Following the out-of-court settlement with the liquidator in December 1992, the council took back control of the cinema on 25th March 1993, and on that date decided that it had to be closed indefinitely due to the risk to public safety arising from the poor condition of the cinema’s electrical wiring. An inspector who looked at the building refused to issue a safety certificate.
The surprise closure of the cinema shocked the town, for it was Worthing’s last cinema, and it had never been closed down in its 82 year history. Many people feared that it would never re-open and that, once boarded up, the building and its ornate interior would rapidly deteriorate. Council Conservation Officer Eric Cockain volunteered to undertake frequent regular inspections to monitor its condition as he could gain access because of his position as a Worthing Borough Council officer. But the cinema needed rewiring throughout, at a cost estimated by council officers of between £50,000 and £100,000, before it could reopen.
Following a meeting between the Trust and council representatives on 29 March it was agreed that a new joint working party meet as soon as possible to discuss the future of the Dome.
The Trust was angry that a report by council consultants Calder Ashby five years earlier had not been acted upon. It had warned, “The electrical installations are in an extremely poor condition. Some of the wiring is very old as it has not been manufactured for some 30 years.”
Although the council officers had estimated it would cost up to £100,000 to get the auditorium rewired, Seeboard came up with a much lower estimate of £23,000, which was accepted by the council. In April 1993 the council entered into a contract with Seeboard to undertake the limited works required to obtain an electrical certificate which would enable a cinema licence to be issued. The final cost of the works was £26,500 and they were completed in May 1993. The cinema licence, a legal requirement for running a public cinema, was granted and the cinema subsequently reopened, to everyone’s relief.
In May 1993, the council entered into a new six month tenancy agreement with Robins Cinemas Ltd to keep the picture house running. It was agreed that the cinema should be operated on a short term tenancy so that during this period the marketing of a long lease of the Dome Complex, including a requirement to carry out repairs and renovation of the building, be undertaken.
The Trust contacted the boss of Robins Cinemas, Canadian Bill Friedman, in London to see if there was any common ground between the Trust and Robins. As a result an encouraging meeting took place at the Dome, between Rob Blann and John Head for the Trust and Bill Friedman, where an agreement was reached on working together to achieve the goal of preserving and refurbishing the building in line with the Trust’s proposals.
Robins installed a new manager to run the Dome in the form of Claire Tomkins, who gave able assistance to the Trust and worked closely with them.
A charity premier of the American blockbuster Jurassic Park took place at the Dome on 16 July 1993, raising £1,000 for the Trust. The cinema was packed to overflowing for the much-hyped Steven Spielberg film.
The council, encouraged by the unexpected interest in the cinema shown by bidders during the liquidation debacle, decided amid a huge protest from the Trust to put the whole Dome building up for sale on the open market in 1993. Strenuous efforts and lobbying by the Trust at least resulted in only a long leasehold interest being offered rather than the freehold, so that some control could still be exercised by the council over the fate of the building.
The council agreed that the Dome Preservation Trust be consulted and involved in any selection process of a long term lessee following the marketing exercise.
In June 1993, the council appointed Goddard & Smith of London as the their agents for the nationwide marketing of the Dome Complex on the basis of a 125 year lease with premium offers being sought and a schedule of works to be undertaken over the next five years. The more significant works required over that period were :-
a) Structural repairs to the Dome tower.
b) Electrical rewire to the cinema.
c) Renewal of boiler and pipework to the complex.
d) Renewal of steelwork to portico and balcony.
e) Provision of a fire alarm systaem.
f) Improvement of fire escape to rest of cinema.
g) Repairs to external walls.
h) Replace defective tiles and slates to pitched roof coverings.
i) Prevention of damp penetration to cinema foyer and auditorium, and replace timber panelling where it is in poor condition.
j) Externally redecorate throughout.
The only realistic bid came from the Trust in conjunction with Robins Cinemas, and, naturally, it was dependant upon grant aid from various bodies including the Arts Council and English Heritage. Such aid would not have been forthcoming unless the Trust had a legal interest of some sort in the building, or at least a written indication that the council would grant such an interest.
The council refused to give any indication of that sort without a guarantee of funding for the project. Needless to say, the council rejected the Trust’s bid. This stalemate situation was to bedevil the Trust’s dealings with the council for some years, since despite repeated meetings and requests, the council refused to give any written indication of support that could be used to secure grant aid.
The joint bid from the Trust and Robins was to restore and develop the listed building. Plans were to refurbish the cinema, with internal alterations, and create two more screens elsewhere in the building, so that in addition to the big screen, there would be two mini screens for 50-60 patrons.
A restaurant/theme bar would be created next to the new screen on the first floor, while the two floors in the tower would be turned into a museum. The cost of the proposed scheme was estimated at £650,000, of which £200,000 was to be invested by Robins Cinemas; £200,000 was expected in the form of grants from English Heritage and the Sports and Arts Foundation; and £250,000 was to be raised by the Preservation Trust. In return the Trust wanted the head lease for £1.
The council’s senior officers said the offer was not good enough. They said the bid “falls well below the council’s requirements and expectations. It is disappointing that the extensive marketing of the complex, designed to secure its repair and preservation without substantial cost to the council, has not been successful.”
Robins Cinemas’ general manager Nick Kilby, on hearing that the joint offer was unsuccessful said he believed his company was being penalised for the council’s “over-grandiose” expectations. “They do not like the reality so they are going to change the rules,” he claimed.
But instead of letting the Trust and Robins’ take over the Dome the council officers recommended instead to spend £225,000 of public money carrying out the most urgent repairs, to issue another short lease on the auditorium to Robins’ Cinemas, and wait a couple of years for an upturn in the leisure investment market before remarketing the Dome.
When it became clear officers were to urge councillors to reject the Trust/Robins offer, the Trust submitted an 11th hour alternative proposal. Chairman Rob Blann asked the borough council to let the Trust prove its fundraising abilities, by giving it a two year lease, with an option to renew for 99 years once £100,000 had been raised.
The Trust would then let the cinema to Robins’ and let the rest of the premises to two other tenants, while the council undertook urgent work costing £225,000. Formal applications would be made by the Trust for grant aid from English Heritage and the Sports and Arts Foundation.
“The council has nothing to lose by involving the Trust,” said Mr Blann. It can only result in the restoration of Worthing’s unique Dome complex to its former glory, becoming once more the jewel in the crown for the town.”
Councillor Ian Stuart urged fellow members to accept the proposal, reminding them of the Trust’s Business Plan and numerous other difficult requirements that council officers had demanded. “The Trust has passed a whole series of hurdles that have been put up in front of it. It is folly to turn down an offer from people who have the welfare of the cinema at heart. I am disappointed we have made such little progress in securing the Dome’s future when the Trust is here and has the interests of the venue uppermost.” he said.
Councillor Brian Lynn said the authority, which is the Dome’s landlord, had been “chasing its tail” over the cinema for years.
Echoing the feelings of the Trust, Councillor Brian McLuskie added: “All of us have a sense of frustration that year after year still nothing has been resolved. Somebody has got to take an initiative and we should give the Trust all the encouragement we can.”
“We have got to make a commitment to ensure we have an entertainment complex at the Dome which will give entertainment to the people of Worthing and which shows the history of cinema in this country. This is a unique building on the seafront.”
Mr McLuskie claimed it had been the council which had allowed the Dome to fall into such a bad state of repair, and for that reason it should be the council which repaired that damage.
But the majority of councillors agreed with their officers’ recommendation to reject this last-minute bid.
The lack of offers from commercial bodies, despite widespread marketing by specialists, was thought to be due mainly to the state of disrepair of the building. So the council, encouraged by the Trust, then planned to spend some £225,000 on major structural steelwork repairs to the dome tower itself in 1994, a sum that eventually ended up exceeding £300,000 when virtually all the steelwork above first floor level showed signs of bad corrosion and had to be replaced, and the original concrete domed roof was unable to be kept.
The Herald of 7 January 1994 carried a report on the council’s impending scheme and quoted local historian and Dome Trust chairman Rob Blann as being “delighted with the council’s intentions and said the work would be a big step in the right direction.”
Section by section the octagonal Dome tower was demolished and rebuilt whilst the cinema, the bingo club, and the Rendezvous Café remained open. Existing windows were replaced with ones in keeping with the original small frame windows which were in place in the early part of the century. New flooring and a new staircase were also installed in the tower. Fire safety measures were included in the contract.
To augment the council’s repair contract, the Trust launched a public appeal 25 March 1994 to pay for the reinstatement of missing architectural features, removed in the early 1950s, which were not included in the council’s brief. These included the construction and replacement of a cupola and flagpole on top of the domed roof.
“The council is doing the essential works and we are putting the cherry on top of the cake,” said Trust vice chairman John Head, who was also quoted as saying: “If the Trust is successful in obtaining a lease on the complex, then with that sort of control and legal interest, we could apply for grants from government bodies like English Heritage, and really ensure the building was restored to its former glory.”
