As part of this year’s Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, one exhibition will hark back to the golden age of cinema.
The exhibition, Building for Silver Screens, will celebrate Northern Ireland’s extensive cinema architecture — giving a wonderful insight into a period and a time when over 40 cinemas were operating in Belfast.
It is part of the British Council’s Absorbing Modernity series – a mini festival within the main Ulster Bank Festival at Queen’s – which through a series of events and exhibitions, looks at the history of architecture in Northern Ireland over the course of the past century.
This particular event is curated by the former Director of Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT), Michael Open, and aims to celebrate cinema as a social phenomenon and the resulting boom in design and construction which evolved into the spectacular art deco picture houses of the 1930s.
Opening this Thursday, 16 October, the exhibition traces back to the beginnings of early cinemas constructed in the first decade of the 20th Century right up to the 1970s and the development of the QFT – with a special talk by Michael on opening night.
Speaking ahead of the Building for Silver Screens launch, Michael said:
“This photo exhibition will feature twenty of the best Belfast cinemas - starting in 1911 and going all the way up to 1970 with the QFT. The vast majority of the cinemas featured are from the golden age of the art deco movement of the 1930s and include the likes of The Ritz; which is now Jury’s Hotel, The Majestic on the Lisburn Road; now a furniture store, and the last surviving cinema of its time – the Strand in east Belfast.
“The Strand is one example of an art deco cinema and this type of cinema boom began in 1933. The designs were greatly influenced by two men in particular - Michael Curran - a cinema proprietor - and J. McBride Neill - a local architect. Together they were responsible for creating some of Belfast's most renowned picture houses.
“It’s important that people realise, that at its peak in 1947 over half of Belfast’s population went to the cinema every week. Things however started to decline in 1957 with the development of TV, and then again in the 70s, with the onslaught of the Troubles when two of Belfast’s most famous cinemas - The Curzon on the Ormeau Road, and The New Vic and ABC (formerly the Ritz) were hit by fire bomb attacks.
“I hope this exhibition will bring together all the various elements of Belfast’s cinematic history and inform a new generation about the city’s past.”
The exhibition’s origins can be traced back to 1984, when Michael’s book, Fading Lights Silver Screen (a history of Belfast cinemas), was published.
He said: “I left Belfast for a while, and on returning in the 1970s discovered that there were hardly any old art cinemas left and set about capturing their legacy on camera.
“Unfortunately, most of what remained of these cinemas looked awful and I realised it was more important to capture how they operated and their history, instead of the façade.
I therefore spent a lot of time in Belfast’s Central Library trawling through old photos, researching old documents and talking to people. Obviously information has been lost in time and sadly, pictures of some of the cinemas will never be found.
“After the book was completed and I retired to France in 2004, I left what remained of the photographs in a box in the QFT. They were found earlier this year by QFT’s Marian Campbell, who recognised the importance of these photos and got in contact with me and then the British Council.”
“Together, Building for Silver Screens was formed.”
Michael began working at the QFT in 1969 at the tender age of 21. Originally from the south of England, he came to Northern Ireland after finding it difficult to get a job in cinema after graduating.
He made up for his age with his passion, and during the darkest days of the Troubles, he was known for screening the best films from around the world and inspired a new generation of filmmakers and film lovers in Belfast. For many, Michael was instrumental in the development of Northern Irish film.
He ran the QFT for 35 years, and still to this day really believes in the power of cinema.
He said: “I’m very proud of the QFT and what it has become. It has gone far from its days down a dark, dingy side street – and now after its refurbishment and its new positioning on University Square, you wouldn’t recognise the place.
“It’s a very special cinema and I try to visit every time I come to Belfast.
“To my knowledge, it is the last surviving art-house of its kind in Northern Ireland - providing those kinds of films you wouldn’t get the chance to see anywhere else.
“Cinema is so important. It’s a thing in life that really makes it worth living – it’s a kind of dream and it’s a privilege for us to be sharing that dream with someone else.”
“Speaking about the event, David Alderdice, Director of British Council Northern Ireland said: “Exhibitions such as this are extremely important for Belfast, and indeed Northern Ireland, as they give an insight into the social history of Belfast and what has been left behind. It’s wonderful to tell the story of how the cinema has transformed in Northern Ireland over the past 100 years.
“Building for Silver Screens is just one of a series of events we have been working on as part of Absorbing Modernity, and it’s been great to get the chance to collaborate with the Arts Council Northern Ireland, the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, the Strand Cinema and QFT, to bring events tied into the Venice Architecture Biennale to Northern Ireland.”
Absorbing Modernity is a mini festival within the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s. It is programmed by the British Council and supported by the Arts Council Northern Ireland. Events have been developed in partnership with Belfast Exposed, Forum for Alternative Belfast, PLACE, Queen’s Film Theatre, Queen’s University, the University of Ulster and the Ulster Museum.
Other highlights of the festival include the Ulster Museum’s Evolution Amidst Revolution exhibition curated by architectural historian, Rosaleen Hickey which reveals previously unseen archives, photographs and plans to trace a hundred year history of one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings.
There will also be an exhibition at the Golden Thread Gallery looking at Craigavon, 50 years after its birth. The exhibition reveals the bright ambitions for housing development in Northern Ireland in the post war period. Explored through archives and plans, the exhibition is also an opportunity to see work of one of Northern Ireland’s finest photographers, Victor Sloan.
Other highlights of the festival can be found on screen; Forum for Alternative Belfast’s film An Epoch translated into Space, shows local architect Paddy Lawson’s involvement with the Ulster Museum Building, meanwhile the series of films curated by Susan Picken to be shown at Queen’s Film Theatre and the Strand Cinemas have the effect of bringing to life the architecture of modernity.
Building for Silver Screens runs at the QFT from this Thursday, 16 October until Saturday, 1 November. As part of the event, there will also be a heritage tour of the Strand Cinema and its unique art deco architecture this Saturday, 18 October. Tours are limited to ten people and admission is £3.
For more information on any Absorbing Modernity events visit http://www.belfastfestival.com.
For more information on British Council Northern Ireland visit http://nireland.britishcouncil.org or follow on Twitter: @BCouncil_NI