Tales of the Riverside

The current owner of the Riverside Theatre Stuart Saunders and Tina Wiseman outside the theatre.

The current owner of the Riverside Theatre Stuart Saunders and Tina Wiseman outside the theatre.

The Riverside Theatre has long been an icon in Woodbridge. This year it celebrates its 100th birthday – but as Andrew Clarke found out, its entertainment heritage might stretch back even further

Riverside Theatre in the 1950's.

Riverside Theatre in the 1950's.

This summer the Riverside Cinema, located close to the Deben in Woodbridge, is celebrating 100 years of film magic.

In fact films have been screened on the site of an old coal yard for longer than a century. Before a purpose built cinema was constructed in 1915, travelling tent shows used to arrive in Woodbridge, and part of the attractions they offered alongside circus, music hall and cabaret acts were movie picture shows, or ‘flickers’ as they were called.

The primitive silent screenings proved so popular during the early part of the 20th century that Woodbridge townspeople set about constructing a purpose-built venue for screening this increasingly complex 20th century art form.

In the early days of cinema, audiences didn’t worry about things like story. It was enough to see the pictures move. Scenes from daily life were incredibly popular – workers leaving factories, excerpts from football matches, footage of trains entering and leaving stations, families enjoying a day at the seaside. Some of the most popular early films showed regional audiences film of life in London – trams moving past London landmarks or the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Riverside Theatre in 1915 with the staff outside.

Riverside Theatre in 1915 with the staff outside.

As film-makers became increasingly confident working in this new medium, they found it was an amazing medium for telling stories. As the 1910s developed and the First World War loomed, silent comedies and large-scale epic dramas replaced the observational films that were part of the tent.

Film was becoming more like theatre, and therefore you needed a picture palace in which to screen your cinematic excursion into fun and imagination.

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Electricity was the key to cinema’s success and when Woodbridge’s purpose-built film theatre was opened in September 1915 it was called The Electric Palace before being renamed The Woodbridge Cinema sometime after the end of the First World War. It was then re-named The Riverside Theatre when current owner Stuart Saunders took over in 1984.

Cinema manager Tina Wiseman said Woodbridge has always displayed tremendous enthusiasm for film so they will be devoting the whole of September to this milestone event.

The original entrance of the Riverside Theatre in Woodbridge.

The original entrance of the Riverside Theatre in Woodbridge.

“When the cinema opened, film was the wonder of the age and they were showing silent movies to 550 punters at a time. No worries about health and safety and fire regulations back in those days! They just jammed them in.

“Our anniversary is on September 25, but instead of just doing something for one day we felt we wanted to do something really special, involve the community and spread the fun over an entire month.”

The event will be launched on the first weekend of September with a specially commissioned centenary show.

“The show is designed to tell the story of The Riverside over the past 100 years, and it’s going to be a big sparkly show produced by Mike Warden, who has been researching the history.

Riverside Theatre in the 1980's before a major refit.

Riverside Theatre in the 1980's before a major refit.

“It will also acknowledge the fact that the Riverside doesn’t just show films – we’re a community theatre as well – that is an important part of what we do and echoes the multi-media feel of those original tent shows.

“Mike Warden, was one of the original four who founded The Company of Four theatre company who have performed here for as long as any of us can remember, so it’s good that the show will have that link with the theatre.”

Further community involvement in the anniversary celebrations will see the pupils of Farlingaye High School design and make a large ceramic plaque that will be installed in the theatre’s distinctive (and now redundant) circular air vent over the canopy and entrance.

The anniversary month will feature screenings of a number of classic films, nominated by audiences.

“We’re looking for suggestions of films with a story to them – not necessarily all-time great films, but we’re looking for films which people have seen here in Woodbridge and have a special meaning to them, or a story attached to them.

“Also we’d love to be able to screen some silent films with piano accompaniment, which will recreate our very early days on site.” The actual anniversary is likely to be marked with a champagne reception and the screening of a classic movie.

“Mr Pat Betts, who owned the cinema, before Stuart took over, wants to host a champagne reception in the restaurant on the actual anniversary before everyone goes through to watch a film in the cinema. The exact details of this are still being worked out. Also, The Deben Players are going to do a 20-minute performance of a piece they are creating called Electricity.”

Cinema has been at the heart of Woodbridge life, and digital technology has brought live performance back with the advent of live satellite broadcasts from the National Theatre, Royal Ballet and Opera from Covent Garden being beamed onto the Riverside’s cinema screen.

“The live broadcasts have been a wonderful development. The first year we did about 10 – that was about two or three years ago – this year we expect to do between 30-40. It reaches a completely different audience – again it’s all about being part of the community.

“I think our audience loves the fact that we know who they are and what they like to see. We always have time for a chat and we listen to their suggestions for new films. People like that personal touch because so much of life is now so automated.”

Centenary celebrations start September 4-6. Details of the Riverside 100 season will be added to the cinema website as they are confirmed. For further information www. theriverside.co.uk/programme_100