In order to enable these additional works to go ahead, detailed applications for planning permission and listed building consent were prepared and submitted to the Council by the Trust’s town planner, John Head. The plan showed all the external work that the Trust intended, including new shopfronts and entrance arcade to the original Edwardian design, and a comprehensive lighting scheme for the front of the building involving hundreds of bulbs. Permission was granted, after the plans had been examined by English Heritage, and they were of course supported by the Council Conservation Officer.
“Doing up the Dome” was the rallying cry to raise £5000 for a cupola, £750 for a flagpole, and £4,250 for fender rails around the base of the domed roof.
Friends of the Dome, an arm of the Trust, was set up in 1993 under the chairmanship of Rob Blann, with the dual purpose of encouraging even wider awareness of the plight of the Cinema and as a fund-raising body. With the support of local businessman Chris Slade (recruited by Rob Blann) who runs his own PR and marketing business, sterling efforts were made in this direction.
In March 1994 the Worthing Herald teamed up with the Trust to begin an appeal campaign to assist with fund-raising, but unfortunately the newspaper never quite got it together.
Local restaurants were invited to participate in a discount scheme and become “Dome Diners” to assist the Trust.
“Friends of the Dome” offered cinema ticket and town centre restaurant discounts for a modest membership fee, with the money collected going to the appeal fund.
An award-winning marketing agency, Amherst Marketing, promised to give its expertise free-of-charge to help “Friends of the Dome” membership drive. One of Amherst’s directors, Jim Brackin, said the agency had probably raised £7 million for charity through direct marketing techniques.
“Friends of the Dome” membership entitled you to £1 off the cinema’s ticket prices on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the year, plus 15% discount at the following restaurants in Worthing: The Pizza Hut, South Street; Pavilion Tandoori, Marine Parade; La Romantica, Brighton Road; Steers, Marine Parade; and Spices, Marine Parade.
“Friends of the Dome” chairman Rob Blann appealed to the public through a full page Herald feature, “ With your invaluable help we can go even further along the road to restoring the complex to its former glory by putting back the finer embellishments so that once more this conspicuously unique gem of a building can be the jewel-in-the-crown for Worthing.”
The Dome Cinema manager Claire Tompkins added, “Robins Cinemas are proud of their involvement in such a delightful and historic building but now we can all play a part in this drive to restore it to its original beauty.”
“Friends of the Dome” got off to a good start by securing a well-known and respected professional as its president, cinema and theatre innovator and finance chief, Professor Anthony Field, CBE. Instrumental in bringing to London such plays as Tea and Sympathy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A View from the Bridge, Mr Field was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977 and the CBE in 1984.
Born in 1928, he became a chartered accountant and then chief accountant to a group of companies controlling West End theatres, plus optical works and chains of shops and offices. In 1957 he joined the staff of the Arts Council of Great Britain, later becoming finance director.
As an Arts Council assessor he sat on the board of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and has detailed experience of many other opera, ballet and drama companies in the UK.
Many show business stars gave their support to the campaign, including Michael Caine, Christopher Timothy, Tom Bell, Helen Mirren and Cleo Laine.
The Trust planned to launch a schools’ project based on the entertainment centre’s history. There had been a lot of talk about modern children’s pastimes, such as computer games, steering children towards solitary pursuits and lack of communication. Some historical interest would be useful to show how earlier generations spent their leisure time.
Trust member Chris Slade said: “Covering a wide range of subjects from art and design to history and sociology, the intention is to invite groups of school students to visit the Dome for a tour of the building, listen to a talk about its history and the entrepreneur Carl Adolf Seebold, whose brainchild the multi-entertainment complex was.”
“A visit to the cinema would be incomplete without a film and nothing more fitting in a cinema that was built in 1911 than films from that era. So it is hoped each visit would be rounded-off with the showing of a short programme of the type which might have been shown in the cinema’s early years – melodrama, classic silent comedy and news footage from between the wars.”
“Hopefully, students would go away with a project work-book including a written history of the building, news stories and photographs of events from its early years, and follow-up ideas.”
The Trust invited approaches from local teaching staff interested in both using and helping to shape such a package towards their needs and curriculum constraints.
By June 1994 the Trust was successful in its long fight to gain charitable status. There had been much difficulty gaining charitable status because of the commercial nature of the Dome complex and the number of leases held by businesses operating from the site. The battle to become a registered charity became a clouded issue because of the ‘complicated’ nature of the Trust not having any tangible piece of the building, a matter made more complex by the lessees of the other business interests in the building, namely the Bingo club on the upper floor and the Rendezvous Café at the front.
In the continuing appeal to ‘Do Up The Dome’ various well-known stars signed up to assist the campaign. Helen Mirren headed the cast backing the Dome facelift. Celebrities proved willing to support a ‘Wall of Fame’, where stars of theatre and the screen provided two signed prints each.
In a press release of 19 June 1994 Chris Slade, of Friends of the Dome, said: “One print will hang in the foyer and the second in each case will be presented to the company or individual making the donation. It’s early days, but first in was Helen Mirren, and set to follow are Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson and Sir Richard Attenborough.”
The Evening Argus of 25 July 1994 reported: “Madonna could play a part in restoring Worthing’s Dome Cinema. Fundraisers are confident she will send a signed photograph which will be sold off. The “Friends of the Dome” have so far raised about £7,500. Spokesman Chris Slade said proceeds from a one-man show by Sir John Mills at the Dome scheduled for August would go to the appeal. And some of the profits from the first showing of The Flintstones are also destined for the fund.
Fundraising took many forms, for example, a stall at the Seafront Fayre, held on the last weekend in July raised about £300 for the restoration funds, with grateful thanks to the local firms that donated prizes for the tombola.
“A series of celebrity film and show evenings is being planned in Worthing to boost the coffers of the Dome Preservation Trust,” reported the West Sussex Gazette on 18 August 1994. Leading the way on Sunday August 28 at 7.30 pm is actor Christopher Timothy. Still probably best known as TV vet James Herriot in the long-running series All Creatures Great and Small, Timothy also has an impressive stage CV to his credit.”
“He has just finished playing at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in J B Priestley’s Dangerous Corner and is fondly remembered for his re-creation of Chesney Allen in Underneath the Arches. He has also appeared on stage in Leatherhead and Nottingham as well as the West End.”
“Timothy will talk about his love of films – particularly thrillers directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Psycho is one of his all-time favourite flicks – and then introduce a screening of it.”
“The next such evening will feature stage and TV actress Susan Hampshire, who will give a talk before the showing of her selected film.”
The Worthing Advertiser of 12 October 1994 joined in the campaign and devoted its front page of 12 October 1994 to the cause: “More than 110 people have now joined a unique scheme, Friends of the Dome, and a package of goodies, including free cinema tickets, is being put together for the lucky, 200th member.”
“Dome manager Claire Tompkins appealed for more people to join the fund-raising group which boasts cinema ticket and restaurant discounts for members. A charity performance of new Disney blockbuster The Lion King is being held at the Dome on Friday at 7.30 pm to aid the appeal. Tickets are £5.”
After the Trust held a celebrity evening with Cleo Laine, the publication ‘The Stage and Television Today’ reported in its edition of 15 December 1994: “Cleo Laine recently gave a celebrity interview as part of a series of events held in aid of the Worthing Dome Preservation Fund. The jazz legend outlined her career from being an urchin in the 1946 movie The Thief of Beghdad, right through to the publication of her new autobiography, the simply titled Cleo.”
“During her years at the top, divine Ms Laine has received an OBE, a Tony and a Grammy. But she rates none of these as her greatest accolade. That distinction, apparently, goes to having a donkey named in her honour by former Arts Council finance chief Tony Field.”
The Worthing Guardian of 8 December also featured the charity event: “The Queen of Jazz – Cleo Laine – was the special guest of the Dome Cinema recently when she was interviewed by the Dome Preservation Trust president, Professor Anthony Field.”
“The audience was treated to more than an hour of fascinating glimpses of Cleo’s full and exciting career spanning four decades. She then signed copies of her new autobiography and chatted with guests.”
“Forthcoming celebrity lectures include Susan Hampshire, Alan Bates and Simon Mayo. The next event is to be an Edwardian evening next month, complete with silent films, a six piece orchestra, special guests and wine and buffet.”
Many show business personalities pledged their support for the Dome cause over the years. Four of the became Vice Presidents of the Trust, namely Jeremy Irons, Barry Norman, Julie Walters and Bryan Forbes.
The next day’s Herald of 9 December carried a full page of articles about the Dome, including the Cleo Laine interview, as part of the appeal for Friends of the Dome. By this time more than 140 people had joined the Friends, each paying £10 per year membership.
