A-Z of Belfast Cinemas
Film aficionado Brian Henry Martin on an alphabetical odyssey to celebrate the picture palaces of Belfast
‘I suppose my motivation in all this, really, is what we forgot to remember’. Local filmmaker, critic and lifelong cinephile Brian Henry Martin is almost in oratory mode, as he begins to talk me through A-Z of Belfast Cinemas, looking ahead to this coming Monday (August 29).
His talk – which is part social history, part enthusiast passion project - will feature as one of many film-related events for the inaugural Cinema Day, an initiative set up by Film Hub NI to celebrate and look back on 120 years of film exhibition in Northern Ireland.
Why 120 years? An 1896 screening at The Alhambra, North Street, stands as the first recorded cinema screening in the country, and this part of the Cinema Day programme aims to direct an eye towards a colourful, decorated and largely erased cultural heritage through Northern Irish film, in part to inspire current and future generations on to increased engagement with the medium and perhaps even silver screen greatness.
‘You could look [back] on the past and say the past is the Golden Age. But I tend to look at it and think, “We’re living in the Golden Age now. This is the Golden Age. The opportunity is now”’ Martin states at an early point in the interview. He’s right to be optimistic about the current landscape for film in Northern Ireland: he points out that there are more than fifty cinema screens in Belfast currently, creating a relatively high screens-per-head ratio for the city, compared with others in the UK and Ireland; the marked increase in film recording carried out here now is also cited – largely, Martin feels, because of the Titanic Studios - where before many films set in Northern Ireland would typically have been filmed in other parts of the UK; and something else that could be added are the significant funding opportunities available for filmmakers here at present (see: Northern Ireland Screen and BBC NI for more on this).
Looking at some of the past cinema houses Martin traces, like The Ritz and the Alhambra, it’s clear to see how the names of these theatres - then also referred to as ‘picture palaces’ - would have evoked the luxurious, exoticised space for the imagination that the Golden Age period represented for filmgoers. It could be a complete coincidence that Martin’s talk is happening this year, and that it looks to reconnect with the thriving film culture of a lost world (an aspect of the city which can often appear forgotten when contrasted with, say, Belfast’s political or industrial heritage) that has been captured and re-imagined this year by titles like the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! at the box office (although, their take on the Golden Age is obviously centred in and around Hollywood, USA).
A bit like the QFT (which began as a lecture theatre), the Alhambra wasn’t a purpose-built cinema – it was a theatre that at one point began screening movies, and then grew into something else entirely. In this sense, The Alhambra could be viewed as a past indicator of what is possible for cinema in Northern Ireland. It, accordingly, pushes our conversation towards the scope for current film opportunities in the country. I ask him whether he thinks a new art house cinema venture could take place in Belfast, given all that’s been happening in film and TV here, along with the investment and added infrastructure productions like Game of Thrones have brought in. With a nod to vital film hubs in similar cities like the Tyneside cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Glasgow Film Theatre, or the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, Martin is optimistic that something similar could be built and set up here in the near future.
Martin inevitably brings a number of his own tastes and interests to bear on his history of Belfast’s cinema theatres, highlighting a Charlie Chaplin performance at The Alhambra, as well as a famous Beatles gig that was staged at the Ritz cinema in 1963. ‘It was pandemonium’, he says, visibly beaming, as I’m prompted to think of Martin’s 2007 Making the Monkees documentary, as well as The Man Who Shot the Great War, The Lost City of Craigavon and a number of other titles he’s been involved in which are based around reclaiming social history and cultural heritage or memory, usually through a narrative or anecdotal approach.
At another point he shows me an old programme for what used to be the Classic Cinema, with an ominous September 1939 date sitting in the bottom left-hand corner, which ties in almost uncannily with something that struck me when I was doing the preliminary research for this interview. It’s both interesting and slightly stark to note how many of the now-erased cinema theatres map out a century of eradication, regeneration and its social impact on Belfast as a city.
Though, oddly enough, the history of conflict in the city to which the cinema theatres bear witness hasn’t always borne negative results. Martin reveals at one point that Ulster cinemas were customarily closed on Sundays, in accordance with moral-religious social code and regulation on the industry, and that this changed once US soldiers began to be based in the province and started to demand cinema fare on Sundays as a form of popular entertainment. So, being able to go to the cinema week-round here was a direct result of American troops in the Second World War being stationed in Northern Ireland.
Going back to present concerns, Martin singles out The Strand (which opened in 1935) as the only remaining art deco movie house in and around Belfast. He links its architecture to the broad sense of optimism associated with the inter-war period and the social function of cinema more generally as a place in which the imagination could escape and run wild.
‘During the darkest of times - the seventies and eighties - it really shone a light from the outside and showed the best of world cinema’, Martin reflects on one of the major roles cinema played in Belfast during the height of The Troubles. For many film fans from later generations, this imaginative sanctuary has largely been found behind the doors of the QFT (which will turn fifty in two years’ time). Martin recounts a little about how the QFT’s club status allowed it to circumvent restrictive council measures to broadcast films that would have been banned otherwise – by various censoring committees, involving the police and Belfast City Council, which were in place right up until the 1980s. Having to enter through the University Square Mews back alley - which is no longer the case, as visitors use the theatre’s front entrance now - gave the cinema that extra sense of secretiveness and escape from a sometimes brutal everyday reality.
Martin’s talk will take place in The Black Box, not primarily a film venue but one which houses a considerable number of screenings in the city (it’s also hosting a George-Orwell-themed double screening as part of Cinema Day). He’s looking for this to be very much an interactive project where the audience can play more than just a passive role in the conversation and add something of their own to the event. This could be in the form of physical mementos relating to any of the cinemas he covers, anecdotal memories and past experiences for the Q & A session, or even just any kind of observation which can be picked up by the social media hashtag for the event and can help facilitate an online discussion.
A-Z of Belfast Cinemas is something Martin hopes will come alive and go beyond the physical talk space, as he looks for people to wander around the city to where these places used to be, and to keep an eye on both preserving the cinema culture many locals still enjoy, as well as looking to build on it in years to come. Tickets can be purchased from the Belfast Film Festival website.