Cornish Cinema

I’m a film freak, not a buff. I don’t know Ingmar Bergman’s middle name, a freak. For me it’s the whole cinema experience, the dark ambience, the sweeping curtains, the smell of popcorn and of course the epic movie. So as I make my way to the White Water cinema in St Austell for a guided tour, you can guess I’m pretty excited to meet the company’s managing director, David Williams.

David is in the movie business. Every week he entertains around 4,000 people from all over Cornwall and beyond who flock to the family-owned cinema in the town centre to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters.  In fairness he doesn’t do the actual entertaining, that’s up to Brad and Angelina or Pixar’s computer animation and Walt Disney crowd pleasing know-how, but he’s the hand behind the reel as it were, as cinema goers sit back and enjoy a bit of silver screen escapism.

The new four-screen cinema in the town opened in 2008 as part of the area’s regeneration scheme and up in the projection room there’s a gentle hum of state of the art equipment. David shows me around the clinically clean room and the massive projectors that point towards the four huge white screens.  I’m pleased to report that although we live in a digital age, huge reels of old fashioned celluloid hang off the back of the projectors, a few of the thousands of individual frames illuminated in the florescent light.

“Another couple of years and we’ll be downloading all our films on hard drive and celluloid will disappear” explains David. “But for now we still get the film reels delivered every week. Just the same way it’s been done since the family business started way back in 1945”

There had been a cinema opposite the present site for 72 years until its fading art deco facade was finally demolished to make way for the new town centre design a couple of years ago. The original was built by Oscar Deutsch, founder of the famous Odeon chain and opened in 1936 to a great fanfare explains David. It was the glamorous days of Hollywood, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Mae West provided the dreams and the local press at the time reported in glowing terms that ‘…the new cinema’s daring and bright colours, luxurious furnishings and the admiring audience made a brilliant scene’. But fast-forward a few decades and by the end of 1970s the lustre had worn off a little.

The Williams family took over the then ailing and quite decrepit cinema in 1977, the year that Star Wars thrilled us from space, John Travolta strutted his stuff in Saturday Night Fever and we were having close encounters of the third kind up on the screen. The family already owned the Capitol Theatre in the town which they had bought back in 1940s and which had long been the entertainment hub of the area, “ We had a ballroom, bands used to play, there were huge audiences for the annual pantomime, it was the place to be back in those days” recalls David. “But the new cinema was a challenge; however after heavy investment within seven years of opening we had welcomed over 1,000,000 customers”


David’s great grandfather had originally started the family business as a building contractor in 1878 in Wadebridge. The imposing Atlantic Terrace in Polzeath and quite a few of the grand Victorian and Edwardian buildings around North Cornwall were built by David’s forefathers and David joined the firm in 1966.

And did David spend his childhood gazing at the screen and living in a world of fantasy like the boy in Cinema Paradiso? I really hoped so. “Well not really” replies David “I started helping out when I was very young. I used to pick up litter and do menial tasks and it was simply a job. As a youngster I guess I liked the old comedies but for me the most important thing was, and still is, the enjoyment of seeing people entertained”

And it’s not just in St Austell that the family entertains. The company own three other cinemas in Cornwall. The Regal in Wadebridge was acquired in 1967. Just before that the family had bought The Cinedrome in Padstow which first opened in 1919 as a music hall and theatre; in 1924 it was converted into a cinema to show silent movies with an accompanying piano and in 1996 the very successful Plaza at Truro was also added to the group.

“Cinemas went though lean times in the 1980s,” says David. Who indeed can forget the lumbering epic Ishtar or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? Err, um, The Care Bear Movie anyone? “Lack of good films and the advent of video saw crowds staying away in their droves” he reveals. “But we managed to survive and then a movie renaissance started in USA. Multi screen cinemas started to appear giving audiences more choice” In the best tradition of Hollywood film scripts there were those in the industry who thought the idea of multiplexes was madness and they would never work but the rest, as they say, is history.

And that renaissance continues into the 21st century so keep watching folks because there’s a lot in store in the future. “Production quality in films is high these days, they’re well made, well directed” enthuses David. “With TV seemingly dumbing down and going backwards, heading off to the cinema has become a really great night out again”

David insists that a crowd of people watching a film together is a great social event and a trend that goes back to the great days of entertainment in the 1930s and since the 1980s cinema attendances have increased threefold. Laughing together, being frightened together, crying together; it’s pure and simple escapism and ultimately everyone leaves the cinema feeling better. David illustrates by citing Mama Mia as one of the new breed of movies made to deliver that feel good factor. “People were singing along to the music, dancing in the aisle and afterwards some were doing the conga around the streets of St Austell. Some people came seven nights in a row, it was incredible fun”

Providing the best for customers is David’s priority and with both his sons working for the company, the family look forward to the future with all the excitement of an audience waiting for the lights to fade and the Pearl and Dean theme to strike up and as David reveals a lot of that future will be in 3D. “Film studios are coming up with more exciting ways to entertain by adding more wow factor to thrill the audience, especially youngsters. In 2009 there were 10 films made in 3D, this year there will be over 20, so we are staying ahead of the game by investing in new technology. We’re also building a new cinema in Newquay due to be opened in 2011 which will be the most modern multiplex in the West Country”

Since the early days of clattering projectors beaming silent movies on to the silver screen, there is really nothing quite like an evening at the cinema and the Williams family plan to keep bringing that special magic to Cornish audiences for a long time to come. And Ingmar Bergman’s middle name? It’s actually Ingmar, his first name was Ernst.