Kentish Town’s new cinema saga

Will NW5 ever get its silver screen?

A decade ago, after years of threats to demolish the building, planning was granted for redevelopment of the imposing former North Western Polytechnic assembly hall, the unofficial centrepiece of Kentish Town Rd. Residents were over the moon that, as a condition of being able to add another floor to the existing brick building, a new community cinema – to be the first big screen in the area since the last local fleapit closed back in 1975 –  would need to operate at street level.

Things did not exactly go smoothly. Today, despite the hoardings finally coming down a few months back signalling the blessed completion of the apartments above, the much-anticipated picture palace bit has yet to materialise. Peer through the windows, and you’ll see that inside the space remains an empty shell.

So, what went wrong? What might be done to fix it now? And will Kentish Town ever see a happy ending to this long-running saga? Well, after speaking at length with the scheme’s eventual developers, Vabel, we think there’s still plenty of hope.

But first, a little background. The Polytechnic was opened by King Edward VIII in 1929, part of the ambitious technical educational scheme of the day, including state-of-the-art facilities for learning such skills as printing, dressmaking, accountancy, cabinet making or upholstery, with a billiards room, library and gymnasium on site, too. (You can see loads of old photos and find out more fascinating history of the building on the One Prince of Wales website.)

The popular North Western Poly in its educational heyday

It operated under a variety of merged educational names until 1971, with the majority of the building converted into RIBA-award winning apartments back in 1998, and the problematic double height assembly hall occupied by a branch of Pizza Express. Famously vast, echoey and never near full, it was still a popular hangout with locals until its closure in 2013. 

While planning was sought for the latest residential development, a number of squat parties erupted in the cavernous space, (which we remember, hazily, were rather good). The threat of demolition was very real, mobilising local campaigners behind a culturally-focused alternative, including the Leaving Las Vegas film director Mike Figgis and his acclaimed casting director cousin Suzie Figgis. Therefore the eventual preservation of the striking façade, along with the dangling carrot of a brand new cinema, was rightly hailed as a big people-powered victory

But even back then, many questioned whether the conditions of the planning would somehow be wriggled out of by the developers. The original lot, Redview Properties, quickly sold the site to a company called Uplift, who started construction work before suddenly going bust, leaving the roof off and the whole site shrouded in plastic sheeting, scaffolding and mystery as to what might happen next. 

A street artist's wry reworking of Uplift's jolly but unfulfilled hoardings

After two very sorry, damp years, Highgate Studios-based developer Vabel came to the rescue of the whole project, taking over the build and promising to make good on the cinema upon completion. A number of big name arthouse and indie operators were rumoured to be interested in taking on Kentish Town’s now long-overdue new movie theatre, exciting locals once more – and then Covid struck. 

“Before Covid, we’d been speaking directly to a number of smaller cinema operators,” says Jeremy Spencer, Creative Director and Founder of Vabel. “It was hard to find interested parties due to the small size of the space and the single screen, but we’d identified two contenders. One ended up not being commercially viable, and the other had committed to the scheme and we were in advanced talks when lockdown hit. They’ve since fallen away.”

Despite the eventual easing of the Covid emergency, the landscape into which high street businesses have since emerged is full of new challenges. For cinemas, the perfect storm of spiralling running costs, uncertainty over social norms and habits and the rise of straight-to-streaming blockbusters mean it is a huge risk to open anything like the lovely community screen locals once dreamed of. Alongside that, big indie player Curzon has gone and opened their five-screen railway arch multiplex half a mile down Kentish Town Rd.

Yet true to their word, Vabel have indeed designed and built all that’s needed for a cinema operator to move in and fit the place out, starting tomorrow, spanning a pit for the screening room to have tiered seating, and provision for an on-site café and bar as well as acoustic isolation to the floor and structure. 

We are still very much committed to this becoming a cinema and seeing all our hard work realised,” says Jeremy. “With Kentish Town being our home, we’ve gone to great lengths to carefully restore this beautiful building and bring it up to modern standards. We are proud of what we have achieved, the quality of homes we have provided and its impact on the high street. But sadly there is still one very important piece that’s missing.” 

It was always going to be a struggle to realise the desired outcome here; a grand plan decided a decade ago in a very different economic and environmental climate. Perhaps, as some residents feared immediately, a boutique cinema was never actually going to work, but it’s clear that plenty of work has gone into trying. 

“We have put in so much time and effort to design and implement all the components to enable a cinema operator to come in and fit out the space,” says Jeremy. “We remain committed to finding someone who can bring the cinema to life, and have just relaunched our sales campaign hoping we can find an appropriate operator.”

So now the search is well and truly on, with the space just gone to market with Savills. You can see some renders of how it might soon look here.

If residents can once more revive the enthusiasm they showed back in 2014, demonstrate just how popular a cinema here would still be, and perhaps even help in the search to find that elusive boutique operator, too, then it may yet all fall into place in 2023. Got an idea? Email us and we’ll pass it on.

Camdenist will be following the progress of Kentish Town’s cinema with regular updates in our Weekly C-Mail, so make sure you’re subscribed (below) to receive those. Vabel are also going to be helping us bring Secret Feasts to Kentish Town this spring, with some exciting announcements to follow…

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