Post by Sarah Culhane
The Italian Cinema Audiences team recently met with Katharine Ford who runs a wellbeing programme at The Cinema Museum in London. Known as the Gentlemen’s Cake Club, this initiative tackles social isolation by bringing members of the local community together. In a space that celebrates the memory of cinema and cinema-going, it is particularly fitting that The Cinema Museum has become a focal point that facilitates the kind of social interaction which once grew up around local cinemas but is now at risk of disappearing from communities. With its impressive ‘wellbeing business plan’ the cake club is just one example of the wide-ranging wellbeing offer that this small museum provides.
Just around the corner from Elephant and Castle tube station in South London sits the iconic Coronet Theatre. Opened as a theatre in 1879, the Coronet now operates as a music venue, but in the 1950s it housed an ABC Cinema and continued to function as a cinema until it closed its doors at end of the 1990s. Today, the Coronet is something of an ugly beauty. A cube of corrugated iron painted sky blue, it sits between the Thameslink railway bridge and the much maligned Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. As extensive re-development of the area progresses, the Coronet’s place within the landscape of Elephant and Castle looks increasingly uncertain. As a site of entertainment that has changed function several times down through the decades (theatre to cinema to music venue), the fate of the Coronet is typical of the many historic cinemas, which are disappearing from the maps of towns and cities across the world. How do we remember these places when the physical building is no longer there? How do we preserve the stories of the people who frequented and worked in these cinemas?
Not far from the Coronet on Dugard Way, is The Cinema Museum where a team of curators, collectors and volunteers work to preserve the tangible heritage of all aspects of cinema exhibition, distribution and cinema-going. Entering the front door of The Cinema Museum is like stepping through a portal to a by-gone era when going to the cinema meant usherettes and red-velvet seats. Old projectors are lined up in the foyer and the walls are covered in framed posters, art-deco signage and photos of stars. It’s manna for any collector or film enthusiast, but what is particularly unique about the collection is the way that it is innovatively incorporated into the museum’s wellbeing programme which supports local people.
The story behind the building that houses this vast collection of cinema memorabilia including over one million photographic images and seventeen million feet of film, adds to the museum’s sense of history. The museum is located in a building that dates back to the 1870s and was originally part of the Lambeth Workhouse. In the 1890s a young boy, who would later become one of cinema’s most recognisable and influential figures, lived at the workhouse for a time following family difficulties. That boy was Charlie Chaplin.
The building is currently owned by the NHS Mental Health Trust and after years of fundraising the Cinema Museum, an entirely self-funded enterprise, is now in a position to buy the building. As Katharine Ford, a business adviser and consultant who is actively involved in The Cinema Museum, explained, owning the building not only secures a permanent home for their extensive collection, but it also creates scope for the museum to grow. There are plans to physically expand the museum’s capacity, although Ford is careful to stress that they want to retain its magical ‘Harry Potter like quality’. However, The Cinema Museum’s uniqueness does not just lie in the charming and quirky personality of the place. In addition to organising regular screenings and cinema-related events, the museum’s wellness programme carries out important work, which aims to build bridges within the local community.
‘The Gentlemen’s Cake Club’ is just one of the community-based initiatives run by the Cinema Museum. Led by Ford, the club is held in the museum on a weekly basis. Attended by a small group of local men, the club provides a social space where participants can meet and chat. The group is facilitated by Ford who, in addition to providing tea and cake, uses an iPad to support the men’s conversation. The conversation generally unfolds organically and Ford allows it to go in whatever direction the men take it. Frequently she will use the iPad to ‘illustrate’ some aspect of the discussion by checking a fact or showing the group an image or video related to the topic of conversation. She explained that occasionally she also uses the iPad as a device to ‘unblock’ the conversation if the men are less talkative. A simple thing like checking the weather for the next day can be enough to get discussion flowing again. Ford has also found that supporting the conversation with technology helps to take the pressure off some of the participants who may be less confident about speaking up. Where memory or cognitive problems can hamper a participant’s ability to contribute to the conversation, the fear of being unable to remember the name of a person or a particular detail is minimised as Ford is able to quickly locate the information online and share it with the group. The men participating in the cake club typically have little or no access to the internet and online devices, but Ford noted that by being exposed to technology through the cake club, one man has expressed an interest in acquiring a tablet for his own personal use.
Recently, the Italian Cinema Audiences team was invited along to the cake club. After a brief presentation about the work of the project, we screened a short video with clips of interviewees talking about their memories of going to the cinema in Italy after the Second World War. Many of the situations described by our interviewees were familiar to the men from the cake club. They shared their memories of the way films were screened continuously making it possible to watch the same film more than once. Similar to Italian cinema-goers, the men remembered the struggle to find a seat upon entering the cinema. They also recalled the beauty of Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren and discussed how the latter was remarkably ‘well preserved’ for a woman of eighty-two years of age. A clip of Italian comic actor Totò prompted comparisons with Abbott and Costello. Their ideas about Italy and Italian cinema came through films such as Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948), Three Coins in the Fountain (Jean Negulesco, 1954) Summertime (David Lean, 1955), and more recently The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013).
As the Italian Cinema Audiences project comes to the end of its initial three-year period of funding, initiatives such as the Gentlemen’s Cake Club provide inspiration for the ways in which our online archive can be used within the context of outreach work not just in Italy, but also in the UK and potentially further afield.
Thank you to Katharine Ford, The Cinema Museum and the men from the Gentlemen’s Cake Club.