A cinema at the heart of the town
Totnes Cinema is the town’s single most exciting arts initiative in recent times. If you doubt it, simply go along to a selection of films and events at its 27a High Street address. It’s where the library used to be. Since the demise of Dartington College of Arts and perhaps further back than that, there has been nothing to rival it. In its few years of existence it has built up a following to the extent that it now frequently plays to full – or near full – houses. It has noticeably helped generate trade at its end of town. People on their way to a film, or performers for live events, often have a bite to eat or a coffee in one or other of the High Street’s various establishments. An arts ambience is now evident in toptown – which is how it should be in a culturally aware place like Totnes.
Why hadn’t Totnes got a cinema?
It was the brainchild and enterprise of Jane Hughes and William Johnson, a couple who met when students at Nottingham University, and much of whose courtship took place around the university film club. To call them film lovers is an understatement. They have lived in Devon for thirty years and near Totnes for twenty of those years.
Much of that time Jane worked as a psychologist with the NHS. She is now a clinical psychologist with adoption and fostering services locally. William had a production and film promotion company in London for many years, commuting to his office in Soho’s Charlotte Street. It had a screening room which had belonged to Film4 where he showed previews to journalists and critics. However when the office became due for demolition the two projectors, cinema seating and coffee machine were going spare. As chance had it Totnes’ old library had moved to its present location behind The Mansion and its building down a narrow alley was up for offers. Thus from these small acorns were sown the seeds of the Totnes Cinema.
For the love of film
Jane comments: “We love film. We thought it was really peculiar that Kingsbridge has a cinema, Dartmouth has a cinema. Why hadn’t Totnes got a cinema?” She acknowledges the Barn Cinema at Dartington, but this is not quite the same as having a cinema in the heart of town.
Jane and William put a business plan together “and it didn’t make sense. We kept looking at it and looking at it. We sat over Christmas with it thinking: this is not going to work”. Yet partly due to the encouragement of Peter Richardson (of Comic Strip and Stella Street fame) and perhaps partly due to a daredevil gambling streak they put in a bid and on Jane’s fiftieth birthday they heard it was successful.
As far as the building went, it was not so much a change of use as a change back to an earlier use. Before it was a library it had been the Romany Cinema, closed in 1964, its last showing being The Thrill of it All starring Doris Day and James Garner – “not a very good film”, says Jane. Going even further back, before it was a cinema it was a temperance hall. Today’s Totnes Cinema has a bar, a very fine one too, designed by William.
Where it all began…
Cinema in Totnes goes back to the 1890s. Throughout that time there were cinemas in various locations including the current W.H.Smith. At one time there were two in competition. When the Romany closed, however, for the first time since the previous century, Totnes had no cinema at all. When Jane and William first started converting the old library back to its old use, they knew hardly anyone although a band of helpers eventually gathered to offer laboring and other skills. William did much of the work himself, demolished the old projection box, designed a new balcony and the long bar uniquely positioned in front of the screen (and taken down when the film starts).
Enter the expert…
At this point Colin Orr introduced himself. Colin was to become the Manager of Totnes Cinema, although initially he only offered to give advice. He is from East Kilbride, near Glasgow, from a family that had always been absorbed in film, especially musicals and westerns. His mother worked in the 3,500 seater ABC in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. Glasgow as a whole, incidentally, was known as Cinema City with more cinemas per head than any city in the world. After Strathclyde University, Colin moved to London where he worked in the book industry, met his wife and many people involved in film. He then worked at the famous Brixton Ritzy, becoming Assistant Manager there for three years, building it up to the premier art house cinema in the country.
He found a job quickly as Manager of the Dartington Barn Cinema where he stayed for ten years. He recalled that the Barn was very much a pure art house cinema when he started there, partly due to its charitable status and its position as a funded venture which protected it somewhat from commercial pressures. As the Manager of a London commercial cinema, albeit one that was known for screening art house material, Colin had been used to balancing his programmes – some mainstream, some less so. He enjoyed this challenge.
“For me as a programmer the key thing is trust, building up trust with your audience because they won’t know everything that you know. That’s my business. My business is to see everything.”
Our goal was to make the best cinema in Britain
In 2011 Colin left Dartington to work as Manager of two Picturehouse Cinemas in Brighton. This meant sixty-to-seventy hours a week in Brighton and seeing his family in Totnes at weekends, not exactly a viable arrangement long term. When he met Jane and William he was ripe for a new challenge. He was impressed by their seriousness of purpose, imagination and Will’s sense of how the space would look aesthetically. “What made it possible was Will’s idea of actually having the bar within the building itself and have the bar running with the cinema and have it as a multifunctional space”.
The varied experiences, skills, knowledge and sheer enthusiasm of the cinema’s founders were poured into an initial first season of films. They bought furniture off eBay. There are no rows – there are chairs round tables cabaret style, a few sofas and a chaise longue. The walls were unfinished. There were patches of pink plaster and stone looking for all the world like the crumbling walls of a remote Spanish bistro. People loved it and begged them not to change a thing. To this day it looks more underground than the old Arts Lab in London used to. William’s bar was designed like half a boat. Long wooden batons were installed along the side by a carpenter but punters liked it unfinished without the sides nailed on. That stayed too. William also designed the new balcony.
That first season sold out its seventy-odd seats – more with the balcony. So too did another short season. But then they had to close for the winter. It was too cold and needed heating. By now, however, the band of volunteer helpers had grown in size – bar staff, front-of-house, box office, labouring. There is now quite a team coordinated by Sarah Lawrence whose contribution should never be under-estimated.
A glance at the programmes over the last couple of years shows a varied, knowledgeable and in-depth approach to film. Known box office favourites like South Pacific or The Rocky Horror Picture Show sit comfortably in the same programmes as Murnau’s 1927 expressionist classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (which I first saw there) or Cocteau’s Orphée.
This is film programming at its unusual very best, inclusive enough for all genres, all periods – up to some very recent releases, and a veritable parade of good directors and actors, old and new. You could get a complete education in film from the 1920s onwards merely by becoming a regular at Totnes Cinema. As Colin says: “Our goal was not just to make the best cinema in Devon. Our goal was to make the best cinema in Britain – doing something that nobody else is doing”.
This extends to regularly having live music before a film (there is a grand piano), having live events, appealing directly to various aspects of the community, possibly connecting with young film makers, baby screenings, coffee, a regular matinée, poetry and music cabaret, screenings with discussions, a film festival in association with Transition Town Totnes, and a regular film evening class. More is planned. There is an aspiration to open seven days a week. There has been talk of a jazz festival. Jane aims high: “Why not have a Venice festival in Totnes?” Why not indeed…