Looming over the heart of my home town, and haunting it like a reproach, is a huge presence that is simultaneously an absence. The State cinema in Grays Essex, a great cathedral of a place, opened in 1938 with seating for 2,200 people, complete with a mighty organ capable of rising colourfully from the orchestra pit like Vincent Price from the grave, has been kept in Grade 2 listed mothballs since 1988, with the paint slowly fading and the buddleia slowly growing, a giant amphitheatre for pigeon poo; having been finally killed off by the opening of a multi screen at Lakeside and the rise of VHS rental: which also left the adjacent High Street as a by passed ghost of its former self at the same time.
The State was so in big in so many ways. Its capacity was more than twice that of the Odeon Leicester Square (a puny 950). If you want a feel for the scale of it, the cinema scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit was shot inside it. A swashbuckling gesture of bravado for a small town worthy of the Errol Flynn films it showed, it dominated the skyline and still does.
Only its smaller, dowdier younger sibling the Ritz, huddled away up the hill with its back to it, and with a tighter 1500 capacity, stands any comparison. The Ritz always had an inferiority complex, completed as it was in a hurry in 1940, with lots of corners cut and expenses spared. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” An inessential building at a time when all the local railings were being sawn down to make Spitfires; pointlessly as it turned out because the quality of the metal was so poor. (2) Sadly – and characteristically – its entry in the Cinema treasures web site states baldly “No one has favourited this Theatre yet.” (3) Although less loved, the Ritz nevertheless survived in a zombie half life as a Bingo Hall, before being born again as an evangelical mega church in 2016; just in time for Trump and Brexit. Truly the Lord moves in mysterious ways.
The State brought a little whiff of luxury to a town built on factories and docks and in its heyday the place hummed. Before television people would “go to the pictures” several times a week. If not to the State then to the smaller but somehow more elegant Regal – up on New Road past the train station, or just round the corner to the older Empire – the first cinema in town, seating for 800 and a bit of a flea pit. But the State was classy. The tower over the entrance was lit up with neon lights that changed colour, a little bit of Broadway on George Street. A uniformed commissionaire complete with peaked cap and aguillettes called out the prices of the remaining tickets and ushered people up the curving sweep of stairs to the circle or down the slope to the stalls. He was memorialised in cardboard replicas as the cinematic glory days faded in the 50′ and 60s, with life size, if battered and dated, cut outs of uniformed bell boys half bowing and smiling a Stan Laurel sort of smile while pointing the way to the seats.
Generations were moulded by it. Hundreds of kids queuing up as late as the 60s for a Saturday Matinee all the way down the street clutching a thru’ppeny bit for the stalls (4) and round the back to the car park, excited to watch the latest Norman Wisdom or the Magnificent Seven or Guns of Navaronne or 101 Dalmatians, cheering the goodies, booing the baddies and giving the sloppy scenes a groan. Collective – and often dubious, mass bonding. Anyone growing up there between 1938 and 1988 will be grateful for its shows as the pretext for a first date – and probably first kiss. If these things were memorialised with plaques, the place would be buried in them.
Closure cut all that dead. The heart of the town no longer had a heart. After a partial reopening of the ticket area as a wine bar in the 90s, the building has stood empty as a memorial to itself and slowly crumbled ever since.
A planned rebirth as one of Tim Martin’s soulless boozing warehouses – perhaps as a reward for Thurrock having delivered the largest urban leave vote in the country – may fall victim to Coronavirus. But even if it doesn’t, this is a bit like being reincarnated as a lesser being. Life Jim, but not as we know it. All the same, if it comes back to life, there will be many ghosts, the actors – their technicolour all faded away, flickering in the smoky beams from the projector that is no longer there: Yul Bryner behind the bar, Margaret Rutherford nursing a G&T with her bicycle leaning against her table, Kenneth More leaning over the balcony like the bridge of a Destroyer in the North Atlantic -and all the multiple ghosts of our younger selves…
1. “One, two, three four, don’t forget the class war, Two, Four, Six, Eight, organise to smash the state.” Anarchist slogan. Trad. Anon . There is something appealingly domestic about this slogan. Like a to do list. Buy baked beans, Put out cat, Overthrow hegemony of Bourgeoisie.
2. I was quite shocked when I first went to posh areas of London to find handsome railing still intact. “All in it together” has always had its imitations.
4. Paying the extortionate price of 6d for the posher seats was seen as a sort of betrayal.