The Campbeltown Picture House Centenary

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With the centenary of Campbeltown’s joyful little waterfront Picture House coming up, preparations for an appropriate celebration began shortly after the turn of the year, 2013.

Feverish activity in the past month ensured that an event worthy of the day would be put on – with the date set for Sunday 26th May 2013.   The core of the celebration had to be an evening of entertainment looking both back at the past and on to the future.

Russell Carroll, General Manager, consulted with Scottish Screen and the British Film Institute on appropriate early film material and release dates of significant new films were studied.   Invitation lists were compiled and funding sought.   Gradually everything fell into place and The Picture House found that others were also wanting to join in the fun.

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Firstly an approach came from the Hospitality Department at Campbeltown Grammar School – could they bake a cake?   Of course … and the pupils then set to work, researching and talking about their own memories of the cinema and what it all meant for them.   In the end a number of cakes were baked and decorated, and in the week preceding the big day all were displayed in the window of Argyll FM in the centre of the town, so the whole community could admire them.   (After the Gala Reception the pupils were able to take the cake to the Care Home nearby for the residents to enjoy.)

Further north in Kintyre, in the village of Clachan, the congregation of Kilcalmonell held a Flower Festival in April with the theme of ’100 Years of Film’ at The Picture House, Campbeltown. The church was filled with amazing floral creations depicting actual films or representing themes, such as Films of the Silent Era. The Youth Club and individual children joined in too, specially representing films such as ‘Shrek’ and ‘The Hobbit’. Pride of place had to go to the magnificent rendition of ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’, which used the wooden panel behind the Minister’s Stall as the wardrobe.

Later in the month Dr Gordon Barr, an expert on the history of Scottish Cinemas, gave an action packed lecture to The Antiquarians Society on the rise and fall of many famous cinema buildings, and making the audience fully aware of the importance of the very special cinema in their town.

Meanwhile replies to the invitations were coming back and the special Gala programme was taking shape.   Three oil paintings focusing on the waterfront and Picture House were donated to be auctioned, and these were displayed in the window of Rosslyn Oman’s Studio window in Main Street.   The Campbeltown Brass Band agreed to play for 20 minutes before the show began and the tickets began to be snapped up.

About 100 special guests were invited to attend a Reception at the Seafield Hotel, whose premises had been generously donated and decorated for the evening. Chief of these was Liz Lochhead, Machar of Scotland and Patron of The Centenary Project. She was joined by descendants of the original troika of local businessmen who had initiated the building of the cinema 100 years ago. There were also descendants of other shareholders, current business supporters, representatives of the cinema industry, local councillors and funders.

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Miss Mary McMillan was also a very special guest, as she had been born in September 1913, just a few months after the Picture House opened. She is seen top, on the left with Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s Makar and Jane Mayo, Chair of the Campbeltown Picture House Board.

Pupils from the Grammar School were on hand to talk about their baking creations, and a sample of photographs from the Flower Festival added to the display.   A fine buffet had been provided and guests were invited to keep their glasses charged ready to toast the future of the precious, iconic building.

Meanwhile a local photographer, Sarah MacDonald, had generously agreed to record the occasion and was busy snapping away and marshalling groups to chronicle the event for posterity.

It was time for a short speech from the Chair [recorded below]. Jane Mayo welcomed and thanked everyone for coming – noting that this was not only a celebration of the life of ‘a priceless survivor’, Mr F.A. Walker but of a community that had supported the business for 100 years.

The auction was held and over £1,500 raised and then everyone started to head for the cinema and the second part of the evening.

Off and running

A red carpet had been lent by Castlehill Primary School, but sadly it was not possible to have it down as the wind had increased and it started flapping around rather dangerously.  On top of that the rain came in to dampen proceedings – fortunately after everyone had been seated.

A kind and spirited retired Bank Manager had offered to climb into his dinner jacket, don a ‘Picture House’ cap and welcome all the ticket holders to the cinema.   So, a verbal red carpet was given instead.

Tickets had been issued free of charge to make the show accessible to all, but donations were sought on entry and the audience was extremely generous. Strains of brass band music encouraged people to hurry to their seats, so that promptly on the stroke of 8 o’clock the show began.

The Chairman led the Platform Party to the stage and introduced the first guest, Mr Patrick Stewart, Lord Lieutenant of Argyll & Bute, then read a message from Her Majesty The Queen, who sent her warm, best wishes for a memorable and successful event, marking this most special anniversary.

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Liz Lochhead, the Makar, above right with Miss Mary MacMillan, then spoke about being delighted to be associated with The Picture House and recited an amusing piece of poetry composed by her about a visit to cinema. Willie Crossan, below left, nephew of George and Isa Durnan, who had served as projectionists for 75 years, was Master of Ceremonies for the evening and he introduced the programme.

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The first part looked back, beginning with a selection of very amusing old Pearl & Dean advertisements.  Then came excerpts from Movietone News, which included a clip on The Battle of the Atlantic to commemorate 70 years since the tide had been turned in this epic struggle against the U-Boats.   Campbeltown was an important Naval Base during this period, highly secret anti-submarine training being conducted here.

Two silent movies were shown, with piano accompaniment from David McEwan, below, former head of music at the Grammar School, who is custodian of the original cinema piano music of A. Ritchie Greig.   The first silent film was the surviving 6 minutes of what is known as ‘The Campbeltown Film’ shot in 1913, and the second a slap-stick comedy ‘McNabs Visit to London’!   Following this there was a short interval while the staff, specially dressed and equipped for the occasion, dispensed complimentary tubs of ice cream from Isle of Arran Dairies, the closest commercial producer.

