Known for its comfy chairs and vintage aesthetics, Bath’s Little Theatre Cinema has always been a favourite for watching new releases, much-loved classics, and live cultural screenings from theatres from around the world. As the way forward for cinemas is considered, we remember our talk with owner Hilary King, the daughter of the theatre’s founder, about how it all started
Theatre director and playwright Consuelo de Reyes first met Peter King when she advertised for a stage manager in the 1920s for her community theatre in Bath. Their daughter Hilary King, who now owns the Little Theatre, explains, “My parents’ passion was community theatre. They rented an early 18th-century house in Bath and they developed a theatre within the house. Amazingly it seated 200 people in what I guess must have been great discomfort, because in the 1920s and 30s comfort didn’t really feature. Their community theatre involved the local population and they ran all sorts of courses – including drama courses and courses to learn about theatrical productions and make-up lessons.” The picture above shows the participants of one of those courses outside Citizen House in 1938.
Consuelo first came to Bath to work with Helen Hope, one of Bath’s first female magistrates, who was closely involved in women’s and children’s welfare before the welfare state existed. When Hope died in her fifties, she left her considerable fortune to Consuelo, enabling her to build and develop the Little Theatre.
Built in 1935, the majority of the building has a Georgian design: “You can see the early design of the building was different and we now have this odd bit at the front which doesn’t quite match the very rigid Georgian style. I think they threw in a projection box as an afterthought. And you can tell that the architect had never designed a cinema before because if you get up in the balcony while the film is showing and go out of the front door your head is projected onto the screen! There are various other anomalies around and I suppose that is what gives the building its character,” she says. The cinema retains some of the decorative features of the typical 1930s, while more recently it has undergone a discreet conversion into a two-screen arthouse cinema that is now part of the Picturehouse group.
The first production at the Little Theatre in 1935 was Vickie, a play written by Consuelo de Reyes about the young Queen Victoria, who was a great heroine of hers. When asked if she had ever seen a production of Vickie, Hilary said she’d not only seen the production, but had appeared in it on a number of occasions along with her sister Helen, who she remembers played the young princess as a child. “Queen Victoria was rather extraordinary in the social context. She was just 18 when she came to the throne in such a man’s world, so my mother’s plays are about Victoria’s relationship with Albert, with her mother, with her governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen and with how she managed her role.”
Hilary explains that in its early years the theatre put on some very unconventional theatre productions for the time: “We did all sorts of extraordinary things, experimental theatre, too, not necessarily the classics. Our Town was one, a play by Thornton Wilder, an American playwright. Revived by The National quite recently, it’s a play with just four characters, two parents and two kids and no furniture, just chairs positioned as car seats, so it was quite experimental for its day.
“We also did a production by Ernest Toller, a German refugee and expressionist playwright, who wrote experimental socialist plays and in that we played the workers lying on the ground – I must have been about 12 and I can remember it was very dark – we were lying on the ground and writhing, chanting ‘we are the poor who labour on earth, bound to the wheel from the day of our birth.’ You might assume that the productions would be solid, good middle-class stuff, but, no, it wasn’t always and I admire them for doing that at the time they did it.”
While Consuelo and Peter’s commitment was to the theatre, the theatre and its courses operated for a maximum of two to three months during the year. For the rest of the time in those early years it ran as a news cinema after being equipped with a Western Electric (WE) sound system in 1936. “The news cinema was effectively the television of today, because in the 1920s and 30s there was no visual news outside the news cinema. So you went to see a news reel that changed twice a week. You went to see current events, you might go to see a funeral, a coronation, any major event.” This is hard to imagine nowadays in a time where our every interaction with the world is so dominated by instantly accessed moving images.
The Little started playing feature films from 1939 – the 80th anniversary having been celebrated in 2019. The first two films were Peg of Old Drury starring Anna Neagle, followed by Oh Mr Porter starring Will Hay. The cinema thrived on local support throughout the years as other Bath cinema venues closed, and in 1979 the former scenery store and lounge area were converted into a second screen. In spite of many refurbishments to keep the cinema up-to-date with digital sound and the latest projection technology, the Little Theatre has retained the charm and welcoming warmth of a 1930s cinema, including a luxury balcony with sofas in the main auditorium.
With her young life having been dominated by her parents’ community theatre, Hilary went on to develop a career in London as a therapist in marital and family work: “I moved right away from theatre – it was the last thing I wanted to do.” This experience later proved very useful, Hilary explains, when she became involved with the management of the Little Theatre after her sister’s death in 1984: “My training was actually extraordinarily valuable when it came to running a cinema, which is about managing people and the way they respond to what’s going on underneath the surface, what their needs are and how to manage them.”
Times like this are good for cinema… people are not looking for dark, soul-searching films, they are looking for escape
“While I didn’t want any connection with the cinema, I felt loyalty to it, because it was something that the family had invested so much in. So I wanted to see it survive, but hoped that others would look after it. And they did of course. But my mother died in 1948, and then Jim Fairfax Jones took over the running of it.” Then Helen, Hilary’s sister took over, but when she died suddenly, Hilary thought, “Right, now it’s my turn”.
Hilary remembers her early days running the cinema: “There were all sorts of restrictions. There was only one print of any given film that was available at one time, so there were struggles to get the film that was wanted to bring in the audiences.
“There have been so many changes in the time I’ve been associated with the theatre. And so many times when things looked bleak. We now have television, yet cinema goes on surviving and flourishing. It’s absolutely fascinating to see how at times of stress people go to the cinema more often, so, in that respect, times like this are good for cinema. People are not looking for dark, soul-searching films, they are looking for escape.”
Hilary reflects on the success of Green Book, a 2018 good-hearted comedy-drama by Peter Farrelly dealing with racism and homophobia: “I was wondering why it got the Oscar because seeing it from this side of the Atlantic, it is full of every sort of cliché you can think of. Right down to knowing what’s going to happen in the next scene. I think that’s about recognising that however grim the world is at the moment, just look at the distance we’ve covered in terms of black and white relationships. I think it’s self-congratulatory in the context of everything being a total mess at the moment. If we’ve survived that, we’ve made progress, and then maybe, maybe there is going to be a future for us.”
The Little Theatre has been with the Picturehouse Cinemas Group (now the arthouse group of Cineworld) since 2003 and is the only privately owned cinema in the chain. Let’s hope that it will continue to show its particular brand of on-screen magic that has enabled it to survive alongside the blockbuster cinema chains and support us through the ever-changing cultural shifts around us.