In the 112 years since it began, the Electric cinema in Birmingham has lived through the history of film-making. When it first opened its doors in 1909 it showed silent movies with a piano backing, rolling newsreels and cartoons in the 30s, adult films in the 60s, and blockbusters in the 80s.
But the Covid pandemic nearly marked the end of what is believed to be the UK’s oldest working cinema when its owners decided to sell up after more than a year of continuous closure.
“It was the biggest existential crisis the industry has faced ever. The only time cinemas were forced by law to close was the first two weeks of world war two. So to be closed for 10 months was horrific,” said Kevin Markwick, the cinema’s new owner, who has brought the venue back to life, opening its doors on Friday for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Markwick, who also owns an independent cinema in East Sussex, was approached last year by the previous owners to see if he would consider saving the venue. It was the first time he had visited Birmingham, but he took one look at the traditional movie theatre with its art deco frontage and decided to buy it. “There is so much potential here. We can build something really special,” he said.
When he announced the news on social media, he was overwhelmed by the response from people who feared the cinema had disappeared for ever, and the first screenings on Friday quickly sold out.
A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to get the cinema back in working order, including replacing all the digital cinema equipment – “It does not like being turned off,” Markwick said – and bringing the vintage 35mm projector back to life.
He has plans to improve the venue further and enhance its classic aesthetic, including installing curtains in front of the screen.
“I want it to be an old-school cinema experience,” he said. “It’s important to maintain that heritage, that through-line all the way from Charlie Chaplin through Errol Flynn to Marilyn Monroe, to Rex Harrison, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, to now.”
The first film on the schedule is Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, followed by an eclectic lineup including Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story and one of Markwick’s personal favourites, Billy Wilder’s 1960 romantic comedy The Apartment.
“I want to programme it with a mixture of mainstream, art house, old films. Basically, I want to make it a go-to place for film lovers in Birmingham,” he said.
When the Electric first opened on 27 December 1909, it was Birmingham’s first cinema and showed mostly American silent movies before adding sound in 1930. Much of the original building was rebuilt in 1937, and it reopened as a rolling news theatre, the Tatler.
The cinema was rebranded again in the 1960s as the Jacey, mostly showing cartoons, and began showing adult films at the end of the decade to combat declining audiences. It went through various owners throughout the 1980s, before reverting to the Electric in 1993.
While the pandemic has been tough for the cinema industry, Markwick is confident the success of blockbusters such as No Time to Die and the latest Spider-Man offering shows the appetite for cinema is as strong as ever.
“We were hit hard during the pandemic by being forced to close and the studios going off with indecent haste to streaming, leaving us feeling like jilted lovers,” he said. “There was always this slight worry that we’d been abandoned by the film distributors, but obviously they’ve realised what side their bread is buttered on.”
After a hectic few months preparing the cinema for the return of audiences, Markwick said he can’t wait to see a packed house for the first showing.
“I’m as comfortable in a cinema as I am in my own front room. I’ve grown up around cinema and so have my children,” said Markwick, whose daughter Katie will be running the venue full-time. “Like me, she started working as an usher from about 16 years old. We love cinema and know all about it and, hopefully, we know what we’re doing.”