As the Dome had been shrouded in scaffolding for many months it was felt that a reminder was needed to let people know the place was still in business, and so the Friends produced a newsletter entitled ‘Worthing Dome Digest, tales from behind the scaffolding’, which was used to update members on the progress in restoring and maintaining the complex.
But the main body of the Herald’s Dome page on 9 December gave an invaluable insight to the workings of the old cinema, under the heading “Movie man who loves the timeless appeal of the cinema”:
“Dome Cinema projectionist Glyn Owen says his main ‘workmates’ these days are the celluloid figures on the screen. For, as with many professions, his has become a more solitary working life over the last couple of decades.”
“ ‘In the early days,’ he said, ‘there were as many as three or four projectionists at once – always two so you had a companion. The main companions now are the celluloid figures on the screen, who keep you from getting lonely.’”
“With about 20 years’ experience at the Dome, Mr Owen clearly cares most about giving the audience a good film show. ‘I appreciate a good film but must admit I get more pleasure out of showing them. I like to think, regardless of whether there’s an audience of half a dozen or 600, they get a good show.’”
“He lamented the lack of good musicals on film these days: ‘They just don’t seem to come up with the goods these days like they did in the 1950s. And they don’t make the projectors like the ones at the Dome any more either.’”
“ ‘We’re one of the last cinemas to use carbons, which are like welding rods. One is positive and the other negative and when they strike together you get a spark. You get a very powerful light which is projected through the film.’”
“ ‘Dating back to the mid 1930s the two Peerless projectors are American made. That says something for American engineering’.”
“Before screenings, Mr Owen winds the 35 mm film on to a spool by hand to check every join for snags that could break the film. ‘With a modern-day product there aren’t many joins. In the old days there could have been 80 joins in the film, which was a nightmare’.”
“The film runs through the projector at a rate of 90 feet – roughly the distance between the projector box window at the back of the auditorium to the screen – per minute. Mr Owen, who has lived in Worthing for about 20 years but used to live in Rustington, appeared in the film Wish You Were Here, which also featured the Dome.”
“However, the projectionist in the movie was played by one of the stars, Tom bell, while the real projectionist was seen as a bus conductor in three scenes. Mr Owen’s advice was sought in making the movie seem authentic.”
“The other, real-life projectionist at the Dome is Bob Town, who used to work at the Odeon in Worthing.”
The May 1995 local election saw a change of political leadership in Worthing’s council chamber. For the first time, the Liberal Democrats were in overall control, the party that, when in opposition, had been favouring the Dome cause. The Trust hoped that council decisions might now change in its favour, but time and again this would prove not to be the case. The Democrats were as much against the Dome as the Tories had been when they were in power.
Worthing Edwardians teamed up with the Trust to put on a music hall variety evening performance in September 1995 at the Dome, raising funds jointly for the Trust and the Parkinson’s Disease Society.
The charity gala event was held at the Dome in February 1995, when the Worthing Edwardian Society put on a special performance before a showing of a vintage film.. The Worthing Guardian carried an article entitled “Dome’s time travel”:
“Worthing’s Dome Cinema Edwardian Evening took over 300 guests on a nostalgic trip back in time to the golden age of silent movies. The event raised over £1000 for the Dome Preservation Trust and the Parkinson’s Disease Society Nurse Appeal.”
“The classic film Sunrise – with musical commentary by the Film Music Ensemble – was the highlight of the evening. The audience included mayor-elect Herbie Golds and his wife Tania.”
“Cinema manager Claire Tompkins spoke of her pleasure at being able to support the two charities. The next charity event at the Dome will feature the favourite film of Oscar winner Jeremy Irons. The star of films such as The Mission will also be interviewed by the president of the Dome Preservation Trust, Professor Anthony Field.”
On Friday 21 April another celebrity lecture was held at the Dome where the renowned actress Susan Hampshire was interviewed by Tony Field as part of the continuing drive to raise funds for the final embellishments on the Dome’s tower.
By April most of the council-backed essential repair work to the Dome tower had been completed, at a cost in excess of £200,000.
The appeal by the Trust to raise funds to ‘put the icing on the cake’ raised £10,000 for the fabrication, erecting and fitting of the cupola and flagpole on top of the dome and for the fender railings around the dome. Exhaustive requests for donations were answered by Bentalls, WSCC, Worthing Civic Lottery, and many individuals. Some of the materials used were donated by Hall & Co, Churchley Bros and Travis Perkins.
On Sunday 30 April 1995, after an absence of some 40 years, the new cupola and flagpole were hoisted into position by a giant crane, loaned by Llewellyn’s of Brighton (who had undertaken the council’s repair contract), and affixed to the top of the Dome.
The West Sussex Gazette recorded: “The jewel in Worthing’s crown was restored when a massive hydraulic crane helped give the town’s Dome Cinema back a lost touch of its original glory. A cupola, designed to match the original, and flagpole were once more raised proudly above the tower’s dome-shaped roof from which the 84-year-old cinema takes its name.”
“During the Sunday morning – timed to avoid traffic disruption – the mighty crane hoisted the eight foot high glass fibre cupola, which cost £5,000 and was sponsored by Worthing Civic Lottery, up to its roof-top position. This was then topped by a flagpole projecting nine feet out of the top of the cupola, the £750 cost of which was given by Bentalls (now Beales).” The Town Centre Initiative donated £37 for the Union flag.
“Since conservationists rescued the Dome Cinema from certain demolition the historic picture house has become a listed building and one of the town’s icons. Later this month there are plans to install a specially moulded fender rail around the roof of the Dome tower, though sponsors are needed to meet the £4,000 expense. Any business or individual who can sponsor all or part of the cost can contact the Trust chairman Rob Blann on 01903 246587.”
The cupola and flagpole were made by Alpha Glass Fibre of Portsmouth, designed by John Head based on the original drawing by T A Allen. Once hoisted and exposed to the prevailing elements in this seafront position, an all-weather flag only lasts about six months before being ripped to shreds. Unfortunately, a flag can only be flown occasionally (when a crane is available), as the Council was not prepared to incorporate an access hatch into the new domed roof, as existed originally.
Funds were soon raised for the fender rails around the roof of the tower which were made and erected by volunteer Shaun Jurgelewicz (Rob Blann’s son-in-law) at a slightly later date. Their design is based on early photographic evidence.
With the tower effectively rebuilt, the council affirmed their intention of re-marketing the complex. Under the heading “Expensive Dome will be sold off” the Herald of 29 September reported: “Worthing’s Dome Cinema is set to be put up for sale on the open market but could be offered to the Dome Preservation Trust if no satisfactory offers are received.”
“It is estimated that a further £390,000 would have to be spent on the Dome, on top of the £300,000 already paid out restoring the tower and other essential work. The single storey front section is in a poor condition and demolition and rebuilding was recommended at a cost of about £165,000. Nine other areas need repair over the next three years which would cost about £225,000, Worthing Borough Council policy and resources committee was told on Friday.”
“Conservative Brian Lynn said, ‘Carrying out maintenance and repairs is certainly not an option. We have ended up spending far more than we originally envisaged on the Dome.’”
“Liberal Democrat Bert Dockerty said it provided a profitable income and if the Dome Preservation Trust took over there were options available to it that were not available to a commercial business – such as applying to the National Lottery Fund’.”
The Worthing Guardian reported on 5 October under the banner “Museum bid for Dome”:
“A museum featuring early film-making in Sussex could be set up at Worthing’s Dome Cinema if it is taken over by the Dome Preservation Trust. This prospect was offered by Trust chairman Rob Blann when commenting on the possibility of Worthing Borough Council handing over the Dome to the Trust.”
“Because it cannot afford the hundreds of thousands of pounds which needs to be spent on the Dome, Worthing Council has put the property on the open market. If a suitable bid is not received, the council is prepared to offer the cinema to the Trust.”
“Mr Blann said the Trust would be able to apply to the National Lottery for a grant which would preserve the structure and enable a multi-screen facility to be installed. He said the Dome, as one of the country’s oldest cinemas, would be an ideal home for film-making archives. Many exhibits could be moved to the Dome from the Marlipins Museum in High Street, Shoreham.” These exhibits related to the early film-making enterprises at Shoreham Beach.
In October 1995 the council put the Dome up for sale again on the open market, this time the freehold was offered. The Trust was to be involved in scrutinizing offers, and if no satisfactory monetary offer was received the Dome was to be given to the Trust subject to the council officers being satisfied that their detailed proposals for the complex, including constitutional arrangements, future funding plans and expertise, were sufficient to enable them to achieve their ambitions with regard to the building. If necessary the council were to propose ways of assisting and strengthening the Trust in this regard.
