Cinema returned to Folkestone in April 1990, when the abandoned upper levels of Folkestone Town Hall – an original site of Kent’s first film screenings in 1896 – reopened as The Silver Screen Cinema. Read on to learn about Folkestone’s cinematic heritage, and the story of our cinema.
Folkestone’s majestic Town Hall was completed in 1860, replacing the smaller Cistern House building which had been demolished in 1858. Over three levels, it contained offices, a large assembly hall with a public gallery, a magistrates room, and a covered market place at the rear of the building.
For the next four decades, various public performances and events were held in the assembly hall for the town’s entertainment. Then, in 1896, magician David Devant came to the town with a show unlike anything seen before: a “moving picture”.
Cinema came to Folkestone Town Hall on the 13th July 1896, when one of the first film screenings in Kent was held in the building. The films were made by Robert W. Paul and shown to an astounded audience by magician David Devant, using a Theatograph projector. Afterwards, the Folkestone Herald reported that “nothing finer than these have ever been seen in the town.”
While many early films have been lost over the years, ‘Blackfriars Bridge’ – one of the films shown at the Town Hall in 1896 – still exists today in the collection of the British Film Institute. These early silent films were described as “animated photographs” and often showed simple scenes like this one:
In the early 1900s, the Town Hall continued to show films as a ‘Cinema De Lux’. As the popularity of touring film shows continued to increase across the country, the government introduced the Cinematograph Act in 1909, requiring the highly flammable nitrate films and projection equipment to be enclosed in a fire-proof box for public safety. This put an end to the Town Hall screenings, but led to the first dedicated cinemas opening in Folkestone.
The first cinema to open in Folkestone was the Electric Theatre on Grace Hill in 1910. The cinema had over 400 seats in a single screen, and was very popular. After a fire damaged the building in the late 1920s, it was rebuilt and renamed the Savoy Cinema.
Due to the popularity of the Electric Cinema, it was soon followed in 1912 by the Playhouse Cinema on Guildhall Street and the short-lived Queen’s Cinema on Tontine Street, which closed just five years later due to problems with the building and location.
That same year, the Central Picture Theatre also opened on George Lane, off Rendezvous Street. This would eventually become Folkestone’s longest serving cinema.
Later in 1934, the luxury art-deco Astoria Cinema opened on Sandgate Road with over 1,600 seats. In total, Folkestone had five cinemas in the town centre throughout the early 20th Century.
However, while Folkestone’s cinemas were extremely popular during the second world war, cinema audience attendance began to fall throughout the 1950s due to the increasing number of homes with television sets and the post-war opening of other venues, such as bingo halls, cafes, and dance halls. Folkestone’s golden age of cinemas was coming to an end.
As audience sizes continued to shrink, Folkestone’s cinemas struggled to keep their doors open. By 1962, the Queen’s, Electric, and the Playhouse cinemas had all closed. The Astoria (renamed the Odeon) followed in 1974, leaving only the Central Picture Theatre, later renamed as the Cannon Cinema. The Queens, Playhouse, and Astoria buildings were all eventually demolished, while the Electric building would be converted into a bingo hall, nightclub, and later, flats.
Around this time, Folkestone Town Hall had also been closed and was sold off as retail space in the 1980s, seemingly putting an end to the venue that had been one of the first to screen films in the town.
Finally, the great storm of 1987 caused damage to the Cannon building, and repairs were considered unjustifiably expensive. It was closed in late 1987 and subsequently demolished in 1988.
With Folkestone left without a cinema for the first time since 1910, a local entrepreneur began looking for a way to bring film back to the town.
Alexander ‘Sandy’ Wallace had been involved with cinemas throughout his life, and by 1988 was operating the Flicks Cinema on Queen Street in Deal. With nowhere left for local people to see the latest movies, he saw an opportunity to bring film back to Folkestone by setting up a new cinema with his wife Mary. While searching the town for the ideal location, he discovered that the upper floors of the Town Hall were still vacant and unused.
The empty rooms were leased to Sandy Wallace in 1989, who recalls that he found the rooms “filthy and full of pigeons”. With the location secured, work could commence on Folkestone’s new Silver Screen Cinema.
The original town assembly hall was converted into the main screen, with a suspended ceiling added to improve acoustics and insulation. The front of the room with its arched windows dated from 1860, while the balcony and wooden panelling at the rear was a later addition in 1905. The original public gallery built in 1860 was sectioned off and repurposed as a projection box. Near the front, a side doorway led to an original 1860 “green room” and this was converted into a small kiosk for selling ice-creams during film intermissions.
