HC Deb 07 November 2000 vol 356 cc29-34WH

12 noon

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I am delighted that I have been fortunate enough to be able to raise this important issue for my constituents.

Charlie Chaplin said: The story of the cinema is not simply entertainment for the ordinary men and women in Britain's towns and villages, it is as much the history of the 20th century. In Reading, history shows that the cinema now known as the ABC was built in 1927. It was built for silent movies, perhaps rather late in the silent movie era, and the equipment for talkies was fitted later. The building contained, and still contains, a ballroom with a sprung floor and a cafe at the end. In the 1950s the building was one of nine cinemas in Reading, comprising 13,000 seats and showing more than 30 films every week. At that time the ABC was the home of the MGM musicals, which have had an enduring appeal, and of films such as "Casablanca", originally devised as a propaganda film for the second world war but now rightly regarded as a classic. The ABC cinema later became the Reading home of Rank films.

I am indebted to Mr. Roy Smith, known in Reading as "Mr. Cinema", for the information that I have used. Mr. Smith worked as a projectionist in most of Reading's cinemas and elsewhere. I pay tribute to his tireless efforts to preserve some of Reading's cinematic heritage. Mr. Smith attributes the decline in cinema in Reading that was going on until a few years ago to the entertainment tax introduced in the late 1950s. That added between 17 and 24 per cent. to the price of a cinema ticket at a time when competition from television was starting to be felt.

Leaving the history of the 20th century and moving to the 21st century, cinema patronage has increased in Reading, as elsewhere in the country. It was thought in the 1980s that the rise in video rentals and home video ownership would kill off cinema, but the opposite is true. Video has cross-fertilised with mainstream cinema and more and more good British and international films are being made.

Reading now has one multiplex cinema, in the centre of the city—I use the word "city" advisedly—with 10 screens and 2,000 seats. The ABC closed as a cinema in early 1998 when it became clear that the multiplex was coming. The ABC site has received planning permission to become a private health club, and stories that I believe to be well founded are circulating in Reading that it is also being eyed for development into flats. That fate befell the other town centre cinema in Reading, the Odeon, which also closed recently.

I began with a quotation from Charlie Chaplin, a key figure in cinema, about history, and have tried to give a brief history of cinema, particularly that of the ABC in Reading. However, the point of the debate is not history but the future. I do not want to be seen as promoting a luddite wish to turn back the clock. I am not someone who refuses to see the advantage of change. The multiplex is a fine place to see films. I do not think that I have ever sat in a more comfortable cinema seat. I remember the cinemas of my youth, which were far from comfortable or clean. Going to the cinema these days is quite different, and so much better.

However, even though there are 10-screen multiplex cinemas, many films do not get the showing that they deserve. Although they probably would not attract several hundred people several nights a week, they have a great influence on subsequent and more popular film making. The audience for art films is smaller than that for mainstream films, and people have to travel a long way to see them.

A recent example of such a film, although it would not necessarily be called an art film, was "Love's Labours Lost", made by Kenneth Branagh, who grew up in Reading. The film was shown at Reading university's film theatre but not at the multiplex and it did not have a general release, which is a great pity. It is a pity, too, that the film could not have a premiere in Reading, which is what Kenneth Branagh wanted, as he said when he came to Reading and spoke about it at an event that was held at Reading university's film theatre. Kenneth Branagh expressed his firm support for people who wanted to save the ABC as an arts or community cinema.

Similarly, there are other audiences that are are not catered for by the multiplex and mainstream cinemas. Reading has a sizeable Asian population, which has almost no opportunity to see "Bollywood" films at the cinema, as there is no longer a screen that shows them. Although there is a flourishing video market in such films for home viewing, Asian families enjoy going out together to the cinema to see the films that they enjoy, which they cannot do at present. The sizeable Asian population in other nearby towns would also appreciate a cinema showing the films that they want.

Both Reading university and the Reading college and school of arts and design have media and film studies courses, where students learn about making films. I declare an interest, as my son directs and acts in some of those films. However, those aspirant film makers have no venue where their work can be shown and where they can get feedback from the public. That is important for young film makers and artists who feel passionately that they have a message to get across to the public. It is a pity that they can show their films only to each other or to half a dozen friends, and then only when they can get hold of what is often primitive projection equipment.

We do not know what Steven Spielbergs, Francis Ford Coppolas and Francois Truffauts of the next generation might be lost to cinema by being disheartened at the lack of opportunity for showing their work. What new Kenneth Branagh or Kate Winslet, who also grew up in Reading, will be lost because they did not have the chance to practise their craft along with student film makers?

