Cinematopia: UK picture palaces
Tunbridge Wells


Ritz, Essoldo, Classic, Cannon, MGM, Virgin

The 1,600-seat Ritz - "Kent's most luxurious cinema" and a part of the Union Cinemas circuit - opened on 3rd December 1934: when I took the photographs in early 2006 - just a few weeks prior to the building's planned demolition - there was still visible, painted on the rear of the building, a faded "Ritz" sign. The first programme, which punters could watch for 3d, was headed by Gracie Fields' Sing As We Go. It become the Essoldo in 1954.

The inevitable tripling was arranged somewhat unusually. Most Odeon cinemas, for example, were tripled by keeping the original circle as a primary screen (utilising the original projection booth) and fitting two smaller screens into the space occupied by the stalls. Essoldo, on the other hand, initially split the cinema into only two screens. Both the stalls and the circle were kept intact, leading to a surprisingly large Screen 1 in the original stalls, which meant it was a pretty good place to go and see films, notwithstanding the occasional train rumbling by in the railway tunnel beneath. In 1972, Classic acquired the cinema and added a third screen in the Florida restaurant where, as music folklore has it, David Bowie's parents met each other. Obviously this was a part of the building not originally intended for film exhibition, leading to an odd arrangement in which films were projected through the ceiling via a periscope contraption.

The Compton organ from The Ritz was removed at the time of the doubling and has been preserved. A picture of it is located at The Cinema Organ Society.

ABC from the air Architecturally, the building was nothing particularly special but it did have two unusual features. A glass tower over the entrance was removed (probably for safety reasons) in the 1950s. But the overall layout of the building was out of the ordinary: the foyer was offset at a 45-degree angle (facing into the centre of the crossroads and the Assembly Hall opposite) and almost separate to the auditorium. Parades of shops were attached to each wing of the foyer but with a distinct gap between them and the auditorium itself, as shown in the aerial photograph (© Multimap).

Cannon took it over along with the Classic chain in 1982. Subsequently it became an MGM, briefly a Virgin and finally an ABC in 1996, becoming obsolete in 1999, when Odeon (by then sharing a parent company with ABC) opened their multiplex outside the town. The last film shown was on Sunday 29th October 2000. At that time, the cinema was still financially viable.

Unexpectedly for a provincial High Street cinema, it remained pretty cutting-edge until the end. It was the first non-multiplex in the country to have a Pick 'n' Mix stall and one of the first to show popular films simultaneously on more than one screen.

* Sevenoaks Chronicle, 2nd November 2000 - article "Curtain closes on seven decades" by Tim Knight.
* There's also an excellent brief history of the ABC at - if not entirely consistent with the Chronicle version.

It's not clear from the history presented in the Chronicle article, or on, what happened to the Ballroom that was originally present in the building. Screen 3 cannot possibly have been both restaurant and Ballroom - it wasn't big enough. Perhaps one or other became the projection room above the third screen.

Mad Cornish Projectionist - a wonderful site by someone with a true love of the technical and architectural side to cinema - has some personal reminiscences from Mervyn Collard, a former Ritz projectionist, who also worked at the Opera House and at the Sevenoaks Granada and Sevenoaks Odeon.

I first came to know the building in the late 1980s, well after its heyday and after tripling, when it was the Cannon. It was not exactly the most beautiful cinema in the world, and in its final days was a far cry from being "Kent's most luxurious cinema", as it was originally billed, but still, I really miss it.

1972 (© Mawgrim's Worlds):
ABC Tunbridge Wells - 1972 (Mawgrim's Worlds)

1987 (© "Stagedoor" (Flickr user)):
ABC Tunbridge Wells - 1987

ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006 ABC Tunbridge Wells - 2006

Opera House

* JD Wetherspoon

The Opera House, as its name suggests, was not originally a cinema at all, but in common with the ABC and two other cinemas in the town was operated for a time by Union Cinemas. According to Mervyn Collard, the building was still in use as a theatre in the days when it showed films and hence films were back-projected from the rear of the stage.

The building is now a Wetherspoons pub - one of the earliest ones, in fact - and still retains a certain theatrical charm, with the circles and stage still intact. As with many Wetherspoons, there is a brief history of the building on one wall that mentions its use as a cinema.

Roughwood has a fantastic collection of vintage photographs and postcards of Tunbridge Wells, including the Opera House - and with a bit of digital magic has managed to get much better shots of the front facade, too. (Roughwood happens to be run by a fellow former University of Surrey Elec Eng alumnus.)

1902 - 1925 (© Roughwood):
Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 1902 (Roughwood) Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 1904 (Roughwood) Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 1904 (Roughwood) Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 1906 (Roughwood) Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 1906 (Roughwood) Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 1925 (Roughwood)

Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 2006 Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 2006 Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 2006 Opera House Tunbridge Wells - 2006

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This page last updated 24th November 2006.