A look back at cinematic history of Norwich’s Mecca Bingo
PUBLISHED: 15:00 02 May 2011
The future is uncertain for one of Norwich’s former cinemas after it was revealed it would close due to serious structural problems.
The Mecca Bingo hall in All Saints Green closed its doors for temporary repairs, but now it appears structural problems have closed the hall for good.
The Rank Group, which runs Mecca Bingo, said it took the difficult decision to shut because the repair bill was so high.
A spokesman said: “The cost of the repair bill is so high that it would make the business commercially unviable and we will liaise with our landlord and the local authority regarding the future of the site.”
What will become of the building now is not yet known, but one thing for sure is that the people of Norwich won’t want to see it go the way of the nearby delapidated Westlegate Tower, which has been dubbed the city’s worst eyesore and which stands just yards away.
There is no denying that the Mecca Bingo hall is certainly not the most attractive building in the city centre, partly due to its unappealing cladding, but it still holds a wealth of memories for many who remember it in its heyday as the Gaumont cinema.
It opened as the Carlton in 1932, holding just over 900 people.
It was then the seventh cinema in Norwich. The Thatched Cinema on the other side of All Saints Green had closed in April, 1930, and the Hippodrome had been switched to films from live entertainment in the same year.
It was in 1933 that it underwent major building work and it reopened as 2000-seater cinema, complete with stalls, which could also be used as a theatre for live entertainment.
Perhaps one of its most dramatic episodes came during the second world war, during an intensive air raid of April 29, 1942, when an unexploded bomb smashed through the Carlton’s canopy and burrowed under the outer wall.
The story goes that it sat there undetected and unexploded while cinema-goers continued to watch films, ignorant of the dangers, but Ray Cossey, who was the boss of the building in the 1960s when it had become the Gaumont, said this was a myth.
He said: “The projectionist at the time was still my projectionist in the 60s and he said they knew there was an unexploded bomb there.
“He told me he had to fight his way through the security cordon and said the cinema was in no condition to open.”
It gets a bit confusing because the Gaumont also used to be in Haymarket (where Topshop is now). The cinema there was called The Picture House, although everyone called it the Haymarket, and it become the Gaumont in 1954 before closing in 1959.
When that, shut the name transferred to the All Saints Green venue and it remained a cinema until the start of 1973.
During this time it played host to some big names, most memorably The Rolling Stones who played a concert there in 1964.
Ray describes the concert as “a manic night” and “a manager’s nightmare” because they had to smuggle the musicians both in and out of the venue in a van, and a whole row of security guards had to be hired to prevent the screaming fans from invading the stage.
Ray, now 72 and living in Little Plumstead, particularly remembers witnessing the band squabbling over who was going to fork out for their fish and chip dinner, which he said was surprising given the vast fee they were getting for the gig.
He says: “They were lovely lads and give us not a minute’s trouble at all and could not have been better behaved. And the show was phenomenal.”
The cinema broke Norfolk records for it’s 27-week run of the Sound of Music and a quarter of a million people were estimated to have seen it at the Gaumont by the end of its run. But hearing the same songs every day meant Ray ended up hating the film. “Even to this say if it comes on the television I have to leave the room,” he says.
Other highlights included an appearance by comedy legends Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise for the press showing of their 1966 film The Riviera Touch.
It was in the 70s that it was turned into a bingo hall, trading as Top Rank, and then becoming Mecca Bingo – giving a whole new generation of people happy memories and associations.
But it appears time has been called on its period as a bingo hall and now the building’s future hangs in the balance.
Ray remembers that even in the 1960s the building had its problems, including subsidence, although it is not clear if that is the reason it has shut now.
He says: “Even when I was there 40 years ago the building had structural problems. We did have a lot of subsidence problems at the back there and I’m not surprised this is what has befallen it.
“If you bear in mind the prohibitive costs it all points towards them surrendering the lease and it being redeveloped in some other form.”
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