Venue Wish Upon A Star... Searching Out the UK's Oldest Cinema

Deep within Birmingham’s Chinese Quarter, nestled amongst numerous oriental restaurants and currently sitting under the shadow of a construction site which in 2015 will open as the redeveloped New Street Station, can be found the Electric Cinema. Unimposing and a little rough around the edges from the outside, it’s the kind of venue many might walk past if they didn’t know it was there. True, the art deco signage atop the building is striking, but you’d be forgiven for missing that particular feature entirely (as I did at first) unless you’re viewing the cinema from a distance. Perhaps belied by its humble appearance, an experience both rare and special for any film fan is housed within.

The initial reason for seeking out The Electric is a historical one, being as it is the oldest working cinema in the country. Since it first opened over a century ago in 1909, the venue’s history has been a chequered one. It has spent time as everything from a pornography theatre to an art cinema; after its seemingly final incarnation as a straightforward two-screen cinema fizzled out in 2003, unable to compete with the many local multiplexes, The Electric closed down and lay empty. Thankfully, it was soon snapped up and, almost exactly a year after closing, the cinema opened its doors once again, reborn as a retro cinema experience.

The Electric’s renovated design takes it back to its early 20th Century roots with an art deco look and feel throughout. The foyer is hardly spacious, but in place of the carbonated drink dispensers and vats of popcorn found in modern movie outlets, a fully licensed bar offers more refined snacks (ramekin of pretzels or olives anyone?) and suitably retro drinks. Alongside an ample array of lagers and spirits, including an impressive-looking 19th Century style La Fée absinthe fountain, the venue even has its own signature bottled beer: “Electric Ale” (a crisp, light brew which went down a treat during the film). There’s also a cinematically-themed cocktail menu, of which I personally didn’t partake (my fiancée reliably informed me that the “Red Velvet” was delicious).

The main event of course is taking in a film, and The Electric continues the vintage vibe here too. Those happy with a more straightforward experience can choose a seat in the traditional tiered seating section. If you’re looking for something a little more special, however, the cinema offers a lounge area at the back of the auditorium where leather sofas seating two, three or four people can be booked. Each sofa is named for a Hollywood icon of the past; our sofa (Harlow) was both incredibly comfortable and offered a perfect view.

The added perk of a sofa seat is that the staff offer waiter service throughout the film. Text your order to the mobile number provided in the menu and your snacks and drinks are with you quickly and discreetly. The waiting staff clearly have to be adept at simultaneously kneeling down and serving in the dark, with neither our orders spilled nor our view obstructed throughout. I was initially worried that patrons using mobiles to text their orders through during the film might become distracting, but I only noticed this once or twice throughout, perhaps in part due to many of the clientele clearly being fellow cinephiles who ensured they weren’t ruining the experience for anyone else.

The screen, whilst noticeably smaller than those found in your local multiplex, was more than sizable enough to enjoy the film with pleasingly sharp and vibrant projection. The sound was less overbearing than in a large multiplex auditorium, and satisfyingly more intimate because of that. The film we went to see was Brian De Palma’s ‘80s gun-and-cocaine-fest Scarface, showing as a special cult screening, an event which The Electric puts on a few times a year. Watching a classic film definitely helped tie together the whole experience, but the venue screens new films throughout the year, with an apparent leaning towards films on limited or selected release. Based on my experience watching Scarface, I would certainly be more than happy to watch a contemporary release there.

The experience The Electric Cinema offers is simple but effective and at a reasonable price. It’s clear that the staff who work there are cinema-lovers themselves, with a passion for the unique venue they work in. It’s a cinema which caters to those who not only love films, but love the whole experience of going to the cinema just as much. The Electric Cinema is a hidden gem of England’s second city, and I’m already planning my next visit.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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