Gone are the days when you'd find a cinema on most London high streets and 'going to the pictures' was a weekly ritual for millions. But the remnants of our cinema-going past are visible all over the city, if you know where to look.
Last year I started leading a walking tour uncovering the history of Islington's old cinemas. Thinking about which part of London to explore for my next 'reel walk' I became inspired by the success of ActOne, a community cinema on Acton High Street that opened in 2021. Londonist has since named it one of the city's best independent cinemas, and its second screen has just opened.
For my new walk, Acton's Lost Cinemas, I began delving into the history of ActOne's predecessors, and this led me to meet the man behind an 80s cult venue I'd loved to have been a regular at.
In the 1940s, when cinema-going in Britain was at its peak, Acton had five local cinemas all within walking distance of each other. One of these, the magnificent Dominion, is now home to a climbing centre. But by the 1980s cinemas were facing grim times. Audiences were staying home to watch TV and VHS tapes and many of the grand 1930s buildings like the Dominion had been demolished or turned into bingo halls. Which is why it was so surprising to discover that in what's now a disused pub, for much of the 1980s — and into the early 90s — an independent cinema was flourishing here. What's more, it offered much of what we now take for granted as part of the 21st century movie-going experience.
The UK's first 'cinema-pub'
The Railway Tavern on Acton High Street opened in 1860, and enjoyed many successful years as a pub, but fast-forward to 1980, and it became a movie-themed bar called The Hollywood Greats, with the 100-seater Film Location cinema launched in the adjoining hall behind it.
This unusual combination was heralded as the UK's first 'cinema-pub' and showed mainstream Hollywood fare — its first film was the disaster-movie spoof Airplane. Remarkably, rather than using film, the cinema had a video projector — a rarity at the time and decades before 35mm was becoming old hat. Film distributors had to supply new releases on huge 'U-matic' videotapes instead of the reels of film they sent to every other cinema.
By 1985, the Hollywood Greats bar was rebranded as Frankie's and the cinema needed a new manager. Enter John Wischmeyer, a young American taking a British Film Institute course at Birkbeck University. He had also worked with Romaine Hart, the legendary founder of the Screen on the Green.
"He went door-to-door in Soho, building relationships with the likes of George Harrison's HandMade Films"
Wischmeyer renamed the cinema the 'Acton Screen' as a nod to his mentor, and before too long this unlikely west London picture palace was being mentioned in the same breath as Hart's cool Islington indie.
Shortly after taking over the cinema, Wischmeyer was refusing his distributors' demands that the Sylvester Stallone hits Rambo First Blood: Part 2 and Rocky 4 must be booked into his single screen for multiple weeks. He had an alternative plan; ignore the mainstream entirely and programme independent, foreign and art-house movies.
This meant going door-to-door in Soho and building relationships with the likes of HandMade Films, the company George Harrison co-founded, and Stephen Wooley's Palace Pictures. If Wischmeyer wanted one of their films he had to persuade them to make a video copy — just for him — to show on the Acton Screen's cutting-edge projector.
How did Acton Screen thrive when ticket sales in Britain were at an all-time low? I found a possible answer reading newspaper clippings from the late 80s. It seems that Wischmeyer struck on a formula that's familiar to anyone who frequents a Curzon, Picturehouse or Everyman in 2023. As John told the Acton Gazette, "It's not just a case of video that killed the cinema. Cinemas have let themselves go. They ought to be places with good food, reasonably priced, nice loos."
As well as providing all of the above, the ahead-of-the-curve Wischmeyer also bought beer from Hackney's pioneering Pitfield Brewery. Again, this was decades before the craft beer boom. Plus of course, he was presenting films you couldn't easily see on a big screen. In 1987 the Guardian's venerable film critic Derek Malcom praised the "small but well-programmed Acton Screen" as it showed Leo Carax's Mauvais Sang and Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray. There was not a single frame of Sly Stallone in sight.
Establishing Acton Screen as a true community cinema was important to Wischmeyer too. Taking advantage of his unique projection system, he screened video work by students and emerging artists before the main features. On Thursday afternoons he ran matinees for older audiences and partnered with a local charity to transport people with mobility issues to and from their homes. Saturday mornings had a two-hour kids club: for £1 they got cartoons, an episode of an old serial and a main feature. Wischmeyer wasn't allowed to show Disney movies so the 80s children's films he favoured were the likes of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and The Explorers, starring a young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix.
"After all-night screenings, Wischmeyer cooked scrambled eggs for the audience on a camping stove in the small lobby"
The entrepreneur's favourite screenings were always his all-nighters. For a fiver, movie nerds travelled from all over London for late-night quadruple bills of cult and classic movies. In the morning Wischmeyer cooked scrambled eggs for the audience on a camping stove in the small lobby, served alongside coffee, orange juice and croissants.
Sadly, in 1991, after six glorious years, the owners of the pub sold the building and the Acton Screen closed with three-months notice. Acton was without a cinema for another 30 years.
But much of the Acton Screen's philosophy is evident today in the various community initiatives you'll find at ActOne. John Wischmeyer's passion for cinema hasn't dimmed either. Shortly after his cinema closed he started teaching, and he's now lecturer in film at CityLit and also teaches at the BFI and Avenue Film Club in Richmond/Kew.
Nigel Smith is a qualified London tour guide, co-runs Tufnell Park Film Club and is editorial consultant on the Radio 4 show Screenshot. Find tickets for his Acton's Lost Cinemas walking tour, and all his other tours, on his website.