Cinema architecture fan and photographer Ian Grundy turns his attention to the Gala Bingo in Shrewsbury, to give us an in depth look at its changes in use and special features.
Author: Ian Grundy
Lavish Decoration And Design
In Shrewsbury town centre, there is a magnificent grade II listed building, now known as the Gala Bingo Club, but which opened in 1934 as the Granada Cinema. The Granada circuit was famous for its lavishly decorated interiors created by a Russian émigré called Theodore Komisarjevsky, the most famous examples of which are at Woolwich and Tooting (both now operate as bingo halls). The Shrewsbury Granada was by far the best cinema in the area, and in addition to Komisjarevsky, the scheme was designed by Cecil Massey, with some work being carried out by a local architect called Arthur Williams. The architecture of the Shrewsbury hall is often referred to as being a “standard” Granada, and the interior was very similar to the Granadas at Bedford (demolished) and Maidstone (destroyed by sub-division). There were less than 20 theatres built for the circuit, of which Shrewsbury was number five, although many existing cinemas were taken over and renamed, making the Granada Theatres an important group, although in numbers they were far behind Odeon and ABC.
The theatre at Shrewsbury is entered through a small lobby area leading directly to a double height baronial entrance hall from which, due to the hillside on which the theatre was built, there are only a few steps to access the circle and two sets of stairs which descend to the stalls. To the right was a spacious and elegant café, on the first floor above a row of shops, sadly, this part of the building is no longer in use.
The 593 seat circle has seen very little alteration with the gently undulating rows of cinema seats retained. The rear part of the circle has been taken out of use because of fire regulations, but remains intact – the barrier only being about six feet high.
A view of the circle in the Granada
All of the former seating in the stalls (which originally accommodated 932 patrons) has been replaced with tables and chairs, but again the architecture has seen little alteration, the decorative grills in the three arches in the walls next to the stage, the circular design in the ceiling above the front stalls and the proscenium arch itself, with the delightful frieze of figures in the centre, all remain intact. For reasons unknown, the Shrewsbury Granada was the only one of the circuit built by Granada to have lacked an organ.
Lighting levels have been increased, which unfortunately resulted in the loss of the original fittings, and the colour scheme is brighter than the original would have been, but otherwise Komisarjevsky would recognise his design, and no doubt be proud that it has been so well maintained for 75 years!
From Theatre And Cinema To Bingo
The former stage was often used for live shows, more so than at most cinemas, with a mix of professional tours, pantomime and also musicals from the local Shrewsbury Amateur Operatic Society, who would regularly fill the theatre. The Shrewsbury Granada was particularly successful within the circuit for pantomimes. From the end of the Second World War, lavish productions would feature some of the biggest stars of the day – Rosemary Squires and Eddie Calvert in “Mother Goose” (1960), Joe Brown and the Bruvvers in “Aladdin” (1963). Some of the pantomimes were presented on ice, with the stage converted to a huge ice rink, Sleeping Beauty on Ice (1955) and “Cinderella on Ice” (1956/7) being two examples. The last panto at Shrewsbury starred Dick Emery and Sid James in “Babes in the Wood” in 1964. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company visited for the week commencing 21 September 1959. Some of the major pop bands also took to the stage at the Granada, including The Beatles in February 1963, and The Rolling Stones in January the following year. The stage measured 72 feet wide behind the proscenium arch which is 41 feet in width, the depth of the stage was 30 feet at the greatest point, and there was a orchestra pit in front, and slightly under the stage. It now has, like many former theatres turned bingo halls, accommodation for players in the form of tables and chairs, who are close to but behind the caller.
The closure of the cinema in 1973, in favour of bingo, was fiercely contested as the Shrewsbury Granada was still a profitable cinema. At this point in time there were still more film admissions to the Granada (198,853), than bingo admissions at the Granada owned Century Bingo Club (180,279), however the profits of the two buildings were reversed with bingo comfortably outclassing the cinema operation. Planning went against Granada at first, but on appeal the Granada was granted a bingo licence, following a petition from the Century Bingo Club (who would be moved to the Granada). Accordingly at the end of March 1973 the last film (“The Valachi Papers”) was screened.
To appease cinema-goers it was proposed that the roles of the Granada and Century would be switched and that the Century would be converted to a two screen luxury cinema to join the town’s Empire (also owned by Granada) giving a greater choice of films. However it was then reported that structural faults existed in the Century and the plan was dropped.
A view from the balcony of The Grenada
Scheduled shows by the Operatic Society to celebrate their Golden Jubilee had to be either scaled down or cancelled when Granada stopped live shows at the theatre in preparation for bingo usage, which caused some ill will at the time. “The Gondoliers” was presented at the 500 seat Music Hall Theatre whilst “Kismet” was considered to be too large a show for the smaller venue and was scrapped.
Stage and television comic Dick Emery returned to Shrewsbury to open the Granada Bingo and Social Club on 17th April 1973 and the game has continued ever since, although the name was changed to Gala in 1991. The building is much loved by staff and players, offering a taste of grandeur in which to enjoy the game. It was listed as building of historic interest in November 1995.
Gala Bingo Club,
Tel: 01743 351252