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The main feature was ‘The Great Gatsby’ which had only 10 days before opened The Cannes Film Festival, a story set in the 1920s, in Jazz-age America, starring Leonardo diCaprio.   Some in the audience had dressed appropriately and the sparkle of that era seemed appropriate to the occasion.   At the conclusion of the film the capacity audience streamed out of the cinema to the skirl of the pipes, a final surprise from Lorne MacDougall from Carradale, who had played Highland and Border pipes for Disney Pixar’s movie ‘Brave’.

He had raced from Edinburgh airport that day after a gig in Germany the night before.   Sadly by that time it was raining quite hard.   But that failed to dampen spirits as 20 minutes of fireworks over the harbour greeted the audience.   The local volunteer firefighters have great experience of putting on a splendid show as they organise the annual Guy Fawkes celebration and had readily agreed to help The Picture House.   Communication was made to the MOKRUNNERS celebrating in the Victoria Hall and the Songwriters in the White Hart, so that they could witness the spectacle too.

After a long day the Staff of The Picture House were eventually able to close the doors and switch off the lights after a very successful and enjoyable 100th birthday celebration.  The following day the ‘Wee Pictures’ resumed its weekly programme with ‘Iron Man 3′ and the displays and photographs set up in the library for more people to enjoy.

Chair, Jane Mayo’s address to guests at the Centenary

‘Welcome everyone and thank you all very much for coming, especially to those who have had to make a special, long journey to Campbeltown, described as the most peripheral town in the United Kingdom.   Some have come from Edinburgh and Glasgow, some from the far Cornish corners of England and even some from overseas.   We particularly welcome Liz Lochhead, Machar of Scotland, Patron of the Centenary Project.     And to so many of you do we owe a huge debt of gratitude for helping this remarkable building, The Picture House in Campbeltown to survive to celebrate its Centenary.

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‘I have searched the internet for what else happened on 26th May 1913 and found nothing, although another Centenary, that of the Chelsea Flower Show has already been celebrated this past week.      So the opening of The Picture House here in Campbeltown was the most important thing in the world to happen on that day.   Described variously as ‘the cinema Rennie Macintosh might have designed’, ‘a UFO from outer space’, ‘a Bond villain’s mountain hideaway’ and most recently as a ‘flying saucer that’s crash landed on a whisky baron’s villa’, this precious building is actually also about the people who created and sustained it.

‘Think back 100 years to the heydays of this town, when the successful business people were travelling frequently by steamer to Glasgow.   Interesting then, that from this very weekend this will now be possible once again and indeed some here this evening have travelled to the town by this route.   But back then the Campbeltownians found that Glasgow had a large number of these new amusement palaces and determined that one should be built in their town.   The troika of Archibald Armour, Samuel Armour and James Smith became the driving force, joined by 38 other local shareholders, to appoint a prolific specialist cinema architect, Albert V Gardner, to create this masterpiece.   James Smith was the owner of the Ugadale Hotel and a early believer in marketing – how could he make his patrons want to come ‘doun the watter’, what were they to do on rainy days?   A purpose built cinema was the answer.   Later the family of Archibald took on the running and ownership of the cinema and Peter and Joyce and their family, are with us this evening.

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‘The Durnan/Crossan families are also important in the history of the Wee Pictures.   Together George and Isa worked in the cinema for over 3/4s of a century and their nephew, Willie Crossan is helping us this evening as our Master of Ceremonies.

‘In the mid 80s the Campbeltown Community further demonstrated its support.   The future was looking dire, the doors were going to close, even bingo could not resurrect the fortunes of the business.   But Campbeltown did not want to lose its beloved cinema – so a Community Business was formed, one of the first in Scotland, and as a charity it has survived for more than 25 years ever since.   This has only been possible because of local people, the Campbeltown diaspora and other lovers of cinema.   The current Directors would like to pay tribute to these many people, only a few of whom could be here tonight.

‘A special mention should be made of our current staff, particularly Russell Carroll, who next year will also celebrate a quarter century of involvement with The Picture House.   We have also been supported by Argyll & Bute Council, Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the LEADER programme, all of whom together with the Rotary Club of Campbeltown, the Common Good Fund, Community Council and the three Windfarm Trusts have enabled us to take our first step into the digital age earlier this year.

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‘Rather like Canterbury Cathedral we did not succeed with our first attempt at gaining funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for our vital refurbishment project, which will see The Picture House into its second century on a firmer financial footing.   They are encouraging us to try again.   Next week we shall submit a second application.   I am glad to say that our previous funders have remained faithful to the cause as they see it as a most important project.   It is vital we consider the future and our dream is to restore this special place to its former glory but also bring it up to date so that Peter Irvine’s remarks in Scotland The Best come true ‘To see a film here and emerge onto the esplanade of Campbeltown Loch is to experience the lost magic of a night at the pictures’

‘Indeed the improvements to The Picture House will hopefully occur together with a resurgence of prosperity in the town.   Campbeltown is on the cusp of a brighter future, and may I suggest that our iconic building be the symbol of the new way ahead.   Ladies and Gentlemen, please raise your glasses to give The Picture House our very best wishes for the future. ‘

Note: The photographs accompanying this article are by Sarah MacDonald Photography and are reproduced here with permission.

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3 Responses to The Campbeltown Picture House Centenary

  1. Great effort to keep the Wee Pictures going from strength to strength. I remember Pearl and Dean from the Rex as well (just along the road). My only pedantic light hearted criticism of your article FA is that Miss McMillan is doing well for someone who hasn’t been born yet (Tee Hee) …………… “Miss Mary McMillan was also a very special guest, as she had been born in September 2013″

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