In the old magistrate’s room and council chamber, a frame was installed above the stage to create the much smaller second auditorium in 1989. The wooden panelling around the walls – dating from 1905 and painted with the names of Folkestone past mayors and dignitaries – was preserved as a feature of the auditorium. The chamber’s balcony was sectioned off to create a tiny projection box.
Upstairs, the cinema’s 35mm projection equipment was installed in the old public gallery. The reliable Philips FP20 projector, dating from the 1960s, went on to show hundreds of films at the cinema over the next 25 years. Meanwhile, a box office and kiosk were constructed downstairs in the foyer, ready to greet people at the top of the entrance stairwell.
After more than two years of planning and hard work, the cinema was nearly ready to open.
The new cinema’s logo was black and white, showing a spotlight containing the silhouette of a 1920s cameraman, surrounded by stars, with the cinema’s name in a classic motion picture font underneath.
The logo was painted above the doors at the cinema’s entrance, which was recessed inside an arched alcove at the front of the building. The archway originally led to a passage running from Guildhall Street to the Market Square at the rear of the building, but this had been blocked off by a new staircase leading to the upper floors, constructed after the building was sold in the 1980s.
The doors were painted gloss black and white, with the cinema’s name in silver lettering on the glass. Two poster frames to the left of the doors announced the current films, and information boards inside the entrance displayed programme information and ticket prices.
The cinema hosted a preview night for invited guests at 7.30pm on Saturday 21st April 1990. Manager Ian Luck and assistant manager Nick Prince were in charge. Ian Luck remembers last-minute building works were overrunning on the day: “They were still screwing the door handles on just before we let everyone in!”
The Silver Screen Cinema opened to the public at 1.45pm on Sunday the 22nd April 1990. To celebrate the opening, the first adult to purchase a ticket was given a bottle of wine, and the first five children in the queue were each given a box of sweets. The first films to show were the cold war thriller The Hunt for Red October and the family sci-fi adventure Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
These photos show the cinema as it was when it opened in 1990. In the foyer, Sandy Wallace can be seen waiting to welcome customers at the box office.
The cinema seated 537 when it opened; the antique seating in the main auditorium dated from 1925 and originally came from the Drury Lane Theatre in London.
The smaller auditorium originally seated 106, and was unraked with the screen mounted high on the wall. The layout and seating would change several times over the years to improve sight-lines and comfort.
From 1990 to 2014, Folkestone’s friendly independent cinema was run by manager Ian Luck and his team, overseen by Sandy and Mary Wallace.
Ian Luck had previously worked as a senior projectionist with Granada Cinemas throughout the 1970s before becoming a publican in the 1980s. Wanting to return to the world of film, he was delighted to see an advertisement for a projectionist at the proposed Silver Screen Cinema. To his surprise, after meeting with Sandy Wallace, he was offered the position of manager instead.
In its early years, the Silver Screen Cinema saw several notable events, including the Folkestone International Film Festival which hosted filmmakers and celebrities such as Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Derek Jarman, and Bob Geldof.
Director Franco Zeffirelli also used the cinema to privately view footage from his adaptation of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson, which was filming on location at Dover Castle.
Various changes were made to improve the cinema for its audience over the years. Screen 2 was altered in 1994, installing a raked floor to improve the audience’s view and enlarging the screen. The sound systems in both auditoriums were also upgraded to Dolby Stereo, and later, Dolby Surround.
In 1999, plans were drawn up to refurbish the cinema entrance for the cinema’s 10th anniversary. This would have involved installing doors in the outer archway, adding an illuminated cinema sign in the arch above the doors, and mounting poster frames on either side.
Unfortunately, these plans proved to be unfeasible due to the building’s historic nature and listed status. Instead, the entrance was left in its original position and a plastic sign was later mounted in the open archway, where it remained until 2016.
To celebrate the cinema’s 12th anniversary, the foyer was redecorated and re-carpeted, changing the original orange and brown colour scheme to pastel green, yellow and cream. The entrance was also repainted silver and grey.
Heavy boxes were delivered to the cinema entrance each week. Each box contained a feature film made up of several film reels inside separate cans. The projectionists had to carry these up six flights of stairs to the very top of the building, before spending hours joining each numbered reel up on to the spools using a splicer.
In the projection boxes, the cinema’s projectionists ran the 35mm films through mechanical projectors. The film was fed to the projector from large spools mounted on towers, which could be rotated to swap between the spools. Long films would require an intermission, with the first half of the film on one side of the tower, and the second half on the other. Around 40 miles of film ran through the projectors every week, a total of over 50,000 miles of film from 1990 to 2014.
This video from 2013 gives a look at the cinema’s FP20 35mm projector in the main projection box when it was still in regular use.
Unfortunately, the era of 35mm film projection was coming to an end; times had changed and technology had moved on. Trouble was looming on the horizon.