Film and cinema are not only about artists; as I said, it is a matter of record and of history. Reading is also home to the community film makers Real Time, who record their community, and involve people from all walks of life in making films. This weekend, I shall join them to be interviewed by Reading's gay and lesbian youth group, Reachout, for a film funded by Reading borough council about what it is like to be young in Reading. Reading, East is one of the youngest constituencies in the country; films like those that I have mentioned deserve to be seen, but at present there is nowhere for them to be shown.

The ABC is more than a cinema; as I said, it also has a ballroom with a sprung floor, which was well used in the 1930s. Many of my constituents have fond memories of dancing there in their young days, and of meeting their future husbands and wives on the dance floor. The ballroom could now house all kinds of dance, from tea dances to salsa, the current dance craze. It could provide hanging space for local artists and it already has a cafe. Reading has many public houses, but people tell me that we should have more cafes—more places where we can spend the evening drinking coffee. The dance floor could also provide rehearsal space for dance artistes, young and old. Reading has a thriving amateur and youth theatre scene, but those people have nowhere to put on their plays. The ABC could offer that. Again, I declare an interest, as my son is active in Reading Youth Theatre.

I know that I have expanded a little beyond the title of the debate, which is on arts cinemas in Reading. I have shown that the ABC cinema could provide a venue for art cinema there, but I have also shown that it could provide so much more; as well as providing a venue for community cinema and an outlet for student and community films, it could be a general arts centre.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister knows of the ABC building, because it was assessed by English Heritage in April 1999. We hoped that the building would be listed, as people in Reading felt strongly that it had merit. English Heritage made several favourable comments about the building, describing the front elevation as "stylish"—although it was somewhat altered in the 1970s to create the three-screen cinemas that were popular at the time. It described the cafe stairs as a good 1920s piece of design—a style pleasing to the eye that we do not see often enough nowadays. However, although it was acknowledged that the ABC cinema has merit, it seems that it will not be listed and, therefore, may not be preserved.

I hope that other innovative ways may be found not only to preserve the building for arts and community use but to allow various groups to work together to let the building continue to contribute to Reading's cultural life, as it has done throughout most of the 20th century. Some of those who are interested in saving the cinema have formed a committee, which has already approached various bodies in search of support and funding. I hope that, as a result of any publicity generated by this debate, more people will come forward. Since it was reported in Reading's Evening Post that I had secured the debate, I have been contacted by many constituents who support the move, and I have forwarded their details to the committee.

The first part of the debate's title on the Order Paper is the dreaded phrase—it will certainly be dreaded by the Treasury—"Government support". I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to say now whether funding or other support will be made available to rescue the ABC building for use as a centre for arts excellence. Instead, I hope that she will be able to say who else could be approached for funding. I hope, too, that she will give us the Government's view on community and art film making and on how young student film makers could be supported.

I have written to my hon. Friend requesting a briefing on the matter, and I hope that some preliminary information will be made available—soon, if not today—that will allow the campaigners to make a start on raising the necessary funding. However, not only money is needed. Other advice will be needed to put together a business plan. For instance, a surveyor will need to inspect the cinema to determine the building's condition, and legal and financial advice will be required, so any information on where such assistance could be found would help.

I mentioned earlier that Reading, East has many young constituents. One reason is that Reading university is located mostly within the constituency's boundaries, and almost all the 12,000 students live in the area. That is why the club scene, the music scene and the arts scene flourish in Reading. However, it is not the only reason. I said also that two stars of film, Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet, both grew up in Reading. There is considerable talent—and not only young talent—in Reading. People involved in creative work are always looking for venues. A prosperous place such as Reading brings in people all the time—to work, to study and to enjoy their leisure. That puts pressure on various spaces—housing, and particularly cultural space. The demand for housing leads developers to view a cinema as a potential space for building flats that could be sold at a higher price.

I hope that I may continue to work with my friends in the constituency, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can provide some helpful advice today.

12.15 pm
The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson)

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) for initiating this debate. She has highlighted the importance to local communities of venues such as the ABC in Friar street. I want to reassure her that the Government support such venues and want to ensure that that specific venue continues to be available to her constituents for a wide variety of activities.

My hon. Friend wrote to me in October, following a meeting with Margaret Schreiber who was leading a group to examine the future prospects of the ABC in Friar street. My hon. Friend also paid tribute to Roy Smith's efforts to preserve the cinematic heritage of Reading. It was interesting to hear that Kate Winslet and Kenneth Branagh grew up in Reading, which obviously has a long history of achievement in the film world. It was also interesting to hear that the ABC in Friar street has a ballroom with a sprung floor. I have one in my constituency for tea dances, and it is very popular. I wish my hon. Friend good luck.

