This cinema, known since 1952 as the “Continentale”, is unique as the only Wenchoster picture house established in a converted chapel.  Built in the late 1880’s as a Congregational place of worship it was remodelled during late 1920 by the local architects Drungmen & Mettier providing an auditorium of about 300 seats, and the exterior still retains some ecclesiastical detail.  It began life as the “Empire Picture Theatre”, and was known simply as “The Empire.”  By 1924 the cinema was owned by W. Pentecost and Robin Sassoon, and presenting three changes of programme a week.  The cost of admission ranged from 6d to 1/6d.  Sound was installed in 1930, when the owner was Mrs. Nancy Cracker-Fillibert, and in spite of competition from the nearby “Novelty Electric Theatre” which opened in 1910, the “Empire” seems to retained its clientele and prospered.

During the summer of 1939, the interior underwent a comprehensive refurbishment, the basement rooms being strengthened with concrete to provide an air-raid shelter for its customers.  Upstairs new seating was installed and auditorium painted royal blue and gold.  The balcony gas lamps were retained, and the cinema was re-opened in August by Jack “Codpiece” Filler, star of the Wenchoster Follies, with a showing of Angela Clutterbuck in “She came at Midnight.”

At first the war did not interrupt programmes at the “Empire”, and early in 1940 special matinees were provided for local children and evacuees.  However, the cinema closed at the end of May 1941, but re-opened in October 1942 only to close again in June 1943, this being the end of the cinema under the name of “The Empire”.

The period immediately after the Second World War witnessed a number of ventures in providing small newsreel and cartoon cinemas in the city, such as “The Cosy Corner”, “The Flageolet Flick House” and “Bishop’s Picture Palace”.  At the end of June 1946, the opening of the “City Newsreel Showhouse” in the Empire building was announced, and on 21st July there was an opening programme of “Backstage Fumbling” plus news and cartoons, but by the end of November the cinema was again closed.

On 31st October of the following year, 1947, the cinema was taken over as the “Wenchoster Repertory Theatre” with a production of Norman Nesbitt’s “The Eunuch of the Harem.”  Plays continued, but by the end of 1948 Sunday showings of French films had been introduced, and on 27th March 1949, the theatre reverted to a full-time cinema – “The Academy” – with a showing of “The Best 10 years of my wife.”  Special Sunday programmes of foreign and “art” films continued as before.  The Academy lasted until another closure at the end of 1951.

After four months the building opened yet again, “entirely redecorated and renovated” and “under West End management” as the “Continentale”, run by Freddie “Fingers” McManus, and specialising in foreign and art films.  Prices were 1/6d to 6/- and the opening programme on 1st May 1952 included Jean Grabbin in “Mon Chapeau est dans la Bain”, and Greta Bosom in “Les Plumpies de ma Tante.”  During the 1950’s the “Continentale” had considerable success and became well known for its showing of minority interest films and reruns.  In February 1961 the cinema became the last in Wenchoster to be adapted for CinemaScope.  Stereo sound was added in 1965, though the quality often made it sound as if the actors were speaking underwater.

In 1966, Myles Boille, who had already been associated with the Repertory Theatre and “Academy” cinema, took over the “Continentale” and continued managing it until his death in 1987.  In 1967 the “Continentale” hit the headlines in the “Wenchoster Journal” when the City Council refused a Certificate of Approval for “Undercover Briefs” – a decision reversed shortly afterwards.  The following year “Aye Ready, Madam” was also initially refused and later allowed public exhibition at the cinema.

During the last 20 or so years the “Continentale” has enjoyed a reputation both for the quantity and the quality of sex films exhibited, and in 1987, when closure threatened, the “Wenchoster Journal” printed a headline which nicely reflected the local feeling for the cinema – “Keep Your Hands Off Our Sex!”  The closure never happened, and the cinema now specialises in classic film noir and independent productions.


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