In the 1930s, when Tooting was mostly farms, a grand cinema was built, and it’s still there today, and still open to the public.
This the Granda Tooting, the only Grade I listed cinema from the 1930s in the UK, thanks in no small part to the grand exterior, but mainly the eye wateringly astonishing interior.
Its origins lay in the London based businessman, Sidney Bernstein who inherited land from his father and started to develop the newly emerging cinemas. This was at a time when few owned radios, and no one owned televisions, so entertainment was mainly the theatre or music hall.
As cinema arrived, often the venues were modest in size, but Bernstein’s Granada company went big, really really big. It’s said that the Tooting cinema was larger than all the locals combined.
Putting such a massive building in Tooting might seem a bit odd today, but the location was ideal. Just to the north of Surrey to avoid their trading restrictions, but close enough to the West End by the newly opened London Underground that it could trade on Sundays when the West End was closed. This was still the era when the tube promoted late night “theatre trains” to carry the middle classes home after a play.
Being on the Northern line let the Granada Tooting tap into that market on the Sunday.
The location is also a curiosity as the land was known as the Village of Salvador, a home to a community of Sephardic Jews who tended to keep themselves to themselves, and it took Sidney Bernstein, also Jewish more than a year to buy up the land from its owners.
It took just a year though to build the cinema, which opened in September 1931.
The thinking was that films were fantasy, and the cinema needed to be at least their equal. People were here for a night out, an escape from the daily toil, and what better than a fantasy of a building.
The interior was designed by the Russian theatre director and designer, Theodore Komisarjevsky, who was given to grand designs, although being a theatre set designer, some of the painted decoration was clearly not designed to be seen up close, but from off the “stage”.
The rest is quite stunning though.
A grand foyer with two staircases, and above the entrance a cafe. Today the space is filled by the company that owns the building, Gala Bingo, offering a fantasy of riches as diverting as the black and white movies of old.
When the cinema opened in 1931 it was a huge success, and apart from showing the latest films, was also a venue for live acts.
This was to be its call to fame in the 1960s when some top international stars would play here. The Beetles played here, at the time being booked as a small supporting act, who the week before their show had hit the big time, causing a problem with the star they were supposed to be supporting.
However, the television was already sucking away customers, and by 1970, barely a thousand people per week were coming through the turnstiles. Threatened with demolition by its owner, who despite supporting the expenditure on a grand building only saw that as a way of pulling in visitors. He wasn’t really into the art aspect, and saw now just a cost on his accounts and thought an office block would be more lucrative. Fortunately for us, the building was listed in 1972.
It was due to close at the end of 1973, but when Sidney Bernstein visited on 10th November, it’s said that the cinema was so empty that he ordered it to be closed that very night. Putting up a sign outside blaming the lack of support from the local community, who had only a few years earlier been so determined to keep the building safe from demolition.
It was reopened though, in October 1976 as Granada Bingo Club, and two fat ladies have been calling the numbers ever since. Today it’s owned by Gala Bingo, who keep the building alive, and sort of look after the heritage.
The upper seating is still in its cinema layout, and showing off the decorated ceiling, but down below where there was once rows of cinema seats are now a very different set of seats and tables, for the bingo customers.
During bingo days, huge floodlights illuminate the space, but on tours, they leave the place much more atmospherically illuminated, which is a pure delight to see.
The result though is a very odd mix of gothic, art deco, and 1980s motorway service station, which seems oddly appropriate in a space that was already so eclectic.
The current owners are primarily interested in using the building for bingo, so it decays suddenly once you get away from the legs eleven, but in a curious way that’s part of the delight of the building.
Too polished and too restored and it would look amazing, but lose its decaying Miss Havisham-esque appeal.
Purists might decry the bingo inserts and cry for restoration, but I suspect that the more commercially minded Sidney Bernstein would have been quite pleased to see the building filled with paying customers once more.
Tours are held a couple of times a year – usually during Wandsworth Heritage Festival and Open House Weekend.
The architectural critic Ian Nairn said of it in 1966, “miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this.”
He wasn’t wrong.