Alistair Dey looks at The Capitol pub and Forest Hill’s other former cinemas.
In May 2016, JD Wetherspoon announced that they were going to sell off The Capitol pub on London Road in Forest Hill. Indeed, two years earlier there had been rumours that the pub was closing or being sold off or being converted back into a cinema. For a large, seemingly successful pub which packs in the drinkers and eaters, I found this to be a slightly strange decision. Over a year on, Wetherspoon’s pub is still there, possibly because they have not yet found anyone to take over the lease or because the building is a Grade II listed building. Whatever the reason, I hope the pub continues and, if sold, the building does not lie empty again as it had previously done in the mid-1970s and late-1990s.
The Capitol is the jewel in the crown of Forest Hill’s cinematic heritage. It is believed that Lewisham borough once had more than 30 cinemas though not all in existence at the same time; Forest Hill had three of these cinemas.
Three houses on London Road had to be demolished to make way for the new Capitol Cinema. Designed in a Neo-Classical style, the cinema was built in 1928-9 for London & Southern Cinemas and designed by noted cinema architect and garden designer, John Stanley Beard. The building also reflected an Egyptian influence, a style popular at the time following the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. The cinema opened on 11th February 1929 with John Gilbert in the silent film Man, Woman and Sin. The local MP and the Mayor of Lewisham gave speeches at the opening. The opening programme’s advert described the cinema as a “New Mammoth Luxury House of Entertainment.”
The Capitol had class: It had a Compton theatre organ which was in use, as required, until it was removed in the late-1950s, a café for the convenience of patrons and an impressive initial seating capacity of 1,691 in the stalls and circle. The stage was deep and wide and, along with three dressing rooms, it allowed for music and variety shows to be staged — music hall type shows into the 1950s and pop concerts in the 1960s.
Since the cinema was designed and built just at the end of the Silent era of movies, sound equipment had to be installed very soon after it opened for the “Talkies”. The first sound film was The Singing Fool starring Al Jolson on 15 April 1929. This was the follow-up film to Jolson’s Jazz Singer, the first commercial Talkie. Some silent films continued to be shown at The Capitol for another year or so until the sound era took over completely.
The cinema was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in July 1933 and they operated it for the remainder of its cinematic life. The cinema was re-named ABC in December 1968 and closed on 13th October 1973 with its last two films being the road movie Scarecrow starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino and Class of ’44 starring Gary Grimes. The building stood empty for several years until it was leased to Mecca Ltd and opened as a Mecca Bingo Club on 23rd February 1978. It was later leased to the Jasmine group and was known as the Jasmine Social Club. Bingo ceased in early December 1996 and the building again stood empty and unused.
In September 1993, while still a bingo hall, the building was designated as a Grade II listed building. This means it is of special architectural or historic interest; considered to be of national importance, and therefore worth protecting; and warranting every effort to preserve it. The then Department of National Heritage described the building as “a rare survival of a complete 1920s cinema and the earliest complete cinema by J Stanley Beard now surviving.” This protection partly explains why The Capitol is the only former cinema in the area still recognisable as a cinema.
The building re-opened on 9th May 2001 as part of the Wetherspoon chain of pubs, which brings us, 16 years later, to the pub’s uncertain future.
The Two Other Lost Cinemas of Forest Hill
The Capitol was undoubtedly one of the foremost cinemas in south-east London. There were, at different times, two other cinemas in Forest Hill. The first cinema, The Picture Playhouse, opened in September 1910 but was short-lived. This relatively small 400 seater cinema was created out of existing shop premises, with its auditorium at the rear, where the China House restaurant now stands at 18 Dartmouth Road. By November that year, a tea lounge had been added to the building. The cinema was then refurbished in 1912 and re-named the Empire Picture Theatre. It ultimately closed in February 1914 and the premises then reverted to retail use. In recent times it has been a second-hand furniture shop, Wok Express and now the China House restaurant.
Forest Hill’s other cinema lasted longer before, presumably, succumbing to the embryonic TV age. The Stanstead Picture Palace opened in January 1913 at 12-14 Wastdale Road, just off Stanstead Road. Like The Picture Playhouse in Dartmouth Road, its entrance was created out of shop premises, with its 834-seat auditorium built at the rear. By 1927 it had been renamed the Stanstead Cinema and, in that year, it had a canopy installed over its entrance.
Western Electric Sound was installed in 1931 to bring the cinema into the Talkies era. The cinema had a brief closure while this work was carried out, and re-opened on 26th December 1931 as the Astoria Cinema, with Marion Davies in It’s a Wise Child. Incidentally, this film was a Hollywood “Pre-Code” comedy. “Pre-Code Hollywood” refers to the brief era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines in mid-1934. As a result, films in the late 1920s and early 1930s were often much less sanitised than later films and often featured some strong female characters.
The cinema was renamed the Balmoral Cinema on 11th April 1954, but soon closed on 29th May 1954. It was re-opened as the New Astoria Cinema on 14th November 1954, but only lasted a few more months before finally closing on 26th February 1955.
In August 1968, the building was converted into an independent bingo club. It later became derelict and was ultimately demolished in 1975 — as was much of the surrounding neighbourhood during that “wrecking-ball” decade. The site was later redeveloped and housing was built. The cinema, when it existed, was a few yards away from the old Swiss Cottage pub on Stanstead Road, which was demolished in 1990.
Although Forest Hill had three former cinemas, this is outmatched by Sydenham, which can claim five former cinemas at one time or another: two on Sydenham Road (where The Sydenham Centre and the empty Budgens supermarket now stand), one in Kirkdale, one in Silverdale and one at the Bell Green end of Perry Hill.
Thanks to the book “The Big 5: Lewisham Super Cinemas” by Ken George and the websites “Cinema Treasures” and “Lewisham’s Lost Cinemas” for much of the information in this article.