It’s 110 years since Charlie Poole, an entrepreneur seeking cinema locations in the south of England, persuaded the leaseholder of the Riviera Hotel in Teignmouth, Devon, to convert its ballroom into a 350-seat screening room. Mr Poole’s Perfect Pictures opened on Easter Monday 1912 with a programme of short films including Cheated By Fate (“a thrilling story of opium dens”) accompanied by live entertainment (‘refined Scottish comedian’ Hector Gordon), inaugurating a 95-year run that my father, by then retired from the business his father, Bill Prince, acquired in 1924, believed made the Riviera one of the oldest continuously operated, privately owned cinemas in the country.
Before buying the Riviera Hotel (with £2,500 borrowed from a well-off relative), Bill had worked both sides of the exhibitor business, managing a picture house in his hometown of Abercarn, Gwent, as well as working as a distributor across South Wales and the west country. By the early Thirties, the Odeon chain (under Oscar Deutsch) was building luxury cinemas all over the UK. With three cinemas already competing against each other besides the Riviera, Teignmouth boasted the Carlton and the Lyceum—in 1934 Bill took out a whopping £3,000 loan to convert the Riviera Hotel into an acoustically perfect, air-conditioned Super Cinema. A two-tiered 900-seat auditorium on the ground and first floors of the building was created, bolstered by an arcade of small shops around its perimeter (a useful bulwark against future headwinds as it turned out).
By the time my father Peter took control of the business in 1970, the convening power of the ‘Big Screen’ was largely spent. The BBC had begun broadcasting in colour in 1967, hastening the arrival of TV sets into every home, and a tax on cinema attendance—the pernicious Eady Levy against which my father fired increasingly desperate salvoes until its eventual abolition in 1985—was taking a further toll on the Riviera’s revenues. There was also a ‘bar’ that prevented the first-run screening of films showing in the nearby towns of Torquay and Exeter—another bane of my father’s life never fully understood by a local population forced to travel miles to see the latest Bond. To ensure its survival, another revamp of the building was needed. Unravelling Bill’s Thirties upgrades, the balcony of the auditorium was extended, halving its capacity to 450, beneath which, in what had once served as the stalls, an independently operated amusement arcade was installed. At the same time, having appropriated the flat roof created in 1934 to house a panoramic Riviera Café, my father constructed a modish penthouse for his family, thereby ushering in the decade of my life I spent ‘living above the shop’.
My memories of growing up in ‘Cinema Paradiso-style’ are a bundle of charming and sometimes alarming vignettes. I dimly recall the original grand auditorium my grandfather had constructed—although, by then, Nora, an usherette who would loudly intone her enjoyment of each and every movie in a booming west-country burr (“Ooh, look! Lurvers in lurv!”) had long since retired, harried out by increasingly insistent calls for her to “shhhh!” after talkies arrived. At weekends and during school holidays, I spent much of my time assisting Wilf, the projectionist and part-time burger flipper who, between ‘change-overs’, would race down three flights of stairs from the projection box to briefly take up position over a furnace-hot griddle in the Riviera’s Snack Bar, leaving me with sole responsibility for two carbon-lit projectors. Ruth, Wilf’s wife, took charge of the box office, ticket-tearing and, during busy periods (mainly the summer holidays—particularly if it was overcast or, better still, raining), clearing up between performances.
It was at these moments that the Riviera’s ghost might appear—a friendly, if tiresome, spirit according to successive usherettes, few of whom were prepared to work alone after hours. Apparently, no sooner had a pile of discarded Kia-Ora drink containers and Wall’s ice cream tubs been swept to the end of an aisle, then, whilst the cleaner’s back was turned, it would mysteriously scatter once more along the row.
I never felt the mischievous ghost’s presence (thought to be the emanation of a chambermaid at the time of the building’s original conversion from the town’s reading rooms to a hotel in 1908), but ghouls nevertheless abounded—mostly in the series of Hammer Horrors that proved surprisingly popular when screened as Midnight Matinees (particularly with the roustabouts who worked on the fun fair which visited the town each August). I chiefly recall The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and a particularly impressive organ—although I might be mixing this up with a slew of softcore features that similarly served the Riviera’s more permissive patrons well. The first I recall watching (rather than glimpsing) was Goodbye Emmanuelle (1977), a relatively gentle roll into the art of the erotic, even for a 15-year-old, a journey that had begun five years earlier with a revelatory performance by Juliet Mills in Billy Wilder’s late-period rom-com, Avanti! Bellissimo.
A few years later, now working as a journalist, I had reason to reflect on this formative moment when it was revealed that Crispian Mills, the somewhat divisive frontman with Nineties indie-psyche band Kula Shaker, was the actress’s nephew. A small (interior) world, I mused, now that I had regular access to some of the stars I’d first encountered in the sparsely populated gloaming of my cinematic youth.
Fortuitously, these two worlds would collide in London’s Met Bar, watering hole of choice of visiting celebrities throughout its Nineties and Noughties heyday, and the venue for a somewhat strained interaction with the actor Russell Crowe. Rendered almost unrecognisable by his ripped and tanned physique, the soon-to-be sensational Gladiator had recently escaped to the capital whilst production on Ridley Scott’s sand and sandals epic relocated from north Africa to Malta. Wary of being asked to shoot pick-ups during the interregnum, he’d opted to hole-up at the Athenaeum, and was now firmly ensconced in an adjacent seat to mine in a corner of the bar, where we duly embarked on a well lubricated conversation (it was my birthday). At one point, Crowe mentioned he harboured an ambition to run his own regional film festival; I mentioned my family owned—and still operate—a cinema in the southwest of England. Seemingly entranced, he asked whether it was for sale. I, clearly panicking at the proposal, showed possibly a little too much enthusiasm for the idea. Alas, a request to drop details around to the Athenaeum the next day elicited no response.
To this day, I’m not sure if my failure to have read and sufficiently memorised a magazine profile on Crowe that had appeared shortly before our meeting cost me the chance to bring Hollywood to my hometown. Either way, the Riviera’s eventual sale to a local property developer, shortly to go bust in the Great Downturn of 2008/9 (before which my father had leased the auditorium to its final operator, Charles Scott Cinemas), removed any opportunity to redeem myself.
Bill Prince is a journalist, acting Editor-in-Chief of Wallpaper* and previous Features Editor of GQ.