Cathedral of the movies

Granada Cinema, Tooting, London

Granada Cinema, Tooting, London

When David Atwell wrote the first detailed account of cinema architecture in Britain, Cathedrals of the Movies (Architectural Press 1980), the front-cover illustration was of the Granada Cinema, Tooting, in south London.

The Granada cinema chain was founded by the brothers Sidney and Cecil Bernstein, and they named their company as a result of a walking holiday in Spain.

They employed a Russian emigré theatre-director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, to design a series of purpose-built cinemas, starting in Dover in 1930.

The Tooting Granada, built in 1931, was the flagship.

Its exterior shell was designed in a discreet Moderne manner by Cecil Aubrey Masey. Within, Komisarjevsky provided an utterly magnificent, Venetian extravaganza with a baronial hall and minstrels’ gallery in the foyer, a hall of mirrors in the circle lobby and a 3,104-seat auditorium with a coffered roof, Gothic tracery decoration and a cusped proscenium arch.

It had, and still has, a Wurlitzer organ bought second-hand from the Majestic Theater, Sacramento, California and subsequently enlarged.

All this was planted in a workaday part of south London, near the local tube station. Londoners came off the street into a palazzo of the pictures, inspired by the Doge’s Palace, the Ca d’Oro, and the Palazzi Cavalli, Pizini and Foscari.

Not that they needed to know the cultural references. Komisarjevsky and his left-leaning clients believed that ordinary people deserved the best that could be provided, and economies of scale made that possible.

In the opening-day brochure for the broadly similar Granada Cinema, Woolwich (1937) Komisarjevsky wrote –

The picture theatre supplies folk with the flavour of romance for which they crave. The richly decorated theatre, the comfort with which they are surrounded, the efficiency of the service contribute to an atmosphere and a sense of well-being of which the majority have hitherto only imagined. While there they can with reason consider themselves as good as anyone, and are able to enjoy their cigarettes or their little love affairs in comfortable seats amidst attractive and appealing surroundings.

In the pre-war period the Tooting Granada could easily fill three full houses a day.

It was the first British cinema to be listed Grade II*, in 1972, and the first to be upgraded to Grade I in 2000.

The building is no longer a Granada. It’s now operated by the Gala Bingo chain [], which takes good care of it.

There are images of the parts of the building that the public don’t reach at


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