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The reel thing! AHF supports the revival of two iconic cinemas

8 December 2020

Cinemas are some of the most distinctive and recognisable buildings in our town centres. Moving pictures were such a hit that permanent picture houses had appeared in virtually every town by the outbreak of war in 1914. Many of these early buildings were rebuilt, enlarged or completely replaced by luxurious large new cinemas in the 1930s, dominated by ABC, Gaumont and Odeon.

AHF has recently awarded grants to support the regeneration of two iconic historic cinemas – the Rio in Dalston, East London, and The Vogue Cinema, Kilkeel, County Down.

The Rio was one of London’s very first cinemas, opened as the ‘Kingsland Palace of Animated Pictures’ in 1909 by pioneering businesswoman Clara Ludski. This soon expanded into a new purpose built picturehouse in 1915, in turn replaced in 1937 by the current structure, designed in Art Deco style by Frank Ernest Bromige.  He created a new auditorium within the shell of the earlier cinema, but the ceiling and upper walls of the original 1915 auditorium, featuring five side arches, a proscenium arch with double columns and frieze, remains intact but hidden above the current auditorium.

Shortly before Covid hit, AHF awarded the independent charity running the Rio a grant to test the viability of their plans to use this amazing space – the remains of the 1915 cinema above the current main auditorium - to create a much needed third screen, whilst retaining and restoring its original features.

Nearly a year on, and at a time when cinemas are struggling to cope with forced closures and Covid restrictions, the project offers hope for the future – a new screen would support the sustainability of this historic cinema by significantly increasing admissions and secondary spend. In the meantime, AHF has continued to back the Rio, with a new emergency support grant to help get them through the next few months, until local people can return to one of the best-loved community-run cinemas in the country.

The Vogue Cinema was built in 1938 and designed by Ben Cowser. It was the only listed cinema building in Northern Ireland still performing its original function until it closed on 7th September 2007 when the operator retired.  A classic example of its kind, the main, asymmetrical elevation is finished in smooth painted render with interlocking rectangular blocks, flat parapets, long streamlined horizontal string courses, port-hole windows and horizontal glazing bars to the windows and doors with original handles of modernist design. 

Inside is a large auditorium and stage in a streamlined moderne style.  The cinema originally had a seating capacity of 490 and during WWII, it was used as a venue to entertain British and American troops and airmen stationed in the district. The building has now been vacant for 13 years and is in a poor state of disrepair, but it remains greatly valued by the whole community.

Kilkeel Charitable Trust (KCT) has entered into a Community Asset Transfer process, with a requirement to submit a business plan to the Council by March 2021.  Thanks to the Project Viability Grant from AHF the Trust can now fully engage in consultation with the community, key stakeholders and funders and determine the cost of repairs to establish whether a sound business case can be made.  They currently envisage animating the building with a diverse range of uses including: a community cinema; a venue for live music and the performing arts; a media and digital hub and recording studio; workshops; a gallery and exhibition space, a café/bistro, as well co-working and meeting spaces.

Diane Coulter, trustee with Kilkeel Charitable Trust said: “On behalf of the trustees we are delighted to have secured funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund to support our efforts to explore the opportunity to preserve a local landmark which holds significant heritage to the Kilkeel Town centre dating back to 1940. The AHF funding and support will play a vital part in moving the project forward into a community led project whereby local citizens will have their input on how the building can be brought back to life.”

These two projects, from the heart of the London metropolis to the coastal town of Kilkeel show the potential power of cinema and historic buildings to make a transformative difference to the quality of lives of the communities in which they are located.

Photo Credit

The Vogue Cinema, Kilkeel, County Down - Kilkeel Charitable Trust


Editor’s notes

1)    The Architectural Heritage Fund is a registered charity, working since 1976 to promote the conservation and sustainable re-use of historic buildings for the benefit of communities across the UK, particularly in economically disadvantaged areas. We are the only specialist heritage social investor in the UK. We provide advice, development grants and loans.

2)    Photos provided by The Rio Cinema and KCT.

3)    For media enquiries please contact Oliver Brodrick-Ward, on 020 79250199 /


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