the premiere everyone had been waiting for.The opening night was certainly a big occasion for the town, and police were present on the first night to keep the crowds at bay throughout the show and during the special guest arrival of film star Richard Todd (inset) who appeared in person to be part of the Candid Camera film.Crowds gathered before the celebrities even arrived, and everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the event, not merely the ones who were lucky enough to have first night tickets.Barricades were put up to hold the excited crowd back as autograph hunters made their way to the front in the hope of securing a prized signature.It was a huge occasion, Mr D Goodland, managing director of ABC and his wife attended the opening, along with Mr W Cartlidge, general manager of ABC, and Mayor of Preston Alderman Mrs M A Whithnall, who was accompanied by the Lady Mayoress.As they arrived, everyone shook hands and the ladies were presented with large bouquets. Pathé News was a producer of newsreels and documentaries from 1910 until 1970 in the United Kingdom and was once a major feature of the British cinema landscape.Through the Candid Camera television broadcast, we can watch and enjoy the entire opening of the ABC cinema as if we were there.The broadcast begins with the video clip of a door with the nameplate “Richard Todd” opening and then Todd himself invites us to “come in and sit down”.The Hollywood star talks to the camera explaining how cinema and television can co-exist, explores the problems within the film industry over the last few years. He mentioned that some say film was a dying industry, which was almost certainly related to the drop in numbers as a result of television. His aim was to show the audience how Associated British have faith in films and the cinema industry. He spoke about how they are “alive to the problems and need to beat them”. We are then shown a wide shot of the ABC cinema in all its glory. There are shots of greeting telegrams from stars and showbiz personalities on a board outside the cinema wishing the new venture every success, including ones from Janette Scott and Sylvia Sims, which were then read out by people from Preston.As dusk draws in, we see the front of the cinema with the lights going on. Shots in foyer show women buying their sweets from the kiosk and Todd explains in the film that it had to be more like a small shop to be able to deal with crowds of excited customers.Long trumpets with banners are blown and signals are given to start the show in the projection room.The house lights go out, the curtains open and viewers eagerly await for the film to begin. Before the arrival of television, millions around the globe would go to movie theatres for their weekly dose of filmed news and entertainment. Over the course of a century, British Pathé reported on everything from political crisis and armed conflicts to the inquisitive lives and interests of ordinary people from Britain. The organisation set the benchmark for cinematic journalism, combining information and entertainment and was a first port of call for many people unable to afford a television who wanted to see the world’s great news events on camera.The birth of this phenomenon took place in 1910 when distinguished French filmmaker Charles Pathé came to London to introduce the revolutionary creation of the cinema newsreel to British audiences. The ABC played to packed hoses for the next two decade although it was closed on April 7 1973 so a Painted Wagon pub could be constructed in the rear stalls area beneath the circle. On May 6 1973, it re-opened with 637 seats in the circle area only. Originally on this site was the Theatre Royal, which had opened in 1802 and was altered and enlarged several times. Eventually seating 1,700, it was taken over by Associated British Cinemas in November 1929 where it was downsized and converted into a 1,160 seat cinema. Closed on December 3, 1955, it was demolished to build the new ABC Cinema.Compared to other cinemas at the time, ABC cinema was a modern building with seating provided in stalls and circle levels. It had contemporary decor and there were troughs in the ceiling, which extended down the sidewalls and contained concealed lighting.Time was finally called on the building ABC on September 11, 1982 and it was demolished in November 1986 and the land became part of the new Fishergate Centre, ending the building’s 180-year history of entertaining the people of Preston.

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