Reel Cinema Building

Reel Cinema stands on the site of Plymouth's original Theatre Royal (1813-1937). This Theatre opened 23rd August 1813. The Theatre seated 1,200 people on four levels, featuring stalls and pit, dress and upper circles, and a gallery and boxes.

According to one historian, 'In the 1820s and 1830s epidemics of cholera and smallpox, transportation to America, and nonconformist hostility from increasing groups, led to a decline in support of the theatre. By 1820 the Theatre, 'from its size and beauty and being so seldom filled,' had acquired the title of "The Theatre of Splendid Misery."'

Slowly becoming the building we know today, on 15th July 1938, The Royal CInema opened, built for and operated by Associated British Cinemas (ABC). Designed by their in-house architect William Riddle Glen, the building is faced in white Portland stone, with a well detailed Art Deco style scheme, typical of Glen’s style of design. Originally having a seating capacity of 2,404 (1,564 in the stalls and 840 in the circle) opening picks were Katherine Hepburn in "Stage Door" and Cesar Romero in "Dangerously Yours". The Royal Cinema was equipped with a Compton 3Manual/8Rank organ with a Melotone unit and an illuminated console, that was opened by Wilfred Southworth, and was considered to be the finest organ to be installed in an ABC cinema. There was a fully equipped stage and dressing rooms.

Re-named ABC from 28th April 1958 following a renovation, Live stage shows (pop shows) were held here during the 1960’s and the last time the stage was used was for a Morcambe & Wise comedy show. The ABC closed on 30th October 1976 for conversion into a triple-screen cinema and bingo club. The final films in the original single auditorium were The Likely Lads and Steptoe and Son.

The triple-screen ABC opened on 5th May 1977 with seating for 583, 380 and 112. The Compton organ was retained in the bingo club located in the stalls area, but it was hardly ever used. ABC Cinemas passed to the Cannon Group, then to MGM from 22nd May 1992. A management buy-out brought the name ABC back again in the mid-1990’s. A Gala Bingo Club operates in the former stalls area and the Compton organ was removed from this part of the building, to be re-installed in the Blackheath Halls in South-East London. The cinemas continued and from 1st August 2006 have been operated by the independent Reel Cinemas chain. Apparently this is on a short lease, and it was announced that the cinema would close on 2nd October 2008. However, this was halted and the cinema continues on a reprieve, under independent management.

Recent speculation as to the cinema's future has seen numerous online petitions come and go. Author Ian Carroll is supporting a community led capaign to save the building. His book, The Last Picture House: Saving Plymouth's Last Original Cinema Building will compile hundreds of memories from Reel Cinema. 




©Jessica Wright 2020