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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

125 Years of Film in Chichester

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

125 years ago on the 31 August 1896 audiences expecting a usual night of traditional music hall entertainment at the Pier Pavilion, Worthing were in for a big surprise.

For that week’s booking, showman Lt Walter Cole was bringing something special, ‘The new wonder – electric animated pictures’. The Worthing Gazette’s review the following week noted that “the most novel item of the evening’s entertainment is the series of animated photos, the newest and most striking electric invention.” And so, film had arrived in West Sussex.

Chichester had to wait until 26 December 1896 to see this new wonder of the age, at the mixed-use entertainment venue, the Corn Exchange (now Next) on East Street. Film quickly became the most popular form of entertainment that it in 1910 it became a full-time cinema, Pooles.

In May 1911 Chichester’s first purpose-built cinema, the Olympia Electric Theatre, opened next to the roller skating rink in Northgate. A fire in 1922 ended its use as an entertainment venue, but you can still spot it as you drive round the Northgate roundabout, now used as CFT’s scenery store.

The Picturedrome (now Iceland) on South Street opened in 1920 and the Gaumont in Eastgate Square (now demolished) opened in September 1937.

In 1948 when cinema audiences were at a near high of 1,514.0 million across the country, the Corn Exchange became part of the Granada chain. But times they were a-changing. In 1955, when commercial television started, there were 5 million sets, by 1961 there were 11 million sets and cinema admissions had fallen by 75%. The Picturedrome and Gaumont were causalities of this, both closing in 1960.

The Corn Exchange was therefore the only cinema remaining. By 1970 UK cinema attendance had dropped to 193 million admissions, by 1980 down to 110 million, and Chichester’s last remaining cinema closed on 9 August 1980. The building’s impressive façade remains intact but inside all trace of its original use has vanished.

So in 1980, a city that once was well-served with cinemas was left with none. But luckily on the other side of Chichester in 1979 Roger Gibson had launched the ‘Chichester College Adult Education Film Society’. With no other opportunities to see films in a communal setting, the society thrived, winning the “Film Society of the Year Award” in 1985, and moving to the New Park Centre in 1986.

By the time I joined the team as the Cinema’s first General Manager in March 2003, the same month Chichester Cineworld opened, it had been renamed the Chichester Cinema at New Park, was operating all-year-round, every day and the Festival was in its 11th year. How exciting to see the Cinema has gone from strength-to-strength and that it is now celebrating almost Film Festivals and one of the most ambitious art house cinema programmes outside London. Given the last year or so, when you feel able to get out and support your local cinema - they are going to need your help if they are to survive.

Ellen Cheshire was the General Manager of Chichester Cinema at New Park 2003 – 2006 and you can buy Ellen’s book Electric Pictures: A Guide to Films, Filmmakers and Cinemas of Worthing and Shoreham here.

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