The Deco sits in the heart of Northampton and has acted as a magnet for audiences for the past 80 years. It has been there through wartime woes and played host to legendary artists including The Beatles and The Stones. And as a cinema it has allowed ticket-holders to escape the humdrum in their thousands. Sammy Jones checks out the colourful history of one of our best-loved venues…
The space occupied at the heart of Abington Square in Northampton is now a hub for entertainment, a place for people to let their hair down and have a good time.
But we doubt that many of those who attended Northampton grammar school which previously sat on the site now home to The Deco, saw it as a place of enjoyment!
The school was in situ for a little over 40 years, before it moved to Billing Road in 1911, and the technical college moved in. In 1932, that too vacated, moving to the Racecourse and the site was ripe for redevelopment.
Designed by William Riddell Glen, resident architect for ABC (Associated British Cinemas), The Savoy, as it was known then, took a mere 15 months from planning to completion.
‘Northampton’s only super cinema’ opened to the public on Saturday, May 2, 1936 and was declared to be ‘the last word in comfort.’
The first film to hit the big screen was Broadway Medley of 1936. The new venue was grand in style and size; capable of holding close to 2000 people, with 1200 in the seat stalls and a further 696 in the seat circle.
The facade and its clean lines can still be viewed today, thanks to some wonderful restoration work.
John Knight was a cinema projectionist there during the war, and recalled the turquoise blue tiles which covered the projection room from the floor to the ceiling, and the ‘strong smell of pear drops from the adjoining rewind room, emanating from the acetate cement used to repair damage to the celluloid film.’
“… there was a special and vibrant atmosphere in the wartime cinema, which was a focus of pleasure and excitement for many thousands of British and American service personnel away from home who found a warm, comfortable and luxurious sanctuary from the bleak reality of barrack life,” he said.
“In those days, nearly everyone ‘went to the pictures’ for there was, of course, no television.”
Lots of morale boosting musicals were shown to lift spirits, first in black and white and then in Technicolor.
Everyone knows about food shortages during the war. But what about newsreel shortages?
It really was a thing. The Savoy was forced to share one newsreel with the Exchange cinema in the town.
“The result was that the two managers had to organise their programmes so as to avoid a clash of screening times,” John remembered, “Sometimes the time difference was hair-raisingly short. As a junior projectionist, it was part of my job to run from The Savoy down Abington Street, across the Market Square and up the many steps in the Exchange foyer to deliver the newsreel to Fred Moule, the chief projectionist anxiously waiting to load it on to his projector.
“And when he had finished with it, one of his lads had to run it back to The Savoy. This process had to be repeated three times every day!”
Back then, taking a pew for the latest blockbuster cost anything from sixpence for a seat in the front stalls, to two shillings and nine pence for the best seats in the house – in the front circle.
A framed insurance policy on the wall of the main foyer covered the management against claims of anyone dying of laughter during a performance. Seriously, it was issued by Lloyds of London!
The Savoy was a dual purpose proposition; catering for film fans and music aficionados alike.
Back in those days, puffing on a cigarette was fashionable, and the beams from the projector would have shone a light on the smoke towers rising from the seats.
John remembers that staff would check between those same seats at closing time, seeking out any stray cigarettes that had been discarded but were still burning: “A small bonus was that often a discarded packet still had some cigarettes in it!”
During the war, many towns were ravaged by fire bombs. Released in their thousands by German bombers, they destroyed huge areas. They devastated Coventry, and the glowing red sky was visible in Northampton.
Fire brigades couldn’t possibly cope with the number of incidents alone, and so the government introduced the compulsory practice of ‘fire watching.’ Employees of large businesses were expected to remain on site overnight, in the hope that, if the building took a hit, they would be on hand to extinguish the flames.
You would be compensated for your time at one shilling and sixpence per night. John did so many night shifts that for a long time he was practically resident. The Savoy really was a home from home for him.
In the 1950s, the building was rebranded as the ABC, and as post-wartime Britain gave way to another new decade, the venue was about to welcome a new brigade: the stars of pop and rock n’ roll.
There were a few familiar names too; The Beatles played twice in 1963.
In the Derrick A. Thompson & William Martin authored book ‘Have Guitars…Will Travel,’ their shows were remembered.
Seemingly, the band’s popularity had exploded between the first and second date, and the November gig saw weeping girls, overcome to be sharing air with their heroes.
The Fab Four’s route out of the venue afterwards was an operation too, with four constables stationed outside the stage door in the ABC car park. Each with an overcoat.
‘As the Beatles appeared after the curtain went down, each one was handed one to wear over his stage wear, and they were escorted across the car park, through the back entrance of a factory into St Michael’s Road,’ where they were met by a car waiting to get them back to London.’
The Rolling Stones followed in 1965, but even Mick & Co. were tame next to the Cilla Black and PJ Proby package that arrived on February 1, 1965. Although to be fair, Cilla wasn’t the one causing the issue.
PJ had already been warned not to let his trousers rip on stage, following an incident earlier in the tour which caused a major commotion. But his seams split again in the ‘fampton and the Texan was arrested on stage.
The policeman who cuffed him? That was PC Bryn Harris, father of Radio 2 broadcaster ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris!
Other artists who whipped up audiences at the venue included Cliff Richard and the Shadows, The Kinks and Adam Faith, and entertainers Larry Grayson, and Morecambe and Wise.
As far as films were concerned, large screens became too expensive to operate, and the building was split, producing a three-screen cinema complex.
The Glen and Dore opened on Boxing Day in 1974, but two decades later and the cinema, now called the Cannon, suffered the same fate as many other previous leading lights; unable to compete with the large multiplexes that were taking hold, it closed for the last time in 1995, with Terminal Velocity the last film to air.
Whoever locked up that night was shutting the doors on more than 60 years of memories.
But the venue that had given so much to the Northampton community during the war and beyond, wasn’t done.
In 2000, the derelict, dilapidated building was converted and restored – once the pigeons were told to pack up their nests and leave, and the leaking roof fixed up.
The original building might have taken a little over a year to go up, but the restoration would take significantly longer – it took four years of work to transform the rundown space into a multi-purpose venue, which is now a wonderful fusion of its original art deco design and state-of-the-art-technology.
In October of 2004, the grade II listed building returned – with a 900 seater auditorium, two small suites, and conference and function rooms. It was back serving the community of Northampton and beyond – things had come full circle.
“It’s an honour and privilege to bring life back to this iconic building and open the doors again to the general public,” said chief executive of The Deco, Kevin Roach.
“The pandemic hit our industry hard, but has also given us the opportunity to plan and implement a sustainable future for our venue, and we’d like to thank all our customers who supported us throughout.
“Our immediate plan is to reinstate a full programme of live shows, cinema viewing and events…”
And with a wedding license in place (you really can tie the knot on site now), the new ‘Bar 36’ opening in the Autumn and The Golden Globe coffee shop inviting people to top up their caffeine levels, the buzz is most definitely back at The Deco.
Visit www.thedeco.co.uk to discover your next night out