Reviewing Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream films churned out simultaneously across the country is most certainly not Cumbrian nor Welly-cool but last Saturday I was invited to the art deco Royalty cinema in Bowness to review a one-off screening of Hitchcock’s The Manxman.
I’m rather partial to an old black and white movie but if I’m honest, not overly keen on spending an hour and forty-one minutes glued to a silent number. In fact I had never watched a silent film prior to last Saturday and although I was vaguely interested in The Artist when it was released several years ago, the lack of real enthusiasm on my part meant that I never got round to seeing it.
Fast forward four years and here I was attending my first silent film screening. But it wasn’t just about the movie. I really don’t profess to be a film buff and can think of better ways to spend a sunny afternoon than the darkness of a matinée. I had visited the Royalty years ago, way back when I used to go water-skiing on Lake Windermere with family and the cinema provided a last-minute welcoming respite from the incessant rain.
I never realized that this historical building was home to a rare Wurlitzer organ. Again, just like my lack of film knowledge, I also have little in common with musical instruments. Without starting to sound too much like a dullard, I do however have a keen interest in history, particularly local history and given a chance (that’ll be the Welly Guide then), I will gladly promote interesting, snippets of historical stuff in a vain effort to dissuade the usual droves of visitors meandering past a gem of a place in favour of tourist tat further down the road.
Having chatted over the phone the week prior to Mark Latimer, the Royalty’s super-friendly manager, I began to realize that there was much more to this picture house than Finding Dory or (yawn) Swallows & Amazons. Throughout the summer months, the Royalty has quietly removed the mighty dustsheet and showcased several lunchtime Wurlitzer concerts with guest organists in attendance. Indeed on the very Saturday I popped in for the showing, musician David Ivory and his wife had travelled all the way up from Suffolk so that he could play the Wurlitzer during this single matinée performance. An amiable chap, not only had he dressed for the occasion but like his namesake he certainly knew how to tickle the proverbials for a total of well, two hours and forty-one minutes.
The fabulous Wurlitzer took pride of place to the left of screen three. Built in Cleveland, Ohio in 1927, the organ remained stateside until 1934 when the advent of sound soon made its use redundant. A number of picture houses in the UK shipped these organs back over the pond as statement pieces in local cinemas. In the case of the Royalty Wurlitzer, it was bought in 1934 by the Rex theatre in Stratford, London and remained in situ until 1972 when the cinema closed down. From then it was stored in an outhouse until it was dug out and bought for a song (sorry, no need I know) by benefactors of the Royalty in 2007. A painful refurbishment then took place, lasting more than four years and here it is now, shining pearlescent for all to see in full 1920’s vibrato glamour.
But underneath its glossy showmanship the Wurlitzer is a triumph of musical engineering. Completely ignorant to its extensive construction, Mark took me down into the bowels of the cinema where I was taken aback by a maze of cellar rooms filled with metal pipes and wooden boxes of differing sizes.
Every last piece from pipes larger than your head to huge polished slats for controlling the volume was simply awe-inspiring. It is fabulous to think that such craftsmanship and build from decades ago has been carefully restored by a small group of passionate locals keen to relive another era long forgotten but right here for your entertainment at the little-known Royalty cinema in Bowness.
And as for the film? Shot in 1929, just two years after the Royalty was built, The Manxman is a cathartic story of unrequited love and duplicitous liaisons set on the Isle of Man. But it is the Wurlitzer that brings this silent film to life, with its impressive acoustic prowess and array of powerful sound effects adding more drama and emotion than the spoken word could ever achieve. Here’s a snippet recorded by yours truly during the showing (copyright granted by the Royalty cinema):
So for locals and visitors alike, why not do something a little different and take a trip down memory lane, at the same time supporting the efforts of our fellow Cumbrians who have brought something just a bit different than ice-creams and chips to Bowness-on-Windermere.
Royalty Cinema, Lake Road, Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria, LA23 3BJ
T 015394 43364 www.nm-cinemas.co.uk