Council officers told the Trust that they expected no suitable offers would be received, and that was the reason for the Trust’s agreement to make no bid of its own at this stage. The Trust was told that the Council was required by law to offer the building on the open market before they could dispose of it to the Trust, as they must be seen to get the best market value for public assets. Trust members later found out that the law would have allowed the building to be conveyed to the Trust for less than the market value if the council had really wanted to do so, without going through the offer-for-sale procedure.
Once more the Dome was almost in the Trust’s grasp!
One offer only was received, and that was from the Chapman Group, a local company owned by Chris Chapman, son of a former mayor of Worthing, who had come up with the idea of turning the building into a nightclub, yet another nightclub for the town centre.
When the Trust was consulted it objected very strongly on a number of counts. Instead of declaring Chapman’s offer unsuitable, councillors were furious with the Trust’s objections, decided to ignore the Trust, and voted to sell the Dome to Chapman. The Trust was outraged at their decision.
An exclusive report on the front page of the Herald of 12 January 1996 quoted Trust chairman Rob Blann: “Does Worthing need, let alone want, yet another nightclub? Surely it’s cinema facilities that are lacking in the town and I’m convinced most Worthing residents would prefer enhanced, additional cinema facilities in the town. That way, a cross-section of the public would be able to enjoy the restored building, rather than just a small minority of late-night-clubbers.”
“We have a petition comprising more than 30,000 signatures for retaining a cinema in the existing period auditorium. The Trust has already received a fair amount of money from individuals and companies for restoring the Edwardian building and the funds have been given on the understanding it is for a cinema – not a nightclub.”
“The Trust wants the freehold of the complex in order to attract National Lottery funds. It wants to restore the building, provide a museum of cinema, plus more cinema screens, while retaining the existing auditorium as the main screen area. Under the scheme, Robins Cinemas, the Dome’s existing cinema operators, would be offered a sub-lease at a commercial rent to be agreed.”
The next month, following a public demonstration at the town hall, the Argus of Monday 19 February 1996 reported under the heading “Last picture show”: “The days of film shows at Worthing’s historic Dome could be numbered. In a deal believed to be worth around £1 million, Worthing Council policy committee has agreed to the sale of the Dome, a Grade II listed Edwardian building and the town’s only full-time cinema, to the Chapman leisure group.”
“In a statement issued last Friday, the council said it could not confirm that cinema screens would remain at the Dome. Environmental services officer Steve Coe said the main auditorium would be used for a variety of entertainment purposes, including night club, banqueting, conferences and fashion shows.”
“But news of the sale has met with an angry reaction from the Dome Preservation Trust which tabled a £4 million alternative proposal to use the Dome as a multi-screen cinema and cinema museum with Millennium Commission funding.”
“The Trust mounted a demonstration outside Worthing town hall before the decision by the policy committee. Rob Blann, Trust chairman, said, ‘This is a very sad day for the Dome Cinema. It has a wonderful cinema history but we just do not know what’s going to happen now. The council has been extremely short-sighted in not exploring our bid further’.”
Demonstrators held huge banners exclaiming SAVE THE DOME CINEMA and also THERES NO PLACE LIKE DOME while placards demanded SUPPORT THE TRUST as well as TRUST IN THE DOME, etc.
The Worthing Guardian of 22 February devoted its front page to the saga under the headline DOME BATTLE, “Last Thursday the council’s policy and resources committee met in private to recommend the sale. But Preservation Trust chairman Rob Blann said that the deal would be a missed opportunity for Worthing. The Trust would be opposing the plan at next week’s council meeting, he said.”
The Trust learned from unofficial sources that the Chapman bid was £150,000, and passed this information to the West Sussex Gazette which produced an article on 22 February entitled “Wraps kept on bid for the Dome”:-
“How much has the Chapman Group Ltd offered the council for the Dome complex, a unique, Grade II listed building in a prime location on Worthing seafront? The WSG put to the council’s chief executive Michael Ball a suggestion that the bid was in the region of £150,000. ‘Clearly the detail of the financial bid is confidential and we cannot comment further on any figure,’ he replied.
The Worthing Herald reported on 23 February, “Placard-wielding demonstrators protested on the steps of Worthing town hall to keep a cinema at the Dome complex, when councillors met to discuss its future behind closed doors.”
“The Dome Preservation Trust had hoped to get cash from the National Lottery to transform the seafront Grade II listed picture house into a multi-screen cinema complex.”
“Trust chairman Rob Blann told councillors last Thursday this would create ‘the one and only multi-screen cinema in a period building of that age, the only one anywhere in the country, to become the icon of the Sussex coast’. He told the Herald before the meeting, ‘The public should be involved more. The people of Worthing ought to have a choice of films in Worthing. The obvious place would be the Dome.”
Peter Bennett, chairman of the borough’s policy committee told Mr Blann that the council could transfer its freehold only when a successful lottery bid was made. But as the lottery fund administrators, at this time, required some security of tenure on the building before they would consider an application for a grant it was a catch 22 situation.
A public meeting was called to fight the proposed sale of the Dome to the Chapman Group.
“Angry protesters voiced their concern about the future of Worthing’s Dome Cinema at a stormy public meeting on Monday night,” reported the Argus on 28 February 1996. “Speakers included Rob Blann, chairman of the Dome Preservation Trust, and Robin King from Save the Dome group.”
“People at the meeting in the Gordon Room said they wanted the building kept as a proper cinema, with it possibly being turned into a multiplex with several screens. They said there was no other full-time cinema in the town and that young people and families needed more facilities.”
“Now Mr King will present Worthing council with a petition calling for the sale to be abandoned at the full council meeting tomorrow afternoon. Meanwhile, the Worthing Society, which monitors new development in the town, has backed the fight to keep the Dome as a cinema.”
“It said in a statement: ‘We feel it would be an extreme loss to Worthing if the proposed sale goes ahead because it would be one of the largest resorts on the south coast without a commercial cinema. A nightclub, hall and exhibition venue would not be a suitable use for the building because it would destroy or mask architectural details.”
Under the heading “Dome anger” the Worthing Guardian of 29 February also reported on the Gordon room meeting: “Petitions opposing plans to sell the Dome Cinema to the Chapman Group will be presented at Worthing Borough Council’s meeting this afternoon.”
“And those presenting the petitions will be able to address the full council on the subject of the Dome being converted into a night club. A public meeting in the Gordon Room on Monday night gave full backing to the petitions idea.”
“Organised by mother-of-two Alex Croft, and chaired by Nick Young, the meeting was called to fight the proposed sale. Rob Blann, chairman of the Dome Preservation Trust, said the people of Worthing had never been asked if they agreed to the Dome being sold off as a nightclub. ‘The Dome Preservation Trust are extremely angry,’ said Mr Blann’.”
“Anger over the decision to redevelop town landmark” headlined the West Sussex Gazette on 29 February 1996. “The proposed sale of Worthing’s Dome Cinema and plans to redevelop the town’s most famous landmark into multi-functional leisure purposes has angered many residents.”
“In the past few years more than 35,000 people have petitioned to keep the cinema in its beautiful original listed building and auditorium. And around £400,000 from council coffers has been spent on building improvements, in addition to the thousands of pounds raised by the Dome Preservation Trust.”
“Chairman of the Trust, Rob Blann, said: ‘We are extremely angry. Worthing Council offered us the opportunity of advising on bids, on the condition we did not put in a bid ourselves. However, when we expressed strong reservations concerning the presentation of the sole bidder’s plan, our advice was ignored’.”
“ ‘Nor were we allowed to submit our own presentation that involved a multiplex cinema and children’s art centre. We have the experts, the know-how and the financial plans, which would make no demands on rate-payers. The people of Worthing have not been consulted. This has been rushed through hoping that objections will be kept to a minimum’.”
“ ‘The council say we never put in a bid. Do they really think, after all the years of fighting for the Dome Cinema, we would knowingly have opted out’?”
“The Worthing Society has joined the Trust in condemning the proposal. Following its meeting on Thursday, the society said it was shocked to learn of the plan – which is being decided by the full council today (Thursday).”
“The sale was proposed despite objections from the Cinema Theatre Association, the Twentieth Century Society and the Victorian Society.”
They said that, “ ‘This building is not only important for Worthing, but nationally, because it is architecturally and historically interesting and has remained unaltered since the 1920s.’ The society is requesting English Heritage to upgrade the Dome to a starred Grade II listing.”
The Worthing Herald felt the report on the public meeting worthy of their front page on 1st March: “A move to sell Worthing’s Dome Cinema to the Chapman Group provoked accusations of borough council corruption at a protest meeting on Monday.”
“The hastily arranged public meeting attracted a good turn-out with public feeling running high over the sale of the Grade II listed seafront building. Chaired by local actor Nick Young, he told the meeting: ‘The way in which the Dome has been sold off so quickly for just £151,000 smacks of political corruption. It seems to have been a secret conspiracy to get rid of it without any public consultation’.”
