UK’s oldest working cinema to reopen after pandemic forced its closure

The Electric in Birmingham, which started screenings in late 1909, will again be welcoming filmgoers.

UK’s oldest working cinema to reopen after pandemic forced its closure

The UK’s oldest working cinema is reopening under new ownership nearly two years after the pandemic forced its closure.

The  112-year-old Electric Cinema in Birmingham is preparing to open doors to its two screens once again, after it closed in March 2020.

Its new owner, Kevin Markwick, said: “It’s a lovely place to sit and watch a film.

Historic Electric Cinema reopens in Birmingham
The cinema’s owner, Kevin Markwick, in the projector room (Jacob King/PA)

“But it’s here and it’s survived – and that’s extraordinary and it plugs into the whole history of cinema.

“There’s as much Chaplin here as there is Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Mr Markwick, whose family have been running an independent cinema in East Sussex since the 1960s, was approached to buy the freehold by the previous owner, Tom Lawes, and “thought it was something I could do and do very well”.

He added: “A building is not happy to be shut for a year and a half, so it’s been cleaning, bringing the boiler back to life.

He added: “It was doing well before the pandemic – we’re just bringing it back to life.”

Mr Markwick said the pandemic had been tough on the cinema industry.

“The studios went charging off to streaming services, with what a lot of us thought was rather indecent haste.

Historic Electric Cinema reopens in Birmingham
The manager, Katie Markwick, fixes seat numbers to the chairs in Screen 1 (Jacob King/PA)

“People want to come back.

“Rather like the famous quote, reports of our demise were rather premature.

“But it has been difficult and we’ve had help.

“We had help from the (Government) cultural recovery fund and we had local help as well.

“Are we insane? I don’t know. Possibly.”

He added: “The opening weekend, we’ve got a few sold-out shows – we sold a lot of memberships.  It’s been tremendous.

“I was a little surprised actually – where we are in Sussex, it’s quite a smallish town, and we reach about 100,000 people.

“So coming into a city of 1.2 million people, it’s been a bit like ‘oh, hello, there’s lots of people out there that are interested in what we’re doing’.

“The welcome has been brilliant.”

The building itself has plenty of nods to films – there’s a cocktail menu featuring such tipples as Last of The Mojitos.

The lobby is decorated in £600-a-roll wallpaper from New Zealand featuring the Art Deco print pattern from 2013’s The Great Gatsby.

Historic Electric Cinema reopens in Birmingham
Last-minute preparations are under way ready for the reopening (Jacob King/PA)

The 59-year-old credits the family’s purchase with his leaving school having “managed to avoid getting any qualifications, simply because it was far more interesting to be at the cinema”.

“I have literally grown up  in it,” he said.

“It’s a really privileged position actually because you’ve got this long line all the way through silent movies of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck.

“It’s this long unbroken line that we’re all part of and it’s a wonderful thing.

“Seeing audiences react to film is always a joy.”

As an independent cinema, he said “we know who the audience are, we can respond to what they want or don’t want”.

Asked about the long-term future of cinema, he said: “We have a lovely theatre (The Birmingham Rep) two doors up from here – cinema was going to kill theatre off, wasn’t it – and that survives.

“It sounds like a hackneyed old thing but it’s absolutely true that people want to sit and enjoy stories collectively.

Historic Electric Cinema reopens in Birmingham
People have given news of the reopening a ‘tremendous’ welcome (Jacob King/PA)

“I don’t care how big your turbo nutter telly is, you still need to get out of the house occasionally.”

His daughter, Katie Markwick, is the third generation of the family to go into the trade, and will be manager of The Electric, employing 13 people.

The cinema reopens to the general public on Friday, screening Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, starring Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, and also Nightmare Alley, featuring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette.

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