An open letter to Scott Cinemas

Regent Cinema
The Regent Cinema in Lyme looking very forlorn after five years since being destroyed by fire. Will it ever rise from the ashes?

Time to come clean over Regent’s future

Dear Scott Cinemas,

IT was good to read last week that your five cinemas in the South West had each received £46,000 from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund. I am sure this will be greeted by the cinema-goers in Sidmouth, Exmouth, Newton Abbott, Bridgewater and Bristol with great excitement as it won’t be long before they can see all their favourite stars on the silver screen again.

Here in Lyme Regis – the far eastern outpost of your cinematic empire – your former loyal customers are not so ecstatic. In fact, we’re pretty cheesed off – tinged with anger – that as every day goes by the Regent Cinema falls ever more into disrepair.

It’s been five years now since our beloved Regent was destroyed by fire in the biggest town centre blaze since Haddons was severely damaged in the 1970s. The town was distraught to see that the whole auditorium razed to the ground, leaving just the Art Deco frontage in place.

I remember that day well. We were just putting the finishing touches to that week’s View from Lyme Regis newspaper when someone called and said look out of your window.

It was a glorious sunny day and the blinds were down. We gazed across the town to see smoke billowing high into the sky from the top of town.

This was definitely a ‘hold the front page’ moment. My reporter daughter, Francesca, and I jumped into the car and got as close to the fire as we could as we knew Broad Street would be closed.

We parked in Hill Road and were told by a PCSO that we could not go down Broad Street. This was the biggest story we had for some time so nothing was going to stop us.

As we sprinted past the ladies’ hairdressers I heard one of the girls say “Christ, it must be big, Pip’s running!”

By the time we got to the scene I was so out of breath, I couldn’t talk for five minutes! By this time a large crowd had gathered on the opposite side of Broad Street, most of them locals and some in tears.

With several fire engines called to the scene, it was clear that Lyme’s finest were doing their best in dangerous circumstances but there was little chance of saving the Regent.

After taking some photographs, I left Francesca at the scene and went back to the office to write the story as we were very near deadline.

We had to clear several pages and I set about writing the lead, eulogising over what the Regent meant to locals and how lucky we had been to a have an all-year-round cinema in such a small town.

As a baby-boomer I am of an age when I can remember attending Saturday morning flicks, free film shows on special occasions, queuing up the side fire escape to gain entrance.

My other abiding memory is the Sunday night films which were always very rowdy, resulting in the owner, Donald ‘Spike’ Hardy, stopping the film and warning everyone to behave themselves. As he walked back up the aisle he was invariable bombarded by any bit of rubbish that came to hand.

And then there was the chief usherette, Cynthia Hodder, shining a torch on the back double seats, saying: “Behave yourselves or I will tell your mother.” And she did!

And who remembers trying to push your best mate through the door of Boswell the undertakers on the way home via Sherborne Lane?

regent cinema fire
The Regent Cinema auditorium was completely destroyed by fire in March 2016 and later demolished

Nobody could quite believe how badly fire-damaged the Regent was. The whole back of the premises was completely destroyed.

The Regent was sometimes used by the Woodroffe School as a venue for its annual speech day and prize-giving. And on one occasion, Uplyme and Lyme Regis Cricket Club staged a snooker exhibition match in the cinema with a full-size table built especially for the occasion, the first few rows of seats being taken out. It was attended by 400 people.

After acquiring the Regent, Scott Cinemas invested heavily in bringing it up to modern standards and, because they had other cinemas in the area, the new films were always shown as soon as they were released rather than having to wait several months.

The Regent was also a huge tourist attraction as it was one of the few places you could get out of the rain for visitors to the town.

After seeing the extreme damage we all thought that would be the end of the Regent. But Scott Cinemas announced they intended to rebuild.

But as the months and years passed, fears that the Regent would become ‘another Three Cups’ and stand empty and decaying for many years looked like becoming a reality.

If you go on the Scott Cinema website you will see the following statement: “At this stage, we continue to work on designs for a potential rebuild of the cinema in Lyme Regis.

“Given the building’s listed status, the high costs of construction and the relatively low potential turnover of a single screen cinema in the area, any such rebuild has to be both architecturally and financially viable.

“We recently briefed the local authority on a range of design options and our current position, one option of which was a reinstated single-screen cinema with two high-quality apartments at the rear to offset the extremely high build costs.

“We continue to explore this, and other options.”

That statement was dated August 2019 when it was suggested that the cinema could be rebuilt with two high-quality apartments to offset the cost.

And whilst many in Lyme don’t want to see more expensive flats in such a prominent position, opposition to such a plan might not be extreme if we get our cinema back.

Any press enquiries about the current situation of the Regent is met with the same reply from Scott Cinema – “see statement on our website”.

The longer this goes on, the more sceptical locals are getting. The pandemic, of course, has not helped and rumours abound about insurance difficulties and planning issues over whether it should be one screen or two.

I have it on good authority that Scott Cinemas are making efforts to offload the site. If that is true, it is almost certainly destined for luxury flats.

Some say Lyme Regis Town Council should buy the site. That will never happen, but I understand the council are in regular contact with the owners.

The Marine Theatre has filled the gap to a certain extent by showing a few films and with the news that they too have received significant government funding, perhaps they may be able to extend this facility.

The quality of their live streaming at the Marine is very high with but such an extensive programme of various events, it’s never going to be able to operate as a full-time cinema.

So isn’t it time Scott Cinemas came clean to the people of Lyme Regis? Is there any chance at all that the Regent may rise from the ashes? What is the exact position with regard to planning? Are they intending to offload the site for development?

Even if they are not prepared to answer these questions, the least they should do is tidy up the front of the building and the forecourt especially as it is in such a prime position and Lyme is expecting a bumper staycation season.

In the meanwhile, we hope the cinema-goers of Sidmouth, Exmouth, Newton Abbott, Bridgewater and Bristol will soon be enjoying once again a night at the flicks. I only wish we were among you.

Woodmead Halls

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