“Dome Preservation Trust chairman Rob Blann accused Worthing Borough Council of ‘misleading’ the Trust over its own bid. He said when a decision was made to put the Dome on the market last October, he was advised not to put in a bid, but to monitor with the council any other bids.”
“He claimed the Trust was 98% sure of securing National Lottery funds to create a multi-screen cinema and a museum of cinema, working with Robins Cinemas, which currently leases the Dome Cinema.”
“Robin King of the Save the Dome campaign said as many people as possible should protest at yesterday’s (Thursday) borough council meeting, when the move to sell the Dome was due to be ratified. ‘We should call for a motion for the decision to be delayed for four months so the Trust can get in a bid from the National Lottery’.”
In another article in the same edition of the Herald a nearby neighbouring hotelier voiced his concern over the proposed night-club plan. “Worthing businessman Michael Clinch says the position of his Chatsworth Hotel could become untenable if the nearby Dome Cinema is used as a night-club.”
“The former Tory Worthing borough councillor and mayor said parking in the area, which was already a problem at the weekend, would become horrendous, and the area would become even more dangerous and volatile.”
At the meeting of the full council held on Thursday afternoon 29 February 1996 the decision by the policy committee to sell the Dome to the Chapman Group was ratified despite the huge protests from the public.
Under the heading “The final credits roll for historic cinema” the Argus reported on 4 March “The sale of Worthing’s Dome will go ahead despite strong opposition. People packed the public gallery of the chambers at the town hall to shout out their anger at the scheme.”
“Five petitions were handed in calling for the Dome to be kept as a cinema and for the sale of the building to be put off for four months. Mr Blann, the chairman of the Dome Preservation Trust, said he hoped to get more than £1 million of National Lottery funding in that time to completely refurbish the complex.”
“He said the building could be converted by the Trust into a multi-screen cinema complete with children’s art centre. Mr Blann told the councillors: ‘How you can even consider closing one of the oldest working cinemas in Europe is beyond belief’.”
“ ‘So many people are saying you must not sell off the family silver. The Dome is a unique masterpiece which should be restored and utilised for the good of the majority of residents’.”
The Worthing Guardian of 7 March carried a similar report but with a different angle. “Dome bid ‘disgrace’” shouted the headline. “Worthing Dome Preservation Trust has been offered the chance of operating a cinema in the Dome complex once it is taken over by the Chapman Group.”
“But Trust chairman Rob Blann said it was not feasible to have a cinema above a discotheque. Mr Blann said the Chapman Group had offered the Trust nothing. A cinema above a disco would never work because of the noise problem and the cinema should stay in the auditorium where it had always been, he argued.”
“Last week the council agreed to sell the Dome to the Chapman Group, but the decision was attacked by Mr Blann, who said: ‘It is a lost opportunity for Worthing. It is a disgraceful decision and it is a sad day for the cinema both locally and nationally’.”
“There were no dissenting votes when on Thursday the council approved the sale subject to contract.”
There were no dissenting votes when the council approved the sale of the Dome to the Chapman Group subject to contract.
The bingo club on the first floor of the Dome complex was concerned for its future. “Last call for the club” headlined the Argus on 5 March. “Staff at a bingo club fear their number could be up. The reason for their concern is the deal Worthing Borough Council has struck with the Chapman Leisure Group to sell the Dome building, which includes the bingo club on the first floor, for redevelopment.”
“It is unlikely that the bingo club, which has been going for more than 31 years, will continue operating in the building. Brothers Roberto and Attilio Miele, who own the club, feared that a sale was on the cards for some time and say the future is now uncertain.”
“Bob Topham, who has been manager of the club for 10 years, said, ‘We expected something like this to happen, but it’s still very sad and disappointing. We weren’t really consulted about the sale or asked what we’d like to see by either the council or the Chapman Group.”
“It’s a shame because there’s so much potential in this building. It could thrive with just a bit of refurbishment, keeping the bingo and perhaps adding another cinema screen. The real tragedy is for our members, who are mostly elderly. For them we’re a social club with bingo thrown in. They come to meet their friends and have something to eat and drink but all that will be lost.”
In an effort to persuade Worthing people that they had made the right decision in agreeing to sell the Dome complex to the Chapman Group, the council published a question and answer briefing in the form of a small newspaper, calling it the Worthing Chronicle, and distributed it to Worthing households on 7 March. The main feature of the paper entitled “The Dome: Threatened or saved?” attempted to justify the council’s actions.
The feature stated that the Trust was fully consulted and received answers to its 29 written objections to the Chapman scheme, but what the council failed to mention in the paper was the fact that the answers the Trust received were far from satisfactory; in fact they actually served to reinforce the Trust’s fears of the destruction of the Dome Complex’s architectural and historical features. The Trust’s town planning advisor, John Head, was sure that English Heritage, who would have to be consulted on any planning application, would not agree to such extensive changes to the historic building. But the council would not listen.
The council and Chapmans arranged a photo-call in front of the Dome to try and convince people that this was the best deal. In an article in the Herald on 15 March council leader Brian McLuskie was pictured with pub and club entrepreneur Chris Chapman with the Dome in the background.
The Trust achieved national press coverage once more and the early edition of the Times of 4 March carried photographs of the interior and exterior of the Dome on page three together with the following article entitled “Last reel for Britain’s longest-running cinema” by Marcus Binney:
“The Dome in Worthing, claimed to be Britain’s longest-running cinema, is to have its historic fittings stripped out to become a nightclub. Worthing council’s decision to sell the Grade II listed building, the town’s only full-time cinema, has outraged local people, 35,000 of whom signed a petition to save it.”
“The Dome was built in 1911 and fitted out as a 500-seat cinema ten years later. It is one of only a few still using carbon projectors, the original method of showing films. The auditorium has the character of music hall, being overlooked by narrow balconies at the sides. The ceiling, studded with domes and cupolas, features opulent Edwardian plasterwork.”
“The Dome was used as a set for the film Wish You Were Here, which starred Emily Lloyd. In the entrance is the original wooden ticket kiosk, an Automaticket machine with brass top offering tickets at prices ranging from 6d to 2/-. Mia Gordon, the deputy manager said, ‘It’s an absolutely foolproof system and we still use it when the computer goes down, which it frequently does’.”
“Rob Blann, chairman of the Dome Preservation Trust, says, ‘The council has sold the cinema for £151,000, the price of a four-bedroomed house. Instead it could be one of the icons of the Sussex coast. The conversion to a nightclub will involve the removal of the raked floor and all the seating, but this will require listed building consent and we will be objecting strongly’.”
“In the 1950s the Dome had four projectionists and a winding boy. Today there are only two. One of them, Robert Town, says, ‘Our Peerless Magnarc projectors are the Rolls-Royce in their field, they’re more than 50 years old, in use six to seven hours, seven days a week and still project a rock-steady picture’.”
“Richard Gray of the Cinema Theatre Association said, ‘This is a place full of atmosphere and history. Worthing already has five night clubs. It should follow the example of other towns such as Great Yarmouth and Harrogate which have restored their earlier cinemas’.”
In a further attempt to get the public on their side the Chapman Group staged an exhibition of plans and artists’ impressions in the foyer of the town hall, entitled The Dome – The Future. The plans provided for a cinema screen on the first floor, but the Worthing Guardian reported on 28 March that “Richard Pipe, operations director of the Chapman Group, would not confirm that it would be installed.”
On 5 April 1996 national coverage was again afforded to the Save the Dome campaign. Through the strident efforts of Robin King the following article appeared in the Private Eye: “Cinema is 100 years old this year. No building expressly designed for showing moving films is so ancient, but a few early cinemas do survive. One such is the Dome at Worthing.”
“Designed by T A Allen and opened by Carl Seebold as the Kursaal in 1911, the building, with its tall domed octagonal tower on the promenade, is considered by English Heritage to be ‘one of the most complete surviving examples of an early cinema in the country’.”
“The Dome is the town’s last remaining commercial cinema and is now owned by Worthing Borough Council. It has been in continuous use for showing films for 85 years. So what are the good councillors doing with the Dome to mark the centenary of the movies?”
“Er, selling off the building to a ‘locally based leisure company’ which plans to convert the interior for a ‘wide range of leisure uses’ including a nightclub and – perhaps, perhaps not – a small cinema tucked away somewhere.”
“Possibly this is a small mercy. As aged readers may recall, the poor old Dome has appeared before in this column when, in 1988, the Conservative council tried to demolish it altogether because of its poor structural condition [Eye 689]. That threat was averted by a vigorous Save the Dome campaign, a petition signed by 35,000 and by the listing of the building in 1989 – Grade II.”
“Now, claiming that it cannot afford to restore the building, it has almost succeeded in selling off the freehold. This has been achieved by Peter Bennett, chairman of the policy and resources committee which, in a secret session, recommended the sale of the Dome to the Chapman Group. This decision was then endorsed, without a vote, at a session of the full council.”
