The Last Picture Show?

26 11 2009

Sun Pictures in Broome

One of my favourite films is The Spirit of the Beehive, directed by the Spaniard Victor Erice in 1973, in the dying days of the Franco regime. In an early scene, a travelling exhibitor arrives in a small Castillian town in the 1940s bearing a print of James Whale’s Frankenstein. That evening the film is screened to an audience of gaping rustics in the peeling, nondescript building that passes for the town’s cinema. As the two young girls who will be at the centre of the drama puzzle over the meaning of the images on the screen, the dark, empty streets of the town echo with the ghostly crackle of the film’s soundtrack.

I was reminded of this scene earlier this year when staying for a few days in Broome, Western Australia. Even by Australian standards, Broome is remote. Bordered on three sides by hundreds of miles of parched desert, and on the fourth by a wide, blue Indian Ocean that stretches uninterrupted all the way to Sumatra, it occupies one of the last stretches of Australia’s coast to be colonised by Europeans. When the Europeans (and Asians) arrived in the 1870s and ’80s, it was to dive for pearls. Broome was built on a swamp and for much of its history had a reputation as a hard-living, buccaneering, mosquito-slapping kind of town. 

My girlfriend and I arrived at night and, wandering around the sparsely-lit and almost deserted streets, began to hear voices, deep and resonant and disembodied. As we got closer to the centre of town, a flash of neon gave the game away. We were passing Sun Pictures, the world’s oldest operating open-air cinema.

The next day, eager to find out more, I went along to have a look at the cinema, which opens as a museum during daylight hours. The Sun Pictures building dates from 1916 and is Heritage Listed. Inside, there are various items of movie memorabilia, along with vintage film posters and projectors from the Twenties and Fifties. A corrugated tin roof extends out from the rear of the building, partially covering a deckchair-filled garden. At the foot of the garden, a screen is mounted on the wall of a neighbouring property. ‘If these walls could talk,’ I thought to myself, ‘what stories they would tell.’

Thankfully, in the absence of talking walls there was an audio tour, which I listened to while relaxing in one of the cinema’s deckchairs and patting the friendly grey cat that had been following me around the place.

The story of Sun Pictures, I discovered, is very much the story of Broome itself. Until 1967, seating in the cinema was segregated, with each of the town’s communities – Japanese, Aboriginal, white, Malay – having its own ‘area’ within the auditorium. Until the construction of a town levée in 1974, the cinema used to flood twice a year as a result of spring and autumn high tides. Locals would watch films in ankle-deep water, and would sometimes bring a fishing rod with them too. Dogs fought between the seats until they were banned in the Thirties, and back in the silent era the ivories were tinkled every night by a local lady nick-named ‘Fairy’ because of her elaborate dress sense.

The power of cinema: 'The Spirit of the Beehive'

Happily, the story of Sun Pictures continues today. The cinema was used as a location in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and continues to screen new films every week. It would have been a crime against all that’s good and holy in this world for us to leave Broome without seeing a film there, so, a couple of nights later we joined the ticket queue for Slumdog Millionaire.

After adverts for some very local businesses (Broomians can’t exactly jump in the car and go shopping in Perth) the film started. As we sat under the stars the occasional low-flying aircraft passed overhead, almost drowning out the soundtrack. Sun Pictures, you see, is right under the flight path of Broome’s tiny airport. In any other cinema, this would be a problem: here, it merely added to the frontier film experience, and we went back to our hostel very happy indeed. 

For me, being in Broome at Sun Pictures also bought back memories of childhood trips to the Majestic Cinema in Retford, Nottinghamshire, my home town. The Majestic was a beautiful old building, a theatre and a cinema, with a high ceiling and a grand Victorian interior. It was cold in the winter and often empty too. I remember seeing Dances With Wolves and (ahem!) Look Who’s Talking Too with barely another soul in the place. In the early 1990s, the cinema closed, a victim of VHS rentals and a soulless but sparkling new Warner Village complex in nearby Doncaster. The theatre’s still open, and when Paul Daniels or Ken Dodd is in town, that’s where they’ll perform. But the projection equipment’s all gone, and I haven’t been back since.

These old, historic cinemas are few and far between nowadays, but they’re as much a part of the history of film as the rusting cans of celluloid that archivists struggle to preserve and digitise for the future. If Broome, a town literally in the middle of nowhere, has been able to keep this heritage alive, then the rest of us should probably have a good stab at it too.

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One response

25 01 2015
Alex Johnston

I was a projectionist at the majestic retford in 1958/61.the other two were don green,dicky dexter.really enjoyed my time there.had to move on for personal reasons.went to live in Leeds and work at the majestic in city square.top notch cinema

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