Film fans hope to reopen Whiteladies Picture House

Interior of the cinema The auditorium originally had 1,400 seats before it was turned into a three-screen multiplex in 1978

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Two film enthusiasts from Bristol are in talks with developers and financiers over reopening a derelict cinema as an arts centre in the Clifton area of the city.

David Fells and Alan Mandel-Butler have been campaigning to get the Grade II-listed Whiteladies Picture House back into use for the past two years.

The building was owned by Odeon, who ran it as a three-screen cinema, but it was sold by the company in November 2001 - almost 80 years after it opened.

The Grade II-listed building has remained empty with the seats ripped out and much of the electrics and plumbing stripped - and a few pigeons have taken up residence.

Over the years various plans for the site have been mooted including a gym, flats and shops but none have come to fruition.

Both men have done their research and are convinced there is a gap in the market which the venue can fill.

WHITELADIES PICTURE HOUSE

Whiteladies cinema
  • Opened in 1921 by the Duchess of Beaufort
  • Pollyanna was the first film shown
  • In the 1950s a much larger Cinemascope screen was put in
  • In 1957 the balcony was extended boosting the capacity to nearly 1,500
  • In 1978 it was turned into a three-screen multiplex
  • In February 1999 it was Grade II-listed
  • November 2001 the Odeon closed its doors

Mr Fells said their venture was not in competition with any of the city's existing arts venues such as the Arnofini, Colston Hall or the Tobacco Factory.

"We've spoken to many touring companies and they all tell us they'd love to come to the city but the established venues are either too big or too small," he said.

"And then there are the corporates who could use the facilities for meetings and product launches.

"In its heyday the cinema could hold about 1,500 but we're looking to split the venue into three self-contained and soundproofed areas.

"Firstly we want work on the upstairs ballroom and remove the partitions which were used to turn them into offices - this could be used as a function or rehearsal room.

"Then we want to partition-off the balcony area and turn it into a performance area. Hopefully the income from these two areas will help towards restoration work downstairs.

"We hope to put a decent-sized stage downstairs with good technical facilities. The [former] stalls area should seat 450 and the upstairs areas are capable of housing 200 people.

"We've spoken to the developers and they've indicated they'd be prepared to sell or lease us the building.

"And we've managed to get a covenant which stated the building should never be used as a cinema or for theatrical purposes again waived," Mr Fells said.

The pair say they are getting closer to getting the funding to start the venture but declined to say where the estimated £2m would come from.

David Fells (l) and Alan Mandel-Butler Alan Mandel-Butler (r) said the pair were hoping to keep as many of the original features as possible

"Let's just say we hope to make an announcement very soon," he added.

At present there is a limited company in place but the men want to get charitable status and form a trust so everything is reinvested in the project for the benefit of the community.

"Being a limited company has advantages for borrowing money but if we are a charity that opens all sorts of funding doors for organisations like English Heritage or the Arts Council.

"And businesses like supporting charity," he added.

But with Bristol's impressive 13-screen Showcase Cinema De Lux at Cabot Circus a short bus ride away could the idea work?

Local film historian and critic Bill Simms said the venture was welcome news.

"Whiteladies Road is right in the heart of student land - there would certainly be a market for it if they can attract the finance and get the right films.

"The Orpheus in Henleaze is another example of a small independent that is well-supported by the locals.

"But I think the Whiteladies Picture House is a really good idea - it's been needed for a long time - and I really hope they succeed," he added.

Mr Mandel-Butler said he wanted to restore the interior to its original glory.

Although the building was in reasonably good condition, he said it had been extensively modified over the years but added a lot of the ornate plaster work and original features remained.

"We're keen to preserve the heritage of the building including part of the original 1920s screen.

"We want to speak to people about their memories and specifically anyone who might have pictures of the interior to help the restoration," he added.

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