“Quite why is not clear:the price offered is £151,000, which is only five times the annual rental income from Robins Cinemas Ltd and the other tenants of the Dome complex. It is also throwing away the money that, after years of malicious neglect, the council finally spent on necessary repairs (though much more needs to be done).”
“This sale and change of use is opposed by the Cinema Theatre Association, the Victorian Society and the Twentieth Century Society, while English Heritage is anxious that no alteration is made which will affect the character of the building.”
“The decision by the council also treats with contempt the Dome Preservation Trust, which has pleaded for more time to put in a bid for lottery funds to restore the building and add a multi-screen cinema and a museum of the cinema. This seems sensible, since cinema attendances are actually rising.”
“However, Mr Chris Chapman is certainly ‘locally based’: the father and grandfather of this pub and nightclub owner were mayors of Worthing, while his brother is a councillor (who of course declared an interest at the crucial meetings).”
“Unlike in 1988, the council is no longer Conservative. The majority of the councillors who are happy to sell off assets at secret meetings without public discussion and who are prepared to see the extinction of one of the oldest cinemas in Britain were elected in the Liberal Democrat interest – and several of them, including the chairman of the policy and resources committee, signed that petition to Save the Dome all those years ago.”
Following some more publicity by the Trust in the national press, Eugene Chaplin, the son of Charlie Chaplin stepped into the ring, but despite lengthy negotiations with the Trust and the council, was ultimately unsuccessful in purchasing the complex.
“Chaplin’s son turns race for Dome into thriller” headlined the Argus on 10 June. “Eugene Chaplin wants to turn the Grade II listed building into a futuristic ‘edu-tainment’ complex, but retain the original cinema and listed features. He has launched a rival bid against the Chapman Group, which wants to convert it into an entertainments venue with a night club.”
“Chapman is waiting for planning permission, but tens of thousands of people have objected. They believe the cinema should be kept in its original condition.”
“Mr Chaplin lives in Vevey, Switzerland. Many of his father’s films would have been shown at the Dome first time around. Mr Chaplin’s agent, Tony Pearce, said: ‘He read about the proposed changes in The Times and approached the council. I think one of the options the council could consider is to re-open the bidding and look at both of them together’.”
“Mr Chaplin’s plan includes a business centre, digital cinema, multi-media rooms, children’s theatre stage and training facilities for the unemployed. Mr Pearce would not reveal the exact sum involved, but pointed out that similar schemes usually cost around £1 million. He said: ‘We believe our plans would not only fit in with the Dome, but would also enhance the features of the building’.”
During the evening of 10 June, the Trust committee met at the Windsor House Hotel, Windsor Road, at which Chaplin’s representative Tony Pearce outlined the plans.
Under the heading “Chaplin’s son fights to save cinema”, the Daily Telegraph of 11 June reported: “Charlie Chaplin’s son wants to buy one of Britain’s oldest cinemas to stop it being turned into a night club and leisure complex. Eugene Chaplin, 42, who lives in Switzerland, visited the Dome Theatre in Worthing, West Sussex, after reading about plans to sell it. Associates said he ‘fell in love’ with the Grade II listed building, built in 1911.”
“Worthing council has accepted a bid, subject to contract, from the Chapman Group.”
“Mr Chaplin’s renovation plan, which involves keeping the original cinema screen and auditorium, will be considered by councillors on Thursday. He wants a digital cinema and a stage for local children’s productions.”
On 13 June the Worthing Guardian devoted its front page to the Chaplin bid under the headline “CHAPLIN TO BUY DOME?”
“Charlie Chaplin’s son emerged this week as a surprise bidder to buy Worthing’s Dome complex. Eugene Chaplin wants to convert the Dome into an ‘edutainment’ centre incorporating three cinemas, a multimedia centre and other facilities. It would be the group’s first such centre in Britain.” (There were others in Europe)
“The bid comes when the borough council has already decided to sell the complex to the Chapman Group Ltd for a variety of leisure and entertainment uses, subject to contract and the company obtaining all the necessary consents.”
“Worthing council’s policy and resources committee is holding a special meeting this evening to consider the offer from the Brussels-based company. Peter Bennett, committee chairman, said on Friday: ‘We were due to consider progress with completing the provisional deal struck with the Chapman Group months ago, at our usual meeting of the committee yesterday’.”
“ ‘As it is, this late bid from the Eugene Chaplin Entertainment Group of Companies was received by us on Tuesday morning. Their late bid raises all sorts of questions and we must consider all the implications and options open to the council before making any final decision.’ he said.”
“The Chaplin Group’s plans were unveiled at a meeting of the Worthing Dome Preservation Trust at the Windsor House Hotel in Worthing on Monday evening. It was opened by John Head, Trust vice-chairman, who said the Trust was concerned that the Chapman Group’s proposals did not ensure the continuity of a cinema in the building.”
“Mr Head said the Trust supported Mr Chaplin’s plans to retain the cinema auditorium and install additional cinema screens in the building.”
“Eugene Chaplin’s plans were outlined by his agent, Anthony Pearce, and Kate Seymour, consultant. Mr Pearce said that in addition to the 450-500 seat auditorium being retained, a ground floor storeroom would be used as a 100-seat cinema to show 1,000 digitally-stored films. And the first-floor bingo club would be converted into a 180-200 seat cinema.”
“The tower would be used as an ‘edutainment’ hall, with multi-media facilities being installed to combine education and entertainment. Other proposals for the site included a business centre and a studio workshop theatre in collaboration with the Rainbow Children’s Theatre.”
“Bob Clare, Worthing Council’s planning committee chairman, said it was an impressive project. But the council would want assurances that the financial backing was there, and he feared that if the Chapman Group withdrew its offer, the council might be left with the Dome on its hands.”
“Mr Pearce said he was confident that his group could satisfy the council on this point. No public money would be needed for the project.”
The Worthing Herald of 14 June carried several much broader reports on the Dome saga, beginning with how Chaplin had been drawn to the Dome: “Charlie Chaplin’s son fell in love with the Dome when he visited Worthing in April, Monday’s meeting heard.”
“Consultant Anthony Pearce said Eugene Chaplin had seen a story in the national press about the Dome. ‘Anyone who knows the building falls in love with it and Eugene Chaplin was no exception. As the son of Charlie Chaplin it had particular relevance as a building where his father’s movies were shown when they were first released’.”
The main report dealt with the 11th hour bid by the international group. “Despite not having the finance in place, the Eugene Chaplin Group said it was confident it could turn Worthing’s Dome complex into Britain’s first ‘edutainment’ centre.”
“The centre – a mix of cinema and hi-tech, computer technology – would give Worthing people the ability to communicate around the world, the group’s consultants told Monday’s meeting called by the Dome Preservation Trust.”
“Townspeople who might not otherwise have the opportunity would have access to the information superhighway, with a key theme of educating and training.”
“Despite the scheme costing about £1 million, consultant Anthony Pearce said he was confident the group could get the funds, provided it was given a positive response from the Dome’s owners, Worthing Borough Council.”
“The preliminary scheme includes:
• Retaining the existing cinema and restoring the stage to allow dual use as a theatre – particularly as a base for the Rainbow Children’s Theatre Company, Worthing.
• Store rooms on the eastern side of the ground floor would be converted into a 100-seat cinema ‘with film on demand from around 1,000 digitally-stored films.’ The cinema could then be hired out for birthday parties or to language schools for foreign films and so on.
• Converting the bingo club on the first floor into a 180 to 200-seat cinema.
• Using the Dome’s tower as an ‘edutainment’ hall with multi-media computer terminals.
• Converting the derelict shop on the west side into a community shop for local charities and Dome Preservation Trust, provided free-of-charge.”
“There is also a scheme being developed to collaborate with Rainbow Theatre, probably with National Lottery money, to build a studio/workshop theatre on the western side of the Dome.”
“Dome Preservation Trust vice-chairman John Head said after the meeting the Chaplin scheme seemed a better way forward than the Chapman proposals. ‘It does most of the things the Trust was proposing to do’.”
A second report in the Herald stated: “English Heritage is considering upgrading the Dome’s listed building status, it has been revealed. The conservation body is looking at the Edwardian picture-house being upgraded from a grade II listed building to a grade II star.”
“Dome Preservation Trust vice-chairman John Head said, ‘The building could well be put into a higher grade as this year is the 100th anniversary of cinema. The star rating would mean Worthing Borough Council would not be able to give the site listed building consent itself for alterations but would have to refer the matter to the Environment Secretary. Even if it did not get the upgrade, if enough people objected to the Chapman proposals, the Secretary of State could still call a public inquiry.’
But Chapman Group operations manager Richard Pipe said he would welcome the government inspecting its plans. ‘Our proposals guarantee the Dome’s Edwardian and main features well into the next century’.”
