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THE REX: The battle to bring the movies back to Berkhamsted

 Published on: 3rd March 2024   |   By: Bryn Holmes   |   Category: Uncategorized

In the 20 years since The Rex cinema reopened in Berkhamsted, the site has become one of the country’s most highly regarded movie theatres.

However, it should not be forgotten that the only reason this jewel in Berkhamsted’s crown remains open is due to the tireless campaigning of local residents.

The Rex first opened on May 9, 1838. At this time, there was already another cinema in the town, the Court Cinema on Water Lane. This closed in 1960 and was converted into a Tesco, before the building was demolished nine years later following a serious fire.

For 50 years, The Rex was the town’s premier destination for watching films, but by the 1970s, the venue had become unprofitable. In 1973, new owners renamed the cinema as Studio 1. Films were only shown for half the week, and the site operated as a bingo hall for the rest of the week.

Only three years later, the cinema was sold again. The new owners divided the auditorium into three spaces and separated the seating circle into two screens. They also converted the stalls into a full-time bingo hall.

In 1988, the site was sold once again, this time to the Estates and General Properties Company (EGPC). They closed the cinema and announced plans to demolish the building to make way for new offices and flats.

Local residents who were deeply opposed to the company’s plans launched a grassroots campaign. They earned their first victory just two days before the cinema’s closure: managing to get the building spot-listed by English Heritage.

Through the 1990s, a number of plans were proposed, including offices, a restaurant and business complex, and even a health spa, all of which were rejected.

In 1996, EGPC tried to delist the building. When this proved unsuccessful, they sold the site to Nicholas King Homes.

The following year, the Friends of the Rex group was formed with the aim of returning the site to its roots. This high-profile campaign was supported by a number of actors including Hugh Grant, Hayley Mills and Ian Richardson CBE.

However, some in the area still viewed the idea of the cinema’s restoration as a lost cause. Richard Page, who at the time was MP for South West Hertfordshire, called the building an “eyesore” in a Parliamentary sitting with the Culture Secretary in 1998.

He added: “Will the Minister take steps to remove the listing, allow the site to be developed for sheltered housing and take the pressure off the green belt?”

Three years on from their founding, the Friends of the Rex finally celebrated success in 2000. Nicholas King Homes put forward new plans to convert the cinema’s adjacent shops into apartments, the foyer into a bar/restaurant, and restore the auditorium.

Entrepreneur James Hannaway, who had attempted to buy the building in 1996, won the contract for the auditorium refurbishment. Thanks to donations from the public and actor Bill Nighy, James restored the single screen to its original 1930s splendour.

The reopening, attended by acting royalty Dame Judi Dench, earned national acclaim, with Jasper Rees from the Daily Telegraph asking: “Is this Britain’s most beautiful cinema?” It is thanks to a well-fought campaign that The Rex remains in contention for that title to this very day.

Photo Credit: Wikidwitch

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