There is a long history of cinema and enthusiasm for watching films in Berkhamsted dating back to the 1910s. This tradition is continued at the beautifully restored Rex cinema and by a thriving local film society.
In 1910, films were shown in Berkhamsted Town Hall and by Taylor’s Royal Electric Coliseum de Luxe travelling show on Crooked Billet Meadow. In 1911, The Gem, which was little more than a shed, opened on Cowper Road. Silent films were shown accompanied by a pianist but the projector frequently broke and the venue couldn’t compete with the more professional Picture Playhouse that opened in 1912.
The stables of the King’s Arms Hotel were converted into the Picture Playhouse by local businessmen and, with a pianist and a violinist, it was much more upmarket than The Gem. It proved so popular that the owners needed to build a larger cinema to meet the overwhelming enthusiasm of Berkhamsted locals for going to the movies and The Court Theatre, on the High Street where Tesco now stands, opened in March 1917. With a capacity of over 700, an orchestra pit and a stage for theatrical productions, this cinema was considered luxurious. The soldiers stationed in Berkhamsted during World War I helped ensure the success of The Court and it flourished.
In 1930, The Court was bought by the Shipman and King circuit. Alf Shipman and Samuel King specialised in buying existing cinemas in small prosperous towns and refurbishing them. In 1934, they transformed The Court’s auditorium into a more modern 1000-seater, installed up-to-the-minute décor, lighting and an organ.
Shipman and King were also known for having pairs of cinemas in country towns, and, in 1936, they opened a larger, purpose-built cinema in Berkhamsted, The Rex. The trend at the time was for exhibitors to build larger, super-cinemas because during the 1930s cinema audiences were not only increasing but were changing demographically, with more middle-class people and women regularly attending. Cinemas needed to be bigger and better to provide for this burgeoning audience and there was a boom in the construction of large, palatial venues like The Rex.
The Museum Store holds some fascinating documents from the early days of The Rex. This image of the interior in 1938 gives an idea of just how many seats there were, reflecting how popular cinema-going was at the time. The review of the new cinema in the Berkhamsted & Tring Gazette from May 1938 shows that it was considered to be a fabulous venue.
With the opening of The Rex, The Court began to focus more on theatrical productions, and although it continued to show films, sometimes sporadically, it eventually closed in 1960. In contrast, The Rex went through several repurposings, closing in 1988, only to reopen, beautifully restored, in 2004.
Berkhamsted has not only had purpose-built sites of film exhibition. In 1967, Berkhamsted Film Society was established by a group of local cinema enthusiasts. Originally films were projected in 16mm format. In 1971, the Society won the British Federation of Film Societies ‘Film Society of the Year Award’. Today the Society screens films on Blu-ray using a state-of-the-art HD digital projection system and Dolby surround sound. The Society screens about 17 films a season at Berkhamsted’s Civic Centre, including English-language and foreign-language films across a range of genres, from recent mainstream releases to art house films.
You can find out more about Berkhamsted Film Society on their website: http://berkhamstedfilmsociety.co.uk/. Their new season of films kicks off on 18th and 19th September with Sam Mendes directing Olivia Coleman in Empire of Light.