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Phil Gillam: The day Cineworld came to Shrewsbury

Phil Gillam | Published:

There was a band playing in the cinema foyer and the place was packed with chattering, laughing, smartly-dressed people.

The souvenir key fob presented at the opening of Cineworld in Shrewsbury

It could have been a scene from the golden age of picture houses (or, as the Americans say, movie theatres), the kind of gathering there might have been for the premiere of Gone With The Wind or perhaps North by Northwest, but this was in fact 1998.

To be precise – as my souvenir key fob reminds me – it was December 4, 1998.

Which means that, coming up on the horizon, is the 20th anniversary of the opening of Shrewsbury's Cineworld eight-screen cinema on Old Potts Way.

That wonderful night 20 years ago, laser beams shone out from Cineworld, announcing its arrival. You could see the pretty colours in the sky from all over town.

A small army of journalists, myself included, mingled with other invited guests in the modern, brightly-lit foyer.

Outside it was pitch-black and frosty-cold. With December under way, Christmas was in the air.

Staff explained to us that – after our drinks and nibbles – we would have a choice of three films to enjoy.

One was – oh, I don’t know – Something, Something, Something, starring Forgettable Thingamabob.

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The second choice was Goodness Knows What starring What’s Her Name.

And, making my selection a complete no-brainer, was the utterly exquisite It’s A Wonderful Life starring the totally marvellous James Stewart.

Of course I’d seen this masterpiece countless times before, but I’d never seen it on the big screen.

My only regret was that my lovely wife was working that night and so wouldn’t be able to enjoy this great film with me – nor once again watch her husband cry bucket-loads as George Bailey discovers Zuzu’s petals in his jacket pocket, thus realising that his world had been returned to him. (Oh, come on, don’t tell me you haven’t seen it!) …

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There’s a whole Christmas hamper load of terrific festive films from this era (1940s-1950s) but this Frank Capra-directed gem is the greatest of them all.

Commissionaire

Snuggle up in your favourite armchair with a glass of something and a box of chocolates and lose yourself in It’s A Wonderful Life. And unless you have a swinging brick where your heart should be, prepare to shed a few tears.

Anyway. Back to the opening of Cineworld.

Built by the Shrewsbury-based property developers, Alaska, the complex effectively took over from the town's tired (but beautiful) Empire cinema in Mardol.

The Empire had been the last of the town’s cinemas to struggle on in the face of declining audience figures.

The Granada on Castle Gates had – years before – been converted into a bingo hall, and The Century on Town Walls had ended its days as a rather ramshackle electrical store selling washing machines and fridges.

I have a very special affection for The Empire by the way. Our dad once worked there as a commissionaire, fantastically smartly dressed in his uniform, complete with epaulettes and a rather fetching peaked cap.

When we were kids, he would sneak us in to the cinema, free of charge! It all added to the excitement as we watched James Bond (still played by Sean Connery at the time) in Thunderball.

Yeah, the dear old Empire – a purpose-built cinema opened in the 1920s that closed in 1998 just as Cineworld was opening.

It’s now a Pizza Express.

But you know: even though I have a real soft spot for the old-style cinemas, I cannot deny that Shrewsbury’s Cineworld has played a huge part in the social life of our family over the last two decades, and I’d like to take this opportunity to salute it and say thanks.

As a family, we saw all the Harry Potter films here, all the Lord of the Rings films, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc, Shrek, Toy Story 1, 2 and 3, various Star Trek movies, The Avengers, Iron Man, Love Actually, and many others.

It’s been a blast!

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