Not another cinema
It looks as though Brighton and Hove City Council’s Planning Committee will be receiving an application within the next month or so to turn the Hippodrome in Middle Street, right, into an eight-screen cinema and restaurant. It is most important that the Grade II* building should be restored to its full glory—a matter in which English Heritage will be required to play a crucial role. The Hippodrome is top of the Theatres Trust list of English Theatre Buildings at Risk. You can see pictures of the magnificent and still intact interior on the Trust’s website at http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/theatres/show/41-hippodrome-brighton.
It was re-designed by the foremost theatre architect of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Frank Matcham. If you want to see what has happened to the other Brighton theatres he designed, go to the top of North Road and gaze upon the tower block called Tower Point, which adds so much to the townscape. That replaced The Grand Cinema Theatre, right, formerly the Eden Theatre, re-designed by Matcham in 1894. Then down to the seafront and the Brighton Centre, which, after 20 years of dereliction, replaced the Palladium Cinema, originally the Alhambra Opera House and Music Hall, designed by Matcham in 1897. Only the Hippodrome survives.
It’s not easy to find information about the project online. The Brighton design firm of the conversion, Russ Drage Architects, does not mention it among current projects. Alaska, the developer behind the project, has a one-page blurb making much of the £18m cost but with no details other than a glossy artist’s impression of a bar space that gives no hint of the glory of Matcham’s interior—indeed, it has the flavour of an international airport lounge. An exhibition of the plans was open for four hours on each of two days and with little publicity. At the time of writing there appears to be no sign of plans online.
It seems as though the developers want to keep as quiet as possible until the planning application is submitted. Perhaps because any development of a prime town-centre site, if it is known about, is likely to attract attention from conservation groups and the wider public and could create at least noise, rising to uproar. That is what is now beginning to happen.
Once the planning application goes in, the project is less susceptible to public opinion. The Planning Committee has to work within strict guidelines and can say only yes or no to an application. Saying no may lead to appeals by the developer. Moreover, there is a fear that if the scheme is turned down the building will continue to languish and decay. Either outcome could be a wasted opportunity.
However, it may come as a surprise to those familiar with the prevailing spirit of this space and the outlook of its proprietor to hear that eight more cinema screens in one place are definitely NOT what we need.
Brighton has four cinema sites: the eight-screen CIneworld at the Marina, the eight-screen Kingswest Odeon, the single-screen Duke of York’s at Preston Circus and the two-screen (and most superior) Duke’s@Komedia in Gardner Street. That’s 19 screens. That may not seem like excessive provision for a conurbation the size of Brighton and Hove.
It is not insignificant that the aforementioned Alaska says it is in discussions with Vue Entertainment, which does not have a local presence and may enjoy being in competition with Cineworld and Terra Firma, the owners of the Odeon chain. But one minute from the Odeon and five minutes from the Komedia, in a street that is a relative backwater? In the Hove half of the city, which now has no cinemas, various plans since 1997 to build multiplex cinemas have come to nought, as did another scheme in 1997 for a 12-screen multiplex in what has since become the New England Quarter. Presumably Vue has done its feasibility study and has a solid reputation for commercial success, especially with its key 17-screen London sites in the Westfield shopping malls at Shepherds Bush and Stratford—two of the three most profitable sites in the country. The Hippodrome would not be in that league.
The Duke’s@Komedia is a shining example of a way forward. Although there are economies of scale (17 screens do not need 17 times the staff), such sites suit larger conurbations and edge-of-town locations. Digital technology is changing the outlook for cinemas. Smaller units are possible and could be located away from the town centre in areas with good public transport. In the end, cinemas are only as good as their programming, however comfortable and served with food and drink they may be. And Brighton town centre now has many excellent eating places.
Meanwhile, any efforts to save the Hippodrome (https://www.facebook.com/Brighton.Hippodrome?fref=ts) are worth supporting. The culture and economy of Brighton need the performance space it could be. It’s worth reading the Culture and Tourism section of the pending City Plan (http://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/sites/brighton-hove.gov.uk/files/downloads/ldf/Proposed_Submission_City_Plan_Part_One.pdf) with that in mind.