It may help if I briefly set out the Government's position. The Government are keen to promote arthouse cinema, both as a means of encouraging new ideas and innovative approaches in the film industry, and as an opportunity for dedicated cinemagoers to enjoy a wider choice of film. Before today, I acquired details of some of the films that have been shown since the beginning of October, which clearly demonstrates the wide range of films shown and made available to people in my hon. Friend's constituency.

My hon. Friend referred to "Love's Labours Lost", which was shown at the ABC. I share her concern about such films' not being on general release. She also mentioned the need of her Asian constituents to view films from what is now described as "Bollywood"—a huge sector of film making. The Bollywood awards took place earlier this year at the dome in Greenwich.

Because of our concern about such matters, my Department produced a strategy for film. Let me assure my hon. Friend that that strategy incorporates a strong regional commitment because we want to ensure increasing public access to cinema throughout the UK. One aspect of our strategy is to establish the Film Council under the chairmanship of the highly able British film director, Alan Parker. I can think of no one better for that role. One of the Film Council's tasks, under Alan's chairmanship, is to take account of the cultural as well as the commercial film industry. The ABC in Friar street is achieving precisely that.

One aspect of the Film Council's regional strategy is to provide a more effective network between the film bodies in each of the English regions. The council has been allotted £6 million a year, for three years starting from April 2001, for a new regional investment fund. It will facilitate new film structures in each region with the capacity to determine their own industrial and cultural priorities for cinema exhibitions and film education.

The council will expect regional agencies to produce business plans so that there is a firm structure for the future development of film in the English regions. Funds currently distributed to the regions by the British Film Institute for investment in archives, education and cinema exhibition will in future come under the Film Council, which will prioritise the areas of need. It aims to provide a broader audience with access to a wider range of films, which the organisation that runs ABC certainly seems to be doing.

In addition to regional funding, the new cinema fund with a budget of £5 million was launched in October by the Film Council to support and nurture new talent and to encourage cutting-edge and experimental film making. I hope that my hon. Friend can get some assistance from it and I shall write to her with details of how that may be done. I sympathise with her, because I also have a son who is an aspirant film maker. The more opportunities our young people have, the better. The new cinema fund, which will help young people, will operate highly collaboratively, with partners drawn from right across the private and public sectors. That seems to be the sort of partnership that is developing in my hon. Friend's constituency.

I turn to the all-important subject of funding. My hon. Friend has written to me about the possibility of converting the ABC cinema in Friar street into a combined arthouse cinema and arts centre, as she outlined in her speech. The Film Council is keen to support arthouse cinema as an art form, but does not currently provide funding for capital projects. Therefore, when my hon. Friend secured this debate, I took it on myself to investigate areas or bodies from which we might be able to find the funding that she and her constituents seek.

The Arts Council's regional arts lottery programme provides support for organisations requiring funding of less than £100,000 for capital projects, including building work. I shall write to my hon. Friend with details of that programme. In any case, it might be helpful for my hon. Friend and the group in her constituency to discuss the proposal with the Southern Arts Board, because it is working with other media agencies in the south-east to develop a single business plan for film media in the region and to make recommendations for the delivery of a single regional film strategy, including the all-important area of exhibition.

For capital projects in excess of £100,000, the Arts Council of England's capital programme has £176 million to spend on arts buildings, equipment purchase and public art commissions up to a maximum of £5 million per individual award. The current application round closes on 22 January 2001.

The Film Council is working with the Arts Council to ensure that those funds are used effectively for film and that, in making awards from the arts capital programme for cinema exhibition—essentially bricks and mortar—the Arts Council works hand in hand with the Film Council.

My hon. Friend referred to the need for practical advice on developing business plans and so on. I shall write to her with details of how such assistance may be provided. She mentioned the request to list the old ABC building in Friar street. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts first received such a request in December 1998 from Reading borough council. In April 1999 the cinema was assessed by English Heritage, which is the Department's statutory adviser on the historical environment. However, English Heritage concluded that the cinema had been altered too much, particularly with the loss of the proscenium, and did not therefore possess sufficient architectural or historic interest to merit listing.

On 5 October, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts announced his decision to list a number of cinemas around the country. However, after careful consideration, he decided that the ABC in Friar street did not meet the criteria. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East is disappointed and I am sorry that it was not possible to help in that way. Nevertheless, there are many other ways in which we can help to develop that facility in her constituency. The decision not to list the building does not in any way ignore or overlook the considerable strength of feeling among my hon. Friend's constituents, who feel that the building has a future and should respond to their needs in Reading, East.

The magic of the cinema touches all those who go to the movies. My hon. Friend referred to the advent of television, and then the video, which it was thought would destroy the cinema. The reverse has been the case, and cinema audience figures are on the increase throughout the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to my attention. I wish her and her constituents luck with the venture, and I shall write to her with the further details that she needs.

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair)

Order. We can now move on to the next debate, because both hon. Members are present.