Branagh and Cox Lead Farewell to the Smallest Cinema in Britain

The Independent, 19 February 2008
By Ciar Byrne

Kenneth Branagh does not usually attend film premieres in back gardens, but this Saturday he will make an exception.

Branagh will make an artistic pilgrimage to Gorseinon, near Swansea, to mark the end of an era for La Charrette, Britain's smallest cinema.

The tiny venue, a 23-seat room with flock wallpaper and hand-operated curtains built in a disused railway carriage, has been showing films since 1953 but, with age, has gradually fallen into disrepair. It was to have made its swansong in October last year with a screening of "Oceans 13".

That was until Mark Kermode stepped in. When the film critic visited La Charrette for BBC2's 'The Culture Show', he fell in love and decided to give it a special send-off. After ringing round his contacts, he came up with a unique way to bid farewell to the historic picture house, before it was dismantled and moved to a heritage park in the Gower.

Mr Kermode said: "Our idea was to send it off in fine style; to give it a really good last hurrah."

On Saturday, Branagh is to attend the black tie premiere of "Alien Love Triangle", a "lost" film by Danny Boyle, in which Branagh co-stars with the Hollywood actresses Courteney Cox and Heather Graham. It is believed that Cox has also screened a special message for La Charrette.

The 30-minute film, about a scientist who discovers his wife is a male alien, was made by the team behind "Trainspotting", including director Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald.

It was originally intended to be released as one of a trilogy of short films, but the other two "Mimic" and "Imposter" were turned into full-length feature films and "Alien Love Triangle" has languished unseen.

It will be a far cry from the red carpet in Leicester Square. Instead, La Charrette is approached through a wrought-iron gate, along a residential drive. The cinema was built in 1953 by Gwyn Phillips, an electrician who fell in love with the movies while working as a projectionist in his youth.

In a black and white film interview, Mr Phillips explained the advantages that his cinema had over bigger venues. "I think it's the atmosphere of it all," he said.

Mr Phillips died in 1996, but his widow, Rita, kept his dream alive, much to the delight of regulars, some of whom attended the cinema for more than 50 years.

The films shown at La Charrette were just as mainstream as those at bigger venues. According to a meticulously kept, hand-written record of every film shown at the cinema, the first to be screened there in 1953 was "Reluctant Heroes", followed in the same year by "Oliver Twist", "King Kong" and "Winchester '73".

In the mid-seventies, the cinema showed the James Bond movie "Live and Let Die", "The French Connection" and the controversial "Straw Dogs". More recently, "Saving Private Ryan", "Elizabeth" and "The Queen" have been shown.

A regular, Barbara Rees, remembered "courting" at La Charrette in its early days. "When I started courting it was going to see Gwyn's films," she told 'The Culture Show'. "If the picture got a bit boring, I'd concentrate on the boyfriend, if the picture was interesting I'd concentrate on the picture."

Donald and Margo Lewis recalled: "In 30 years I don't think we ever went to another cinema in this country. We've seen all we wanted to see here."

Sadly, the decaying structure of the old railway carriage La Charrette is French for carriage means the cinema must now close.

Ron Williams, the chair of La Charrette, said: "The structure of the building is rotting away the timber is rotting, the steel is rotting and the roof is leaking so we thought it had better close before it collapsed around us."

But not before Branagh has seen it out in style, at a ceremony that will be recorded for posterity and screened on 'The Culture Show' on 1 March.

Britain's small screens:

The Old Market Hall, Shrewsbury
This building has served as an auction room, an air-raid shelter and a courthouse since 1596, and is now a (very) small cinema.

The Ritz, Belper, Derbyshire
Holding only 99 seats, it has served as a picture house since the 1930s.

The Electric Palace, Hastings, East Sussex
Has 52 seats and shows classics and foreign cinema.

The Palace Cinema, Broadstairs, Kent
This is often wrongly believed to be Britain's smallest cinema because of a very small exterior but it has seating underground for 111.

The Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford
Another well-loved and cosy place showing cult films and classics. It seats 80 people.

The Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre, Dumfries, Scotland
Has 69 places and is well-loved by its local community.

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