Curtain down on one era - but curtain up for a bright, new future

Torbay Weekly

The top half of Torquay town centre always seemed to have born the brunt of the decline of the typical, old-fashioned, retail-driven UK high street.

The Castle Circus area especially has problems of its own which doesn't help the fight for survival. It has more than its fair share of anti-social behaviour including drugs and drink issues. Putting it politely, it just isn't a very nice.

We have seen money from the £22 million Town Deal funding spent on improving close-by Upton Park but most of the more substantial plans have so far have focussed on the other end of town with game-changing projects for the Stand and harbour areas including, of course,  the Pavilion refurbishment scheme.

My concern was that the top end of the high street would be somewhat left behind and forgotten. But things are happening.

Police and Crime Commissioner Alison Hernandez, herself a Torquay resident, has invested £200,000 into making the Castle Circus area a safer place with a bigger operational police presence.

And now comes another huge dollop of great news which, frankly, I thought would never see the light of day or at least not in the foreseeable future.

Cinemas and theatres were among those businesses battered the most by the pandemic and lockdowns. Merlin Cinemas had bought the former British Home Stores building years ago years with proposals to transform the site into a spanking new and modern cinema.

No chance with Covid? Wrong. We may not be out of the pandemic woods yet, but Merlin have announced it's full steam ahead for the project. In fact, the transformation has already began.

Somewhat sadly, the dawn of a new era will mean the end of another one as Merlin closes their Central Cinema in Abbey Road as part of the 'New Central Cinema' regeneration scheme.

The old cinema was due to close last night (Wednesday) with a final screening of The Batman.  Merlin are busy turning the site opposite Union Square into a plush new multiplex and Hollywood Pizza restaurant.

The plans are well advanced for the first three screens to open for business in April complete with the latest laser project and Dolby sound.  The restaurant and bar areas will follow soon after.

The next phase will be opening three more screens.  There is also provision for more screens in the basement in the future.  The conversion of the former store is Merlin’s biggest project to date. The chain boasts 17 cinemas spanning the UK from Penzance to Thurso in Scotland.

When the pandemic began, Merlin should have been celebrating its 30th anniversary.  Instead, their cinemas were forced to close and all work abruptly stopped during lockdowns.  One screen at the Torquay site was left with a half painted ceiling, a grim reminder of the moment when the team had to down tools and go home.

‘"We pinned our hopes on the Bond film saving the day, but even he couldn’t take on an enemy like Covid," said Geoff Greaves, Merlin’s managing director.

"‘The long delays in acquiring everything from building materials to projection equipment were torturous. "But we’re back now and the work is going well.  The seats are in, the screens and curtains will be arriving next week."

First films on offer will include such treats as Fantastic Beasts, Downton Abbey 2, Top Gun Maverick as well as live screenings of opera, ballet, concerts and shows.  The Hollywood Pizza restaurant will be providing up to 80 covers for diners plus a bar area. Parking will be easier with the pedestrian exit from multi storey car park right next door, with parking open later in the evening to accommodate cinema goers.

Geoff said: "Whilst we at Merlin are very sad to close the old cinema, it could no longer offer the kind of movie experience that customers expect and we want to provide."

The old Central Cinema building opened initially as the Winter Gardens in 1878, it was extended and renamed two years later as the Royal Theatre and Opera House. Projection equipment was installed in 1915 and films were added to the variety programme. In 1922, a full-time cinema licence was granted. Stage performances eventually gave way to films and the theatre then went over to full time cinema use, reopening in 1933 and known as the Royal Theatre.
Another name change followed in 1937 when Odeon Theatres took over.  At that time there were 571 seats in the stalls and 312 in the circle.
Eventually the Rank Organisation closed the Odeon in November 1999, at which point Merlin stepped in and created three separate screens.

What the future holds for the building is unclear but I am sure its historical past and importance will be safeguarded.

Meanwhile, the top end of town gets a massive and long-awaited shot in the arm which could go a long  way to helping to resolve some of the general problems the area has suffered for far too long.