John McBride Neill

Foremost architect of cinema’s golden age in Northern Ireland

John McBride Neill, better known as Jack, was born in Belfast in 1905. Neill was the foremost architect of cinema’s golden age in Northern Ireland. His art deco designs, and sumptuous creations of glamour and comfort, marked a period of prodigious growth in suburban and downtown cinemas.

Educated in RBAI, and articled to the famous architect office of Robert Lynn in Ann Street, Neill began his own practice in 1928. At first, Neill was involved in suburban house building, but after Lynn’s death, he completed Lynn’s ‘picture house’ in Lurgan. This was the beginning of his career as a cinema architect. The Lurgan construction was not a modernist work, but Neill demonstrated his first leanings in this direction when he redesigned the Savoy Hotel in Bangor in 1933.

John McBride Neill’s first cinema in the new art deco style was the Apollo, on the Ormeau Road Belfast, opened in 1933. His next work was the Mountpottinger Picturedrome in East Belfast, another art deco styling, with a remarkable interior. These two cinemas were to herald a prolific period, with Neill designing six cinemas in 1935. These were: the Strand, the Majestic, the Troxy and the Curzon in Belfast, and The Regal in Larne. In this year, Neill also began work on his masterpiece, The Tonic in Bangor.

The Tonic seated 2250, making it the largest cinema in Ulster, and was one of Bangor’s best-loved buildings. The Troxy unfortunately burnt down in 1992, long after the cinema’s hey-day had passed. The cinema also played its part in the artistic history in Northern Ireland, when it was the only venue to host Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris.

Such open mindedness saw the trains from Belfast jam packed with art-lovers from the capital. The Tonic was not just a cinema, but originally housed flats and shops in its structure. The interiors were modern and beautiful, with lighted troughs and ‘futuristic’ metallic paint.

The Curzon and the Troxy were both designed to include exterior features which shone through the gloom of 1930s Belfast. Both featured illuminated glass towers of different colours that called the faithful to the silver screen. Once inside the door, punters experienced opulence and lighting that created an overall experience of luxury and escapism, matched only by the 1930s Hollywood glamour on screen. It was the perfect partnership between the film and the venue.

McBride Neill continued to create these lavish cathedrals of film for the next 30. In the 1950s, his style had evolved into what Paul Larmour calls ‘rather plain in treatment’. He points out, however, that in the post-war climate of austerity, this plainness was to be expected, and not many architects could have retained the energy of Neill’s opening period in that context. Neill’s designs became modernist in the extreme, culminating in his last cinema work, the New Vic, on Great Victoria Street.

This re-cladding of the original Edwardian Hippodrome saw McBride Neill brutally transform the ornate musings of 1907 with a single panelled 1960s classic. Despised by most, the New Vic, or Odeon as it was variously known, was McBride Neill’s swansong. In many ways, he had jettisoned the opulence of his original style on the exterior, but kept it in the interior, as anyone who attended the New Vic in its last years will testify.

By 1960, Neill’s cinemas had spread across the country, even reaching as far as the Ritz in Ballybofay, Co Donegal. Neill retired in 1965, spending time in his house, Ben Edar, on the banks of Belfast Lough. His tragedy was to see the buildings that he had created in his imagination demolished, destroyed or turned into carpet warehouses.

Neill's standing as the foremost cinema architect in Northern Ireland was based on his understanding of the actual process of going to the cinema, and realisation of how important cinema was in the depression ravaged 30s, and war torn 40s. To walk from your crumbling, damp, terraced house, down the street to the palatial Tonic or Troxy, was a pleasure that most could afford, and many thousands of people indulged in.

Whilst the last thirty years have seen Neill’s work mostly dismantled, one can still travel to the Hollywood Road and sit in the Strand, the only Neill building that is still a working cinema. His legacy also continues in his nephew, John T. Davis. Davis is Northern Ireland’s most accomplished cinema director who, in 1997, released the film, The Uncle Jack, chronicling Neill’s work, and their relationship.

Further Reading

'The Big Feature' in Perspective Vol 5.4, by Paul Larmour.