Inside London's Hidden Cinema Museum

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 64 months ago
Inside London's Hidden Cinema Museum

Mustachioed Maurice Hardcastle proudly paces the corridors of Kennington's Cinema Museum, sporting a gold-trimmed, gravy brown James F Donald uniform and peaked cap, dating back to 1945.

Debonair from head to toe, he relishes every aspect of his role — what he bills as the last cinema commissionaire in the country. "Halfway round the tour I'll say 'the fact is some women find themselves attracted to men in uniform. And if that applies to any of the ladies here, I finish today at half past four.'"

Hardcastle jokes that he offers three kinds of museum tour: "Two hours, four hours or eight hours." You sense that his scope of knowledge and enthusiasm for cinemas means that the longer tour would be well within his capabilities. Everything that comes out of his mouth is interesting, in a curious kind of way: "There was a manger of a cinema in Deptford who said he didn't need to provide toilets for his staff, because they all lived locally."

The silhouette of Chaplin looms over the screening hall, which was formerly the workhouse chapel

"This is not a museum about James Bond and Star Wars"

Not to be confused with the glossy museum-cum-Bond car garage in Covent Garden, Kennington's Cinema Museum has the air of a granddad's attic grown wild. It is at once charmingly organised and disorganised — strewn throughout various rooms, stairwells and corridors of the former Lambeth workhouse, with ticket machines, kiosks, projectors, autographed pictures of long lost stars like Ann Casson and Betty Amman; and signs that optimistically state: 'Queue Here'.

"In the great days of cinema-going, a cinema would be absolutely full, and you could only get in if somebody else left," says Hardcastle. "Once in there, you could stay as long as you liked. They often came in, in the middle of the film.

"It's ridiculous to see the end of the film before you saw the beginning. But people did it."

"I say this is not a museum about James Bond and Star Wars," says Hardcastle, "It's not about the making of movies. It's about what you actually saw, and heard and listened to and smelt when you came to a cinema building." If ever there was a museum laced with nostalgia, this is it — even if the gimcrack will be more recognisable to those who went to cinemas in the first half of the 19th century, rather than those of us who remember going to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Home Alone 2.

"We discovered that if we gave the demolition men beer money, they'd let us in"

The collection isn't Hardcastle's, but that of Martin Humphries and Ronald Grant. The pair cobbled together the collection in 1984 in a "terrible building in Brixton" [since restored, and now used as cafe by Black Cultural Archive].

The late 70s and early 80s was a time when many British cinemas were being closed down and demolished. Says Humphries, "We discovered that if we gave the demolition men beer money, they'd let us in.

"So for a five year period, we seriously rescued a lot of material from cinemas that no longer exist."

Humphries' favourite exhibit from the collection is a Felix the Cat toy from 1923. "It's an absolutely delightful thing. I love Felix the Cat because he's so naughty. They're really funny cartoons."

For the past two decades, the museum has been in its uncanny location, stashed away behind the melee of Elephant and Castle roundabout. Its semi-secretive nature and odd opening hours means that many don't know of its existence — including, until recently, local-boy-done-good, Michael Caine.

"I did meet Charlie Chaplin once..."

Of all those who came to endure this building in its workhouse days, one family stands out. A five-year-old Charles Spencer Chaplin arrived here, serving a short stint along with his seven year old brother Sydney, and mother Hannah. You wonder how such dark days impacted the imagination of the man who went on to create such social commentaries as The Kid and City Lights.

"That link is extraordinary," says Hardcastle, "I did meet Charlie Chaplin once, and I say to my audience 'if you give me £50 later on, I'll shake your hand, and you can shake the hand that shook the hand of Charlie Chaplin.'"

The former workhouse chapel — where at one time, a glum Chaplin would have sat through sermons, now frequently reverberates with laughter. Occasionally the museum screens films by Chaplin, although it has a pool of 500 of its own feature films — as well as lending from the likes of the British Film Institute.

Signed pictures from Mark Gatiss, Glenda Jackson and Barbara Windsor adorn a wall in the auditorium; some have hosted their own screenings of film favourites here. At every turn, you sense the love for this place.

"The drama here is not confined to what's being screened"

If the idea of such a quaint museum, beloved by film buff and film stars alike, seems too good to be true, you'll be disappointed to hear things might not be this way for much longer. The NHS building it inhabits is being sold off — and unsurprisingly, the museum's bid isn't the highest. The hope, says Humphries, is to work with whoever's bid is successful. Still, things currently hang in the balance, and the drama here is not confined to what's being screened.

One glimmer of hope has come from the Chaplin family, five members of which have signed a letter supporting the continuation of the Cinema Museum. "They're pleased that we keep his name going," says Humphries, who confides that it's rare for Chaplin's offspring to make any kind of vote of confidence like this.

Just like Hollywood, things at The Cinema Museum aren't quite what they seem. As Hardcastle rattles off a tongue-in-cheek three-minute-bit about how he can never talk about Brief Encounter ("I cannot cope with the emotional roller coaster."), we could swear his moustache is actually glued on. Could it be that Hardcastle is, himself, an actor, playing the starring role in the ongoing drama that is this remarkable museum's story?

Such a thing can only endears us to this place more.

To organise a visit to the Cinema Museum, visit the website. Help to save the museum by signing this petition.

Last Updated 01 May 2018