A third Dome feature in that same paper and on the same day gave the Chapman views. “Charlie Chaplin’s son’s bid to buy the Dome Cinema has been branded ‘degrading to Worthing’ and ‘pie in the sky’ by the man who thought he had all but bought the Edwardian picturehouse.”
“Chris Chapman said he had never heard anything so ridiculous as the Eugene Chaplin Group’s proposal to turn the Dome into an ‘edutainment complex’ – a mix of cinema and computer technology.”
“Chapman Group Ltd’s own bid had already been agreed by Worthing Borough Council, subject to contract, in February and Mr Chapman warned he would have no choice but to pull out if the council took the Chaplin bid further.”
“Worthing townspeople could then be faced with picking up the cost of preserving the Dome through their council tax. He said his group had already spent probably more than £15,000 in fees.”
“In one of the Chaplin Group’s leaflets about European edutainment centres, it says one benefit of an edutainment centre would be to ‘break down the barriers between different socio-economic groups by developing sites in economically and socially disadvantaged areas.”
“Mr Chapman said, ‘Worthing is a super town and this is putting us in the same realms as the back-streets of Glasgow, Belfast, Toxteth and so on. It’s degrading nonsense – I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life’.”
“Mr Chapman and two colleagues claimed they were barred from a meeting on Monday night, set up by the Worthing Dome Preservation Trust for the Eugene Chaplin Group to outline its proposals.”
“But the Trust, which is opposing Mr Chapman’s scheme, has refuted the claim. Anthony Pearce, a consultant for the Chaplin Group, said the reference to socially deprived area had been in a general leaflet – he did not think Worthing was socially deprived.”
Following the week when there were four articles in connection with the Dome, the next issue of the Worthing Herald, on 21 June, featured the Dome in no less than five reports.
The introductory article read: “The future of Worthing’s Dome Cinema could be decided by the Department of the Environment. Details of interest in the Dome – by the Chapman Group, accepted, subject to contract; Charlie Chaplin’s son; and a mystery consortium – may be sent to the government.”
“At Wednesday’s borough policy meeting, councillors showed frustration at the time it was taking to secure the cinema’s future. Liberal Democrat John Lovell called the interest by Chaplin and the mystery consortium ‘pie in the sky’.”
“Tory group leader Steven Waight said the delays were frustrating and mischievous and his colleague Eric McDonald urged members to stop ‘pussy-footing around.’ Members of the full council were yesterday deciding whether to let the DoE decide on the Chapman Group’s bid.”
A second article said, “A mystery consortium has entered into the debate over the Dome’s future after Charlie Chaplin’s son said earlier this month he, too, was interested. Although not a bid, the £200,000 proposals include extensive redevelopment of the area around the cinema and the bus station next door.”
“It took the consortium 12 months to develop the scheme of leisure, residential and retail uses. In a report which was discussed by borough councillors on Wednesday, chief executive Michael Ball said, ‘The agents say that the consortium believes the area requires a comprehensive, fully integrated development scheme, including the Dome Cinema building, to address the long-standing issues posed by the area’.”
“The consortium’s agents also said piecemeal redevelopment of the site would be short-sighted, said Mr Ball. It told the council it had approached businesses in the area. Mr Ball said, ‘It is quite intriguing how the future of the Dome has become the centre of such external interest and activity at this stage, bearing in mind the council’s well-publicised decision to sell the complex to the Chapman Group – a local company – for an impressive range of leisure uses.”
“The Chapman bid would involve spending more than £1 million refurbishing, adapting and repairing the building. Mr Ball said the mystery consortium’s ideas were very ambitious, adding the council would carefully consider any developments of the site before making a decision.”
The main article in that week’s Herald stated: “Worthing’s Dome Cinema saga seems to be degenerating into a mix of tragedy and farce that even Charlie Chaplin may have found improbable as a film plot.”
“First, townspeople were told there was a new bid to buy the Edwardian picturehouse, then they were informed there never was one. Next, a special meeting at Worthing town hall – called to make progress on the Dome issue – had to be abandoned when a freelance journalist pointed out it had not been properly publicised.”
“Then another bid appeared – this time from what the council dubbed a ‘mystery development consortium’. Somewhere in between, Charlie Chaplin’s son came into the equation.”
“The irony for pub/restaurant and nightclub entrepreneur Chris Chapman is his Chapman Group’s bid to buy the complex had already been accepted, subject to contract, back in February.”
“The twists and turns started last Monday when it seemed a new, potential buyer had thrown his hat into the ring and that one of those behind it was Charlie Chaplin’s son – Eugene Chaplin.”
“But a press release from Eugene Chaplin Entertainment Holdings three days later declared it was not bidding for the complex, although interested in the site for an ‘edutainment centre’ – a mix of cinema and hi-tech communications – should the Chapman Group bid fail.”
“Yet, three days earlier, a meeting called by the Dome Preservation Trust to hear details of the Chaplin proposals was told that his consultant, Mr Anthony Pearce, believed the Chaplin bid was higher than Chapman’s.”
“Mr Pearce himself, when contacted by the Herald last Thursday, agreed the news from the Chaplin camp had made what was being said at the meeting a complete nonsense. ‘I frankly don’t know what to say’. He said it meant he had wasted weeks of his own time and the state of play was contrary to how he had understood things.”
“Freelance journalist Robert Izzard stepped into the headlines himself at last Thursday’s special council policy committee meeting. He suggested to the committee it should abandon its meeting and readvertise it as the noticeboard outside the town hall was incorrect – saying a 6 pm start when it had actually started at 5.30 pm, beginning with public questions.”
“The notice had only been posted last Tuesday, when local government rules normally require three clear working days before the actual meeting. Mr Izzard said later he felt the public had been in danger of missing an opportunity of having their say on a highly contentious issue.”
“Borough council chief executive Michael Ball said, ‘We closed the meeting without discussing any business.’ A press release saying why the meeting was being held and giving the correct time had been issued on the Friday before the meeting.”
“On the Chaplin ‘bid’ that was not, the council issued a statement saying a bid made, apparently on Eugene Chaplin Entertainment Holdings’ behalf, was not confirmed.”
“In response to the question of why the councillors remained in session for about an hour after the meeting was abandoned, Michael Ball said, ‘I took the opportunity while members were present and after the meeting had closed to circulate copies of press releases and correspondences relating to the Dome, without comments, discussions or decisions being taken on them’.”
But the most important report in the Herald on the 21 June was headlined: “Picture house joins nation’s star elite,” and read thus, “Worthing’s ‘jewel’ – the Dome Cinema – has been given grade II star rating.”
“The Edwardian picture house did have grade II listing. The new status will reflect its standing as one of the five best remaining examples of silent-era cinema in Britain. Now any application for listed building consent on the cinema will have to be referred to the National Heritage Secretary. She will have 28 days to consider applications and could call a public inquiry.”
“A report from the Heritage Department said the Dome was one of the best surviving cinemas of its kind and era in Britain. English Heritage considers it is the same standard of the other four Grade II star cinemas from the silent era. These are the Electric, Portobello Road; the Scala, Ikeston; Torbay Picture House; and the Elite, Nottingham.”
“Dome Preservation Trust member Nick Young was delighted by the news. ‘It was something in a way that we had hoped against hope would come through,’ he said.”
The fourth Dome article to appear in the Herald on that same day was titled: “Cinema surrounded by wealth of history”:
“The area around the Dome is just as historical as the picture house, with buildings dating back to the turn of the century (in fact well beyond). One in particular, the Old Library, on the corner of Library Place and Marine Parade, has been a bone of contention for years.”
“Borough planning boss Mike Bleakley said it (the four-storey building) had largely been demolished 25 years ago, leaving just the (ground floor) shell, still standing today. Owner Stagecoach has been told by the council to do something about the ‘eyesore’ and earlier this year put it up for sale.”
“Mr Bleakley said the bus operator wants to build new offices and a ticket centre and may redevelop the Old Library site. ‘We are actively encouraging Stagecoach for something to happen to improve what is generally accepted as an eyesore.”
Just five days after the five Dome reports appeared in the Herald, the Argus of 26 June headlined: “Nightclub bid for Dome gets the go-ahead”:
“The sale of Worthing’s Dome complex will go ahead as originally planned, despite weeks of speculation and argument. A meeting of Worthing Council voted to carry on with the sale to the Chapman Group, which wants to use the building as a nightclub and conference centre, and to ignore rival, last-minute bids.”
“The council was surprised to find the listed building status of the Dome had been upgraded by the Department of National Heritage from Grade II to Grade II*. Now the sale agreed months ago will go ahead, despite the flurry of paperwork and the time and money spent by the council examining the other options.”
“Policy committee chairman Peter Bennett said, ‘Despite all the huffing and puffing of third parties, the Chapman Group bid is the only one on the table. We’re now clear that it is in the town’s best interests for us to progress with the sale as soon as possible.”
