“For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.” - Alfred Hitchcock

This year has shown us just how important the creative industries are. Art, music, theatre, and film all have the power to heal, entertain, and above all, make us feel good. Following the exciting news that Woking’s brand-new Nova Cinema opened its doors on 15 October, our wonderful heritage volunteers, Rosemary and Richard, have looked back at the chequered history of cinemas in Woking.

The Public Hall, which opened in Commercial Road in 1896, showed films occasionally from 1909. On 18 March 1909, the first animated pictures were shown there, and various cinema companies showed films over the next year or two, admission prices being 1s 6d, 1s or 6d (7½p, 5p or 2½p). In 1910 the hall was briefly named Picture and Variety Palace and as Public Hall, The Woking Hippodrome.

In 1911 Councillor Henry Quartermaine, a plumber and garage owner of Chobham Road purchased the old Liberal Club in Chertsey Road and rebuilt it to convert it into Woking’s first purpose-built cinema, the Central Halls. It was opened in March 1912.  It advertised sloping floors, tip-up seats and good ventilation. Smoking was allowed and cycles were stored free of charge.

In 1919 it was taken over by Frederick Charles Iverson - a popular figure, tall and well-built, distinguished by a bowler hat at a rakish angle and a cigar. In 1919, as we shall see, he had two rivals in the Palace and the Grand Theatre, but by hard work and improving the quality of the films he pulled things round to his favour and it proved necessary to rebuild the old cinema, in 1927, now to be called the Plaza. In the Woking Review of September 1946, William Taplin recalled a cow getting into the balcony, having not been enclosed in a yard next door. Around about 1950, the Plaza, by this time known to locals as the “flea pit”, changed its name to Gaumont and in late 1959 the cinema closed, with rioting by teddy boys, and was demolished soon after.

Plaza Cinema, 1927

The cinema at the Public Hall had lapsed in 1918 to be renewed in 1920 by Frank Smalley’s Cinema Combine Ltd as the Grand Theatre.  After his bankruptcy in 1927, there were plans in 1929 to rebuild the complex as a “super variety and cinema theatre”, but while other cinemas in the town developed, the Grand Theatre languished and by March 1937, The Woking Review described it as “dilapidated, with cobwebs, dust, a useless hulk”. The halls became offices and were demolished in the late 1950s.

The Palace Cinema on the corner of Duke Street and The Broadway was opened in November 1913. It was built for London and Southern Super Cinemas Ltd. and was regarded as the ultimate in cinema luxury. The cinema had the largest hall in Woking, seating 1000 people, including 250 in the balcony. It had elaborate wall friezes and plaster ceilings with a handsome proscenium front with drop curtains.  The cinema was well equipped with two projectors, three or four dressing rooms, an effects room and a band room. An orchestra was always in attendance. The first film to be shown was the epic and expensive ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ with reels totalling 6,000 feet. It also hosted theatrical and musical performances.

In the 1920s the Central Halls and the Palace Cinema were bought by Messrs. Cohen and Freedman of the Apollo Picture Theatre, Stoke Newington with Frederick Iverson being the local manager. The Palace closed in October 1931 and was demolished to be replaced by the Astoria, which opened on 5 December 1932. It was built for The London and Southern Cinemas Circuit, who now controlled both Woking cinemas as well as the Grand Theatre. The cinema had a Compton organ and was built with British materials and by local labour with the floor covering being fitted by the local Sorbo Rubber Sponge Co. In November 1937 Iverson started the Mickey Mouse Club on Saturday mornings, with him as “Chief Mickeyship”. By 1945 the cinema was known as Odeon-Astoria (later just ‘Odeon’) and was still managed by Mr Iverson, until his retirement in 1946. There was a face-lift in 1961, but the cinema was in decline and closed in 1975.

Odeon Cinema, 1980

The last cinema to be built was the Ritz, in 1937, by Union Cinemas at the corner of Church Street and Chobham Road.  It had a grand gala opening on 12 April 1937 with three hours of entertainment. It too had a Compton organ and could seat 1,600. There was a restaurant and car park. “Chums” programmes for children were held on Saturday mornings.  

Ritz Cinema, 1938

By 1975, the Ritz had become the A.B.C. and the space between the circle and screen was made a ceiling to a bingo hall below. It closed on 4 September 1982 - the last cinema in the town centre to survive. Woking’s cinema provision for the next ten years was limited to occasional films at the QEII Jubilee School’s theatre in Maybury, and at the Rhoda McGaw Theatre, opened in 1975 - showing films when the stage was not in use for "live" presentations, particularly those screened by Woking New Cinema Club, until 1989, when it closed while the Peacocks Centre was built around it, which was completed in 1993.

A.B.C. Cinema, 1981

The Peacocks Centre included the three screens of the Ambassadors Group, later extended to six. Re-building during 2020 has seen the opening of the Nova Cinema, a stylish new cinema with seven screens and more facilities, such as a media room, bar and a food & drink area, serving a mix of classic cinema snacks, as well as healthier options like vegan hotdogs.

Nova Cinema, Screen One 2020. Image © Woking News and Mail

In Woking, like so many towns, cinemas have come and gone and rivalries have formed. From having no screens in the early 1980s, there are now seven in the borough, as new technologies more easily allow multiple screens and digital projection. No drive-in cinema yet, but who knows what the future holds?

Which films have you enjoyed during lockdown? Have you had a chance to see anything at the Nova Cinema?

For more fascinating blog posts on Woking’s history – or some fun ideas for staying creative, please visit our blog.