Graphic designer aims to turn Ashton landmark into live performance venue and cinema
The Majestic Picture House building is an iconic landmark for Tameside film lovers. Since its opening in 1920, it later became the Gaumont, then the ODEON, and latterly the Metro cinema. The cinema closed in September 2003, a month after the closure of Stalybridge’s Palace cinema. Its amusement arcade closed in 2011. This week, musician and graphic designer, Matthew Gough aims to reopen the building.
Hailing from ‘the other side of Manchester’, as he said in a BBC Radio Manchester interview (Bolton to be precise), he has recently moved to the Tameside area. On visiting Ashton, he was taken aback by the beauty of the Majestic Picture House building on the corner of Old Street and Delamere Street. The lack of performance facilities and youth facilities in the borough also piqued his interest.
In the short term, he aims to raise £25,000 through the JustGiving website. This will go towards the initial cost of setting up the café in the foyer. Once that has been achieved, his next stage is to preserve the building’s Art Deco beauty, and turn it into a live performance venue and arts space. He aims to add conference facilities, making it a valuable resource for the borough’s small businesses. Also part of the plans are a design studio, and a music rehearsal and recording space. This, is addition to being a music venue and digital cinema. A facility which could be Tameside’s answer to The Miners’ social club in Moston.
Another reason for the multiplicity of uses he suggested was inclusion. Though the Tameside area has a number of social groups, those for elderly and young persons have lost out due to cuts in government funding. This, common with many local authorities north of Redditch.
Why the Majestic Picture House?
Why did Mr. Gough choose the Majestic Picture House building ahead of other former cinemas in Tameside? Apart from the splendid Art Deco architecture, a lot of the infrastructure was intact. This included some of the seating in the circle. The roofing was in good condition, in spite of its years of closure. The lobby, latterly used as a main entrance to the Slotworld amusement arcade was in good condition too.
As for location, you cannot go wrong. Besides being slap bang in the middle of Ashton-under-Lyne town centre, it is a short distance from The Station public house on Warrington Street, and The Witchwood further down Old Street. With a recording studio, the three places could form part of a creative hub. If you add a reopened Tameside Hippodrome theatre to the mix, wouldn’t that be amazing?
On public transport, you can get to Ashton-under-Lyne without changing buses from almost everywhere in Tameside (apart from Stalyhill, Park Bridge and Broadbottom). That’s as well as the Metrolink and principal bus routes to Manchester city centre and the trains to Manchester Victoria. With the Clarendon Sixth Form College on its doorstep, a useful resource for its art students without the need to go to central Manchester.
In addition to the Majestic Picture House, the future of the Theatre Royal in Hyde hangs in the balance. Likewise with the former Palace cinema in Stalybridge (latterly trading as Amber Lounge/Rififi nightclub till 2014), and the former Astoria cinema in Hyde. They too have potential, but Ashton’s public transport links are favourable to the Majestic’s cause.
A brief history of the Majestic Picture House building
The Majestic Picture House was opened on the 22 April 1920 with the film, Forbidden City. It was designed by Arnold England and, from the start, it was billed as Ashton’s most plush cinema. The first floor on the side of the auditorium was used as tea rooms. On opening, the cinema had 1,233 seats in all. There was two entrances: one on the corner of Old Street and Delamere Street, and another on the corner of Delamere Street and Wellington Street. The former entrance had a stately columned roof.
It was part of the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres group prior to their acquisition by Gaumont British Theatres in 1946, whom for five years had been part of The Rank Organisation as a going concern. This meant a name change to the Gaumont. By 1960, it became the ODEON. With Ashton having two Rank owned cinemas before then, the Old Street one was under the Gaumont name to avoid confusion with the ODEON in Guide Bridge.
In 1981, the recession started to bite into cinema receipts. That, coupled with the arrival of video cassette recorders meant a perfect storm for cinema owners and film studios. In Ashton, the ODEON closed with Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a little half term treat for younger filmgoers.
