Thursday, 5 January 2017

ABC Cinemas - gone but not forgotten


News reaches me that the very last ABC cinema in existence, in Bournemouth, has screened its final film before the usherette of time escorts the brand to the hard seat of oblivion.  Where once its likely fate would have been conversion into a bingo hall, the site is going to be redeveloped into flats.

When I was growing up in south London in the 1960s and ‘70s two cinema chains dominated: ABC – Associated British Cinemas – and Odeon, but the ABC had a distinct attraction: my brother-in-law Lionel was employed by them as a manager and then a zone manager.  For some years at the start of his career he managed the Camberwell cinema which was not too far from where we lived, and we were frequent patrons.  Sadly the venue became a bingo hall in 1973.

As well as outings to the flicks I used to be given promotional freebies as a child, notably in 1965 a Man from Uncle promotional set which included a shirt with a ‘secret’ breast pocket and a triangular badge, and later on T-shirts arrived on a regular basis – I particularly remember those for Jaws (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976).  One of my prize possessions is a heavy plastic 3D 2001 poster from the original 1968 release which had originally graced a lobby.  But the best gift Lionel gave me was an ABC pass allowing me to get in free.

Armed with this precious document I used to go to the ABC in High Road, Streatham.  It was the heyday of disaster flicks so I saw them at their best, on the big screen, a highlight being Earthquake (1974) with Sensurround.  In 1977 the cinema was converted to three screens, giving a greater choice.  Sometimes though the free list was suspended for a popular film, which is how I came to sit through the Mary Millington double bill of Come Play with Me (1977) and The Playbirds (1978) instead of whatever it was I had turned up to see.  I was given a Playbirds badge, though I doubt I ever wore it.

I was not exclusively devoted to the ABC cinemas – as a youngster I occasionally visited the Odeon at Goose Green, East Dulwich, near to where I lived, for the Saturday morning picture club.  Later I ventured further afield to see specific films wherever they were being shown, such as Tooting with school friends for A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs (both 1971), Catford to catch the double bill of Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974).  Eventually the Brixton Classic, renamed the Ritzy in 1976, became a firm favourite, and I recall naively trying to persuade Lionel of the potential in devoting a screen in multi-screen ABCs to art-house films.  The University of Kent provided intensive exposure to a wide range of cinema, and in 1976 I participated in an early film studies course run by Ben Brewster and John Ellis.

The ABC chain went through a number of takeovers and mergers, not to mention a pummelling from the new multiplexes, and the distinctive triangular logo was gradually phased out.   Now it is gone completely.  I have such fond memories of ABC cinemas that the closure of the last of them brings sadness, though at the same time it reawakens memories of cinema-going that laid the foundations of a lifetime interest in film, for which I can in part thank my brother-in-law.