At The Pictures: Glasgow’s Small-Cinema Spirit

If the testimony of my older Glaswegian relatives is to be believed, then it was once the case that you could throw one stone in the city centre and break the windows of three cinemas. Such, it seemed, was the sheer density of film theatres in Glasgow a claim supported by the wide variety of cinema façades scattered throughout the city. Yet these shells no longer house the stands, screens or audiences for which Glasgow was once famed. Just as the pre-war, single-screen theatres gave way to the high-capacity picture palaces which dotted Glasgow’s centre and beyond (Glasgow’s own Green’s Playhouse held the largest audience of any single-screen cinema across the UK at 4,254 seats), so too did these picture palaces in turn succumb to the arrival of the multi-screened multiplex cinema in the 1980s.

Given this shift, the majority of Glasgow’s picture palaces were therefore repurposed to meet the demands of the developing high street. As such, the survivors of this evolution have each undergone a multitude of renovations to varying degrees of preservation: the Vaudeville Picture House now stands barely recognisable halfway down Argyle Street as a Sports Direct; while Cambuslang’s Savoy Cinema, its old-theatre style somewhat maintained, sells its skeleton to J. D. Wetherspoons. Others, unfortunately, have suffered worse fates through abandonment and demolition. Among this sad majority was the Coliseum, a beautiful and historic sandstone music hall dating at over 100 years old by the time of its tragic dereliction, which lingered a few decades as a bingo hall before its eventual demolition.

By 2001 the collective rubble of these dead venues was cleared to make way for the UGC multiplex, now the world-famous Renfrew Street Cineworld, upon the grave site of the old Glasgow Apollo. This hulking beige monolith stands at a Guinness World Record-breaking 203 feet in height, banishing all major competitors miles outwith the city centre. Unlike the stylish period design of many of Glasgow’s picture palaces, the multiplex’s design was something of a scandal even before its grand opening, earning the structure official comparisons to a “retail unit on its side” alongside the Carbuncle of the Year Award in 2000 as Scotland’s ugliest building. Yet regardless of its infamous design, the multiplex has continued to draw crowds to this day, having recently undergone a lengthy renovation to install 4DX seating for those who enjoy the occasional spinal jolt with their viewing.

While one might assume Cineworld’s dominance marks something of a full stop in Glasgow’s cinema history, the small-cinema spirit of the city has nonetheless persisted in a variety of forms. The most prominent of these can be found nestled in the looming shadow of Cineworld, as just a few minutes along Renfrew Street stands the Glasgow Film Theatre, an active monument to Scotland’s cinematic heyday and something of a last bastion of the city’s picturehouse tradition. The venue began its life in 1939 as a classic picturehouse itself, The Cosmo, eventually changing hands with the Scottish Film Council in 1973 to become the GFT, a renovated three-screen home to independent and world cinema. The GFT isn’t alone in the preservation of Glasgow’s small-cinema heritage: Bridgeton’s Olympia picturehouse was recently rescued from dereliction to house Scotland’s first British Film Institute Mediatheque, a memory box of Glasgow’s history onscreen and off.

Yet the survival of multiplex-less cinema is no longer solely dependent upon such dedicated cinema spaces. Glasgow today is alive with underground and independent cinema that exists unbound by traditional venue systems, screening instead across pubs and galleries, and outdoor showings. This more freeform approach to public screening preserves the independent spirit and accessibility of Glasgow’s lost cinemas, while introducing an added openness and flexibility to its operation which has in turn rendered the organisation of such screenings more accessible and financially viable for new and diverse voices (as seen in the rise of a multitude of festivals across Glasgow, such as the Scottish Queer International Film Festival and Africa in Motion).

While we should lament the continued mistreatment of Glasgow’s historic cinema structures, Glasgow’s small-cinema spirit, though rendered near-homeless by the gradual extinction of the city’s smaller venues, has nonetheless found shelter in a multitude of pubs, clubs, galleries and preserved venues across the city. As the continued success of such projects has shown, the audience for independent, small-cinema experiences remains strong in Glasgow. All that’s needed are seats and a screen.

[Ronan Duff]

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