In November 1981, Ashton’s only cinema screen didn’t fall silent for long. It reemerged as the Metro cinema. Its owner, John Stuart Downs, also owned the Palace Cinema in Stalybridge. Before its conversion to a night club (and later demolition for a housing estate), the Empire cinema in Mossley was another one on his portfolio. His father had owned the Palace before him.
The cinema was reinvented as a ‘must-visit’ destination for film lovers. Capacity was reduced to 924 but in return for this, legroom was improved. The lower part of the circle saw the addition of Viceroy and Pullman luxury seating. For a modest supplement, this meant more comfortable seating and better legroom. As well as films, it was a concert venue. Previous artistes had included Bryan Adams (shortly before the release of his début album, Reckless), Spear of Destiny, The Damned, and Fat Larry’s Band.
Another good selling point was the conversion of the first floor tearoom into a licensed bar. The ground floor below became the Slotworld amusement arcade. The timing of which was astute, given that Slotworld’s arrival tied in with legendary coin-op games like After Burner, Outrun, and Hang-On (as well as good ol’ Space Invaders).
By 2003, the Metro Cinema part of the Majestic Picture House building closed. The convenience of out-of-town cinemas with free parking was seen as one factor. Slotworld carried on till 2011. By then, the legendary 1980s coin-op games had given way to fruit machines. Fixed odds betting terminals in bookmakers’ shops could well have been a factor in its closure.
Majestic Picture House: Old Street, Ashton-under-Lyne:
- Opened: 22 April 1920.
- Architects: Arnold English.
- First film as Majestic Picture House: Forbidden City (starring Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan).
- First film as the Metro Cinema: Escape from New York (starring Kurt Russell and Lee van Cleef).
- Last film: The Man Who Sued God (starring Billy Connolly and Judy Davis).
We hope to see the Majestic in fine form before this decade is out. By 2020, the building should be celebrating its centenary. If Matthew Gough succeeds in raising the £25,000, this could be the start of something good.
Though out-of-town cinemas remain a popular option for families (particularly easy access to parking and all the franchised food outlets you could choose from), town centre cinemas seem to be returning to the limelight. The recent refurbishment of Oldham’s former town hall into the ODEON is a significant pointer. Of late, planned multiplexes in Greater Manchester have favoured town centre locations, such as future cinemas in Stockport and Rochdale.
Perhaps the average filmgoer is tired of going to a corrugated box on the edge of town next to a Nandos and a KFC. He or she may fancy the idea of seeing a film in a central location and calling into a nearby ‘Spoons afterwards (other public houses and pub chains are available). This is congruent with the direction of travel taken by Sainsburys and Tesco, with their convenience stores an extra to the big superstores.
In Tameside, the popular perception of arts facilities is that art galleries and performance spaces seem to stop at the north eastern end of Stalybridge tunnel. West of the said railway tunnel, there are regular live bands and poetry readings at The Station and The Witchwood pubs. Nearby Denton plays host to two regular poetry recitals with The Black Cat Poets holding court at the Thackeray’s Bookshop café; the other is Denton library’s quarterly recitals.
Mr. Gough’s Majestic vision could build on the above. Performers at The Station or The Witchwood could choose a more local recording studio. Independent film makers, who would otherwise have difficulty exhibiting their works in the likes of Cineworld or the ODEON, could find a local audience. Small businesses who trade in the centre of Ashton could have an away day which is only walking distance.
We wish him the best of luck, firstly with stage one, then the biggie. The Tameside area deserves something like this. Something that should complement existing schemes and prospective ones.
S.V., 16 November 2016.
For a detailed history of the Majestic Picture House, East of the M60 fully recommends Flickering Memories (Tameside MBC Leisure Services, Ashton-under-Lyne, 1995) by Philip Martin Williams, which covers all the former cinemas in Ashton-under-Lyne.