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We look at how a little bit of cinema stardust has been sprinkled on Northampton.
Photos courtesy of © Frasershot Studios
Northampton is an ancient town with a long and interesting history, but visitors today have to search hard to find evidence of its medieval past. This is partly the result of some bad choices and some bad luck. In the mid 13th Century for example Northampton had a university to rival those of Cambridge and Oxford, but after only a few years the students had so upset Henry III (who had established it by royal charter in the first place) that he signed a Royal Decree banning the town from having a university. The name Northampton University was not revived until 2005.
Despite a long association with royalty, Northampton sided with Cromwell in the Civil War and reaped the backlash when Charles II was restored in 1660. He was not amused. Getting over that hiccup, much of the town was then destroyed in 1675 by the Great Fire of Northampton. Oh and of course back in 1349 the Black Death had wiped out more than half the population.
Northampton is therefore used to change and making the best of whatever opportunities arise. The town’s famous shoemaking reputation largely resulted from the understanding that, far from marching on its stomach, an army marches on its feet and those feet need to be shod. In the period between the Civil War and the end of the First World War vast numbers of soldiers went to war in Northampton footwear with a consequent upturn in the town’s fortune.
Shoemaking was replaced as a major employer by engineering in the early part of the 20th Century and today finance and distribution are major private sector employers in the town. Ironically the University is also now a major employer. New Town status in 1968 led to another spurt of development and a consequent rise in the population.
In the last seven years that we have been visiting the town regularly we have seen a series of new developments. The town has an entrepreneurial bent and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the town’s Cultural Quarter. Focussed on the theatre, ‘Royal & Derngate’ just across from the Guildhall, and close by the museum, this is undoubtedly one of Northampton town centre’s more architecturally interesting areas. In 1884 the 583 seat Royal Theatre opened. Thankfully, when the need for a larger capacity theatre became clear, the Royal was retained and in 1983 the 1,200 seat Derngate was opened. In 2005 the two were properly merged in a major redevelopment since when the now Royal & Derngate has been under single management and has gained plaudit after plaudit as one of the country’s leading regional theatres.
Not content to rest on its laurels, under Chief Executive Martin Sutherland the Royal & Derngate has launched a number of bold initiatives in recent years. One of the shrewdest being to recognise that there was a local market for a small, comfortable independent filmhouse where the experience of going to the cinema was as important as the film. Showing great discernment Martin engaged ONE17 Architects & Interior Designers to design the building and the Errol Flynn Filmhouse opened in June 2013 on land owned by the local authority immediately behind Royal & Derngate. It was an immediate success and by the end of the year it had been recognised at an awards ceremony held by the local Civic Trust.
Now, I hear you cry, why on earth name the cinema the Errol Flynn Filmhouse? Well I can tell you: it is because the swashbuckling Hollywood actor spent 18 months during 1934 and 1935 with the company of the Royal Theatre en route between Tasmania and Hollywood. Not long you may say, but by all accounts his memory was kept alive for a considerable time thanks to a string of unpaid debts and a number of outraged husbands. Or so we are led to believe.
Anyway, as we have seen Northampton has long been a town ready to turn an event to its advantage and the Errol Flynn Filmhouse makes the most of the town’s fleeting link with the golden age of Hollywood cinema. In a fitting tribute the cinema opened on Errol’s birthday.
So popular did the new cinema prove that within two years ONE17 was commissioned to design a second cinema beside the first. Once again working closely with Martin Sutherland and Operations Director Richard Clinton, ONE17 took advantage of the opportunity to refine and develop the concept in what had become known amongst the team as EFF 1, in what we imaginatively christened EFF 2.
The premise is very simple: a well insulated building where a thoughtful selection of films designed to appeal to audiences not always catered to by the big chains, can be viewed in comfort (not to say luxury!) with a great picture, excellent sound and a civilised approach to drinks and snacks: the specially imported Swedish leather seating has tables and drinks holders for cinemagoers' comfort and convenience as the airlines say. Indeed the experience is not dissimilar to turning left as you enter an aircraft, except that you have the added enjoyment that comes from watching a film in the company of a number of like-minded people.
Richard Clinton commented “We’re delighted to see our second screen now open. It provides even more opportunities for everyone to enjoy the unrivalled cinema-going experience patrons have come to expect since the first screen opened four years ago.”
Externally EFF 1 and 2 present as two elegant if slightly enigmatic timber clad pavilions edged by grass and plants, parked behind Royal & Derngate. The advent of EFF 2 allowed the creation of a small (but perfectly formed of course) outdoor social space between the two cinemas, where patrons gather to socialise before the showings.
There is a rumour that the success of EFF 1 and 2 might be rolled out to other venues. We are keeping our fingers firmly crossed.