Empire of Light and Cardiff cinema memories

Above: the cinema in Empire of Light

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was not the film I was expecting. I was looking forward to a moving story about a neglected seaside cinema lovingly brought back to life. (Think Cinema Paradiso, Margate-style.) Instead, it was a far starker and more complicated tale of early Eighties Britain, with racism, mental illness and misogyny centre-stage.

I’ll share my thoughts on Empire of Light later. But this post is an unashamed exercise in nostalgia. The film revived long-dormant memories of childhood trips to the cinema in 1970s Cardiff. Going to the pictures (as parents, aunts and uncles described a trip to the cinema) was a very different experience 50 years ago, and Empire of Light brilliantly captures the mood of the time.

The first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on its release in 1968 when I was five. We also saw Earthquake, a 1974 disaster movie, in Elephant & Castle when we were staying in London for a weekend. (It featured sound effects designed to simulate an earthquake.) But most of my childhood big screen outings were in my hometown, Cardiff, Wales.

One Christmas, my father Bob Skinner took me to the old Globe cinema in Roath to see A Christmas Carol, which I now realise would have been the version that came out when Dad was 12 in 1938. (Dad’s favourite film.) The photos above capture the venue exactly as I remember it, with a bush growing out of the roof, and a shabby auditorium. (The moniker ‘flea-pit’ could have been inspired by the 1970s Globe.) In those days, films were often played on a loop, which gave rise to the expression ‘this is where I came in’. Sure enough, we stayed long enough to see the film starting again! Dad tells me that the cinema was run by a Welsh rugby international, whose wife worked in the box office. It was one of the first venues to show foreign films. The Globe closed in the 1980s, not long after my friend Anthony and I watched Return of the Jedi there – the only early Star Wars film I watched in a cinema.

Our regular cinema

Our regular destination for a night at the pictures was the Monico in Rhiwbina, a classic suburban cinema. (In those days before giant multi-screen warehouses, many suburbs had their own film venues.) We went less often to the Plaza at Gabalfa, almost next door to where I was born, which was overshadowed by the recently-built flyover carrying Caerphilly Road over Eastern Avenue.

All these years later, I can remember just a handful of the films we watched. Raid on Entebbe (1977) told the story of the heroic rescue of hijack hostages from Uganda by Israel’s defence forces in 1976. The same year, I went to a Cardiff city centre cinema, probably the Odeon, with a school friend to see A Bridge Too Far, Richard Attenborough’s epic movie about 1944’s disastrous Allied operation to seize the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in the Netherlands. Not knowing the background I found the film confusing, and only understood the narrative after reading Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name the following year. We assumed wrongly that A Bridge Too Far was the last second world war blockbuster film, 21 years before Saving Private Ryan

I did once watch a film in the grandest Cardiff cinema, the Capitol in Queen Street, which once hosted The Beatles, Bill Haley & The Comets and Tom Jones. My 20 year old sister and her boyfriend took me to see Herbie Rides Again, a 1974 Disney movie about an animated Volkswagen Beetle. I was wowed by this huge theatre, and its characteristic organ, but presume there was no musical accompaniment for our visit. Happily the organ was recently rediscovered and restored.

The sad remains of the Capitol, 1983. Photo: Rob Skinner

Sadly the light was already fading for the Capitol in 1974, and it closed four years later after Cardiff City Council refused to allow Rank to use it as a bingo hall. I was sadder about the loss of the Homestead restaurant in the basement of the New Continental next door, a family favourite for birthdays and other occasions since the late 1950s. It closed at the end of 1982 and we didn’t have time to arrange a farewell meal. Happily we were reunited with our favourite Homestead waiter when he worked at an Italian restaurant on Penarth’s seafront in the late 1990s.

Empire of Light reflections

Empire of Light has been described as Sam Mendes’ love letter to cinema. Yet Mendes seems not to love it enough to celebrate the joy of cinema. This was his first solo film script, and he would have been well advised to choose a single theme and develop it. Instead, he crams several serious topics into the narrative: mental illness, racist bullying and misogyny. The result is a superficial and cliched film only rescued by fine performances from Olivia Colman as duty manager Hilary and Micheal Ward as Stephen, a young black man she has a fleeting relationship with. Colin Firth is unusually low profile as the cinema’s predator manager, but portrays the sleazy character well.

Ward and Colman in the cinema’s abandoned bar. Searchlight Pictures

Empire of Light is set in 1980 and 1981, one of the most depressing times in modern British history. The Thatcher government was presiding over a harrowing rise in unemployment, sky-high mortgage rates and riots in Britain’s inner cities. The film included a reference to the horror of a 1981 house fire in New Cross in London that killed 13 black teenagers in a suspected racist arson attack. Stephen is targeted by racist thugs, most frighteningly when a mob smash the doors to the cinema foyer and attack him.

Yet it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Mendes has taken the easy option in throwing together sad, tormented Hilary and the similarly victimised much younger Stephen. Especially in the scene when he miraculously mends a bird’s broken wing with a handkerchief and sets the creature free into the seaside air. There are other clumsy scenes such as Hilary’s bleak solo Christmas lunch, complete with solitary cracker. (Would anyone buy a cracker for one?)

Empire of Light is beautifully filmed, hinting at what might have been had the cinema truly been the star. I loved the scenes in which projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) showed Stephen how to operate the impressive old projectors – there’s something magical in the way a beam of light turns into a moving picture on a big screen, as we watch a movie in the darkened auditorium. As one scene ends, the door of the projection room closes and the light turns to darkness. Perfect cinematography by the master of the art, Roger Deakins, who helped make Sam Mendes’ 1917 such a triumph.

Other touches took me back to my childhood film-going, including the central stall selling sweets – boxes of Maltesers! I’d forgotten all about them, but they were a filmgoing treat, unlike the modern rage for popcorn, a substance devoid of taste and pleasure. But Mendes missed a trick not including the once-ubiquitous usherette, who guided newcomers to their seats with a torch.

We watched Empire of Light at Everyman at Gerrards Cross. While the film did not live up to my expectations, I did enjoy those hours of escapism on Saturday morning, and the classic Pearl & Dean Asteroid theme tune echoed those childhood cinema outings.

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