Epic career in movies for Abbeygate’s Pat
It would make a great film ... one man’s extraordinary devotion helps small, sometimes-struggling cinema defeat the odds to outlast its smarter rival, survive the threat of bingo and multi-screen giants, and march triumphantly on into the 21st century.
Pat Church is so closely linked to the Abbeygate Cinema you can scarely think of one without the other.
He has just celebrated 50 years at the Bury St Edmunds picture house, most of them as manager.
Through thick and thin he has been there fighting its corner. Time and again he has battled to save it from closure.
Over decades it has reinvented itself again and again. It’s hard to imagine the Abbeygate Cinema would he here today were it not for Pat.
These days it attracts audiences from all over west Suffolk with a mix of films and live screenings.
There may be no plans for a screenplay yet, but there will be a book. Pat’s autobiography has been snapped up by a publisher and is due out later this year.
When he arrived in Bury in 1966 the Abbeygate was the side street cinderella to the newer, bigger Odeon.
Since then it has seen so many owners and name changes even he has almost lost count..
And often, another company in charge meant another fight to persuade his new bosses to keep it open.
But through it all Pat has welcomed generations of movie fans into what for a time was the only surviving cinema in west Suffolk.
Today some of those customers are grandchildren of the young couples who occupied the Abbeygate’s back row in Pat’s early days.
And the children of youngsters who once worked there after school now fill the evening jobs themselves.
“Sometimes I feel like Mr Chips,” he says. The parallel with the fictional schoolmaster much loved by successive generations of pupils is easy to see.
The Abbeygate’s loyal clientele feel more like friends than customers. “It’s like having the family round,” he says.
Pat was born and brought up in the Peterborough area, one of a family of seven.
He loved the movies from the moment he saw his first film – the World War Two adventure Cockleshell Heroes.
Four years later the starstruck schoolboy got an evening job in a local cinema winding back the reels of film after they had been shown.
“I was 12 when I started working at a little backstreet cinema in 1959 as the rewind boy,” he says.
“When I left school at 15 they took me on as a projectionist and I stayed there until I came to Bury.
“The cinema where I was working was coming to the end of its time, so I replied to a job advert and came here as second projectionist.”
In the 1960s the Abbeygate, dating back to the 1920s, was one of two cinemas in Bury. Its arch rival, the Odeon, was later demolished to make way for Cornhill Walk .
Showing a film was a very different process from today when a digital movie comes in a box smaller than an old-style video.
“Everything was mechanical,” says Pat. “The films were wound on massive reels, which fitted on a device that looks like a giant cakestand.”
The Abbeygate’s two projection rooms still have their 35mm projectors alongside the modern, computerised equivalent.
“I use them on our cult film nights to show films in their original form,” he says.
After a lifetime looking at cinema screens, he can instantly tell the difference. “The 35mm has a softer look than digital. I think I prefer it, really.”
Not long after arriving in Bury Pat met his wife Geraldine.
“The top floors of the buildings along here were flats, and her kitchen window overlooked the projection room entrance.
“We’d wave now and again, and over time we got to know each other.”
They were married in 1968 and have a son, Stuart, daughter-in-law Shelly, and three teenage grandchildren.
So, what career did Stuart choose? “Guess”, says Pat. Not too surprising to hear he’s the manager of a cinema in Hemel Hempstead.
Geraldine started helping out at the Abbeygate when they were short-staffed in the 1970s, and still works there part time.
“She’s a very good ambassador for the the building, and a good trainer for the youngsters as well,” Pat says.
The early 1970s saw the first major change when the cinema was taken over by Star Group, whose biggest interest was in bingo.
It was converted into two small screens, plus a bingo hall, and renamed Studios One and Two.
Then came his first big battle. “In the mid-70s the industry was in the doldrums, and in 1975 they decided to close the cinema down.
“I put together an action plan because I could see it had potential.
“After a lot of difficult negotiations they agreed to reconsider – a week before they were due to board it up – and made me manager.
“They were exciting times. We changed the programme format and started to listen to what people actually wanted.
“The biggest challenge was to prove to everyone wrong - to show we could survive and do well.”
Star Group sold out to Cannon Cinemas in the 1980s and again Pat had a fight on his hands.
“They were going to pull out, but we talked them into giving it a go. I had taken on the projectionist from the old Odeon, Frank Edgeley, and we were a real partnership.
“With a lot of work, mostly DIY, we managed to bring it up the standard they wanted.”
Pat’s efforts were rewarded by being named Cannon’s manager of the year in 1986.
Two mergers later the cinema was rebranded with the name of its old rival the Odeon, which had long since closed down. “I had mixed feelings about that,” Pat admits.
Before long the future began to look dodgy but another buyout kept them afloat until the cinema was sold on again to a small chain based in Norfolk.
“By the 1990s the new multiples were open, and were mopping up all the new releases. We were struggling,” he says.
“I got in touch with several operators, had a meeting with Picture House Cinemas, and we hit it off from day one.
“They brought back the original Abbeygate name which had always been my ambition. It had always thrived under that name.”
Two more owners followed, but the cinema now looks to a bright future with new managing director Alastair Oatey, who was formerly with Picture House.
“Ironically the cinema has thrived while the bingo hall has now closed down,” says Pat.
“We’re not really in competition with the bigger cinemas because we offer a different style, a lot of alternative content like live screenings of opera and ballet. People come here from a wide area.
“Another thing I’m quite proud of is our mother and baby screenings on Thursday mornings. They’re very popular. We keep the sound level low, and the lights dim for the babies.”
The cinema’s licensed restaurant offering everything from a coffee to a full meal is another big attraction.
The Abbeygate has been Pat’s second home for 50 years. Away from the public areas he still smiles at some long-standing quirky features.
There’s the top floor storeroom he papered with old film posters to hide stains from a water leak.
And getting to the projection rooms can mean a dash through the rain because access is across the roof. The solution – a staff umbrella by the door.
Pat finds it difficult to name a favourite film, although the 1964 epic Zulu is one he never tires of watching even though he has seen it more than 200 times.
Last year he reduced his hours and handed the manager’s reins to his deputy Jonathan Carpenter, but he still works almost full time.
“Quietly, I do feel proud of what I have done ... mostly the fact we are still here!” he says.
Not only here, but likely to expand. There are plans to extend the cinema once again into the former bingo hall.
Pat can’t wait. “My next big ambition,” he says, “is to be here on the opening night of the new screen.”