“We are looking to arrange a meeting with the Department of National Heritage to help the Chapman Group understand the implications of the stronger listing of the complex. We’re sure that the company will do whatever it can to make sure that its imaginative and lively plans respect the complex’s heritage.”
“Chapman Group operations director Richard Pipe said, ‘It’s a big relief for us. The council has made the right decision and we’re confident things can progress now’.”
“Chairman of the Dome Preservation Trust, Rob Blann, said, “We’re disappointed with the decision. The council should be looking at all alternative proposals in great detail and not rushing into things’.”
Nevertheless, at the council meeting councillors and officers, particularly those who thought the building was not worthy of retention, were stunned to hear from the Trust that it had that day been upgraded to II star, giving it still greater protection from alterations and throwing Chapman’s proposed conversion scheme into doubt.
The upgrading was the result of important ‘behind the scenes’ work by the Trust, the Worthing Society and the efforts of Mark Price who had lengthy discussions with English Heritage in London. The Trust was sure that this would prevent the Chapman Group from making their proposed alterations. But again the Council would not listen to reason.
It was at about this time that John Head had to resign from the Trust because he was to start in a new job as a Planning Inspector, one of the conditions of taking on such a post was complete impartiality and in no way would he be allowed to be associated with any pressure group such as the Dome Preservation Trust.
Some four months later, on 11 October, the front page of the Herald was emblazoned with the headline: “FED-UP CHAPMAN TO QUIT DOME ? ”:
“Chris Chapman says he feels like pulling out of his bid to buy Worthing’s historic Dome Cinema because he is fed up with being ‘slated’. His comments came after the Dome Preservation Trust revealed workmen for the Chapman Group had removed a staircase at another Grade II listed building – the Beechwood Hall Hotel – without permission.”
“A sign outside the hotel in Wykeham Road urges people to watch the Chapman Group ‘build our reputation’ through its development of the site. But borough council officers on a routine site inspection found workmen had removed a staircase without listed building consent.”
“Dome Trust spokesman Chris Slade said the staircase ‘breach’ was worrying for the Dome, a Grade II * listed building, as ‘one indiscretion is all it takes to ruin a cherished building totally and irrevocably’.”
“He added, ‘I’m sure in the minds of most conservation-minded people, one mistake of this nature in “reputation building” is one mistake too many’.”
“Mr Chapman said of the Trust’s latest comments and his bid to buy the Dome, ‘I feel like I’m going to pull out – I’ve had enough. I’m not going to go on being slated. I would rather go to a town where they want you to invest’.”
A second Dome article on that week’s front page of the Herald claimed “Cinema’s future in balance”:
“It could soon be the last film showing at Worthing Dome Cinema for some time, with current operators Robins set to pull out next month. Robins Cinemas, which has leased the Edwardian picturehouse from the council for about three years, says the council is asking an unrealistic rent and offering only a six-month lease.”
“Robins Cinemas managing director Ben Friedman said it looked ‘almost certain’ his firm would pull out when its current lease ended on 19 November. A total of about 10 full and part-time staff may have to be made redundant.”
“Mr Friedman said, ‘I just think the council has unrealistic expectations of what needs to be done to run a business and is unprepared to let for a realistic time span.’ He said his company was all about taking over cinemas and developing them so they had a long-term future but the firm had never been given a real opportunity to do that in Worthing’.”
“Council head of estates Steve Coe declined to say more than commercial negotiations over renewal of the lease were taking place with Robins Cinemas, details of which he could not disclose, but he hoped they would result in Robins continuing to run the cinema.”
The Chapman proposals required permission from English Heritage to drastically alter the interior of the cinema. In January 1997, as the Trust expected and predicted, English Heritage refused permission to allow Chapman to drastically alter the Dome. He then withdrew his offer and the council were outraged with the Trust as a result.
The West Sussex Gazette was the first paper to break the news with: “DOME BID COLLAPSES” emblazoned across the front page:
“Ambitious plans to convert Worthing’s Dome Cinema for use as a nightclub and multi-purpose entertainment centre have collapsed. The Chapman Group Ltd, which had conditionally agreed to buy the cinema from the council, has abandoned its bid after being told by English Heritage that its plans are unlikely to be acceptable.”
“The news has fuelled speculation that the Eugene Chaplin Group, which expressed an interest in buying the cinema last year, could now go ahead with purchasing the building for its own enterprises.”
“The Chapman Group wanted to remove seating and the raked floor in the cinema auditorium to allow the area to be used for nightclub and leisure purposes. However, English Heritage advised that the proposals would possibly have affected the historical character of the cinema to an unacceptable degree.”
“Although the plans were expected to be considered at a public inquiry next year, the company concluded they were not commercially viable and reluctantly decided to withdraw from the purchase.”
“Chris Chapman, managing director of the company, said, ‘We have put a lot of effort into devising a viable scheme for this building that would be acceptable to the council and English Heritage. It is disappointing that the latter has taken such a negative view about our exciting plans’.”
“Brian McKluskie, leader of the council, said there was disappointment at the news: ‘The company’s willingness to invest in repairing the building and to preserve its special character while adopting it for a range of modern leisure uses was particularly important to the council because it does not have the resources or the commercial skills to do this itself’.”
“ ‘The council will now have to consider what to do with the complex, bearing in mind the very difficult financial position the council is in and the need for major investment in this important heritage building to secure its future and its contribution to leisure opportunities available to the town’s people’.”
“Tony Pearce, consultant to the Eugene Chaplin Group, confirmed interest in the building had once again been ignited. In June last year, the group which is headed by the son of the silent film star Charlie Chaplin, announced plans to turn the cinema into Europe’s first education and entertainment centre.”
“ Mr Pearce said, ‘Certainly we have been in contact with Mr Chaplin on the subject of the Dome and he is considering the current position.’ However, he admitted it was too early to say whether the group would be making a bid for the Dome. ‘There’s interest in it but it’s a question of looking at the position that we find ourselves in’.”
The leading article on page four of that same issue of the West Sussex Gazette took the view that “Second chance must be seized”: “Worthing Borough Council is disappointed that the Chapman Group bid for the Dome has collapsed.”
“We share English Heritage’s concerns and are pleased that the future of the building is to be completely reconsidered. No-one should under estimate the importance of this landmark – either to Worthing’s seafront or to Britain’s cinematic heritage. Claimed to be the country’s longest-running cinema, it was built in 1911 and fitted-out a decade later.”
“The costs will be enormous of renovating the Dome and making it commercially viable in a manner which retains and develops the magic of its past. But where there is a will there is a way. The Dome Preservation Trust has played a crucial role in protecting the building.”
“Everyone these days seems to be pitching in for millions of pounds from the Lottery. Could a spectacular project with the Dome at its core not rejuvenate Worthing’s tourist industry?”
“Could the Dome not uniquely develop virtual reality technology alongside a museum preserving the pioneering days of cinema?”
“The opportunities are enormous. Perhaps the Eugene Chaplin Group have something similar in mind? Or possibly the people of Worthing can grasp this great opportunity for their town.”
The day after the publication about the Dome on the front page of the West Sussex Gazette, the Herald also carried a front page Dome story that spilled over on to the back page (17/1/97)..
It reported council leader Brian McLuskie saying that the council would probably readvertise to see if there were other people who wanted to buy the complex.
He added, “With any talk of bids to the National Lottery you’ve got to remember the amount of money from the Lottery would not be the entire sum – it would only be about half of what’s required.” The rest would have to be found by the individuals proposing a scheme.
The failed Chapman bid was not without its costs. “Chapman Group operations manager Richard Pipe said the company had spent in excess of £25,000 in drawing up plans, architects fees and so on. Five different schemes had been produced in an attempt to appease English Heritage.”
“It’s an unfortunate view they have taken,” said Mr Pipe, “and I think our view is this is a building that needs investment – this is another ‘West Pier’ property that’s going to decay rapidly and going to need 10 times the investment eventually to put it right.”
But Dome Preservation Trust spokesman Chris Slade said, “We’re delighted the Dome Cinema complex is not destined to become a night club under these or, hopefully, any other plans.”
“We have been discussing some very exciting plans which we would be happy to share with Worthing Borough Council under which the Dome can be the focus for cinema-goers for the long-term future and, under which also the building can be the centre for multi-functional entertainment and educational use for the widest-possible public – and not simply those who use night clubs or conference facilities.”
The article continued, “Existing cinema operator Robins Cinemas said it would now actively seek to be involved in the Dome’s future. General manager Nick Kilby said, ‘We will be seeking to realise our original ambition to transform the Dome into a mini multiplex’.”
“Robins currently has a lease until May and will be looking to gain a long-term agreement. The firm’s aim will be to obtain National Lottery funding to convert the Dome into a multiplex and to work with the the Trust on the cinema’s future.”