By 2014, the Silver Screen Cinema was at risk. Most cinemas around the world had converted to digital projection and no longer used 35mm film prints, which were expensive to make. One by one, film companies ceased supplying their films on 35mm, and cinemas which could not afford to upgrade their projection equipment were threatened with closure. Eventually, the Silver Screen Cinema was one of the last four cinemas in the UK showing new releases on 35mm.
To complicate matters, the cinema’s original 25-year lease had expired, and the Town Hall building had recently been re-purchased by Folkestone Town Council who had plans to develop it into offices, a museum, and a visitor information centre.
Original manager Ian Luck had also taken a step back at the end of 2013. Chris Lightwing, who had previously worked for Associated British Cinemas and ODEON Cinemas, became the new manager and co-owner of the Silver Screen Cinema in partnership with Sandy Wallace. He recalls: “I stepped in because I loved the place and didn’t want to see it close. I was convinced we could find a way to make it work.”
Once word of the cinema’s difficulties got out, the local community came together in a campaign to save it. Two separate petitions, one organised by community fundraiser Tom Langlands and the other organised by the Folkestone Classic Film Club, gathered over 4,000 total signatures requesting support for the cinema.
To help raise funds for the projection equipment, a series of special screenings were held, including The Artist, chosen to mark the end of 35mm film exhibition. The event was well attended; the queue stretched from the box office, out the entrance, and a considerable distance up Sandgate Road. Sandy Wallace greeted people at the box office, giving them each an envelope containing a strip of 35mm film, and directing them through the busy foyer to the auditorium.
Thanks to these fundraising events, the publicity, and public support, the cinema was able to secure digital projection equipment in mid-2014, saving it from closure. An application was made to renew the lease with Folkestone Town Council, and a date was set to install the new equipment.
In June 2014, works were carried out in the main projection box to clear space and install a porthole for the new digital projector.
The equipment arrived soon afterwards and was installed alongside the original 35mm projector by specialist engineers, overseen by owners Sandy Wallace and Chris Lightwing.
In both auditoriums, the new projectors were calibrated by the engineers to ensure the picture quality was perfect. Additional speakers were installed to upgrade the sound systems to Dolby Digital 5.1.
The first film to play on the new digital equipment was X-Men: Days of Future Past, which had already been showing that week on 35mm.
As the cinema was undergoing major changes, it was decided to update the logo for the cinema’s 25th anniversary as well. The silhouette was simplified, and the font was revised to be clearer and easier to read.
On the 7th April 2015 – just two weeks before the cinema’s 25th anniversary – a new lease was finalised with Folkestone Town Council, securing the cinema’s future at the Town Hall. It was agreed that screen 2, the foyer, and entrance would be refurbished. These works were part of a larger project to develop the building for the town, including the construction of Folkestone Museum, exhibition and education spaces, and a visitor information centre in the Town Hall.
In 2016, the main entrance was refurbished in partnership with Folkestone Town Council. Scaffolding was erected outside the building and the plastic Silver Screen Cinema sign was removed from the arch. Automatic doors were installed inside the arch, finally fulfilling plans made 16 years previously, and the building levels were connected together again for the first time since the 1980s. The glass in the original cinema doors had been vandalised several years before, so this was replaced, and the silver lettering was sadly lost.
Overseen by Sandy Wallace and Chris Lightwing, the box office and kiosk were relocated and rebuilt, making space for a new lift. The box office was rotated 45 degrees to face the stairs and lift entrance, making it more visible to customers.
The new lift was installed by Folkestone Town Council, linking the cinema with the ground floor and lower levels of the building, making it accessible for people unable to use stairs.
In screen 2, the curtains were stripped away, and the screen was removed. The wooden boards were removed from the windows, letting sunlight into the room for the first time in 26 years. The seating was dismantled and stacked up in screen 2, ready for disposal. The screen frame was removed, leaving the room bare and ready for refurbishment.
The room was completely refurbished and redecorated, including the three large sash windows at the front of the building. The central section of wooden panelling dating from 1905 had been removed to make space when the screen was enlarged in 1994. This was located and reinstated.
A new roll-down screen and speakers were installed in screen 2. Roller blinds and curtains were also added to the windows to block out the sunlight. The historic dais at the front of the room was put back into use, and new seating was installed including desks at the front to be used for Town Council meetings and events.
The Silver Screen Cinema continues to operate in Folkestone Town Hall today, alongside Folkestone Museum, the Visitor Information centre, and Folkestone Town Council.
Original founders Sandy & Mary Wallace are still involved in the cinema’s running, ensuring that it continues to provide a traditional cinema experience for local people.
Despite becoming semi-retired several years ago, original manager Ian Luck still helps with the running and management of the Silver Screen Cinema.