For years, people arriving by train1 in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex in southeastern England, were met by a sign that said “Welcome to Lewes, Home of Harveys Brewery”. This sign is in the yard of the former Harveys Depot, which sits just to the north of the railway station. Currently, the depot is a building site, the sign, and much of the building, swathed in scaffolding. In Spring-Summer 2017, it will open in its new incarnation: the three-screen Depot cinema.
The very name of the cinema is a nod to the heritage of the building, and indeed of Lewes itself, so synonymous with Harveys Brewery. Though interestingly, the site was originally owned by the Royal Mail. The current depot was built in 1937, replacing a 19th century mail depot.
I was lucky enough to have a tour of the site last week with Carmen Slijpen, whose passion for cinema is at the heart the Depot cinema project. The site is certainly changing fast, though the finished Depot will reflect its past in several ways, notably by keeping several of the features that look older, but were in fact fitted by Harveys in the 1990s, such as the Harveys signs and the clock tower2.
A town needs a cinema
In a former life, I was a film journalist and I have a master’s in film and TV studies, so the Depot cinema is enormously exciting for me. Not only does it revitalise a neglected corner of Lewes, it connects my loves of cinema and ale, albeit loosely!
Lewes hasn’t had a cinema for years. Cliffe, at the bottom of town, lost its Odeon in 1971, with the building sadly demolished in 1982 (another, the Cinema de Luxe on School Hill, closed in 1963; an even older one, the County Electric Theatre, didn’t even make it into the sound era!). And while Carmen and others have been running the Film Club, with screenings in a theatre and a former church the past decade and a half or so, a town of Lewes’s status needs a proper cinema. Furthermore, the Depot will be a kind of community hub. Alongside three state-of-the-art auditoria, there will be a café, bars, education facilities and an editing suite, as well as outdoor terraces, and a publically accessible garden. Indeed, the garden will hold even older echoes of the site’s history. Prior to the post depot, it was an orchard, and Carmen says they will be planting some fruit trees, alongside various other intriguing schemes, such as structures with climbing plants (I suggested they plant some hops).
Finding the Depot
Carmen, who trained as a projectionist in Amsterdam before becoming a film programmer, embarked on her quest to create a cinema in Lewes in 2011. Within a few weeks, she found a funder in the form of Robert Senior, a local with a love of cinema. Senior established a charity for the project, Lewes Community Screen.
Finding a suitable site was a challenge, as cinema auditoria have particular requirements, notably height. They considered the former magistrates court, but it wasn’t right, and has since been demolished. Carmen says that, strangely, the nearby Harveys Depot site had “become invisible”, despite its central location. Harveys had moved to their new depot in Malling Brooks, and it just sat there, empty. At the end of 2011, Harveys were looking to sell the site. There were plans to build a Travelodge there, or a Tesco Metro with flats above, but luckily all fell through and Lewes Community Screen was able to buy the whole site.
London-based architects Burrell, Foley, Fischer, who had previous experience with other cinemas, were chosen from six who pitched. Plans were drawn up and, by 2014, Lewes Community Screen got planning permission.
It sounds a close-run thing though, as, bafflingly, Lewes Town Council voted against it, despite how much such a project will offer the town and community. Even the Highways Agency had concerns. The three auditoria will be 140 seat, 130 and 37, the education room is for a maximum of 40, and the cafés etc will have a total of about 100 seats, so the Depot will have a theoretical capacity of nearly 500. The Highways Agency panicked that all these people would be arriving simultaneously, individually, by car. Which is patently absurd. For starters, cinemas stagger their screenings. Never mind the fact that the Depot is centrally located, and within walking or cycling distance for most Lewes residents. Furthermore, there are bus stops nearby – and the station!
Thankfully, the South Downs National Park Authority saw sense.
Indeed, several aspects of the project are entirely suited to celebrating a town at the heart of a precious national park. Not only will the Depot be powered by ground-source heat pumps, using heat transfer from 200m below the surface, it will have a living roof – planted not with generic sedums but with flora found in the South Downs. Such details make the Depot special.
Old and new
Aside from bureaucracy, there have been other challenges. Not only did postal then brewery storage have very different requirements to a cinema in terms of how the space is used, but the site is at risk of flooding, so the cinema has effectively been raised 800mm.
It’s been a test to retain the history of the buildings while converting them to new usage. Much of the old red brick structure is being retained, to be visible through new glass walls. It’ll form a handsome contrast to the advanced elements. Carmen talked us through the high specs they’ll have in the auditoria, with screen 1 having 4k digital and Dolby Atmos with 36 speakers in the ceiling; screen 2 having 2k digital with 3D; and screen 3 also having 2k digital. Screen 3 has a small bar adjacent, which Carmen says will have a “dark, private members’ bar feel”.
Carmen says they’ll be screening “a healthy mix of arthouse and mainstream cinema.” Certainly, screen 1 sounds like it’ll be able to handle anything a modern movie with elaborate digital production can throw at it, while the more intimate screen 3 will be a delight for smaller films or rep. Carmen says, “We’ll be running lots of strands, which are series of films that run alongside the main programme – the main programme being films that we book on a weekly basis and are the newly released films.”
Indeed, the Depot sounds unique on a number of levels, not just for the site’s heritage. As Lewes Community Screen is a charity, it does “not exist to make a profit necessarily (but will strive to, as that will give us options for further, more exciting programming).” This may also mean they have a slightly different relationship with distributors, who can be quite, shall we say, demanding when it comes to big releases.
Carmen continues “If we don’t do what is stipulated by distributors we will often have to wait for one or more weeks before we can get hold of a film. We will have to see how our audience responds to that. I think it is realistic to expect it will take us two years to understand how [people] will react and respond to having an independent cinema in their vicinity.”
I imagine running a truly independent cinema is very challenging3. But if it can be done right anywhere, it’s Lewes.4
Oh, and just so this post doesn’t seem too far outside the normal remit of my blog I’d like to reassure Lewesians that Carmen tells me the Depot bars will be serving Harveys. And though she says most of all that “I want to be selling films”, a quality ale and a good film is a perfect evening out for me.
1 Currently a grotesque proposition as rail operator Southern (Govia Thameslink) continues to abuse and disrespect its customers with a cavalcade of late, delayed, cancelled and overcrowded trains, while continuing to charge absurd prices for tickets.
2 The clock itself is being restored by local mechanical wiz John Downie. I love a public clock myself, and this one is a far more handsome proposition than the other one in Lewes I use regularly, which adorns the increasingly tired looking Tesco supermarket on the Malling side of the river. Funnily, another public clock adorns the Market Tower, where I used to do my biscuit stall, but I rarely look up at it as it doesn’t have clear lines of sight. I don’t believe it works. Another Lewes public clock that does work sticks out from St Michael in Lewes church at 158 High Street, in the Bottleneck. A place of worship for 800 years apparently, though the clock is a bit more modern than that.
3 The UK has proportionately few independent cinemas these days; most of our cinemas aren’t even British. We all grew up with the Odeon chain, but that’s a subsidiary of the US AMC chain, itself owned by the Chinese Dalian Wanda. Vue is Canadian owned. Cineworld is owned by Cinema City International, which is based in the Netherlands. Cineworld also owns the superficially more indie Picturehouse chain. Everyman Cinemas are owned by Everyman Media Group PLC.
4 Though Uckfield, just up the road, also has an independent cinema, it’s not quite as multipurpose a venue as the Depot will be. Plus, I live in Lewes and dream of being able to walk or bike to the movies on my own or with my family. I’ve almost always lived in places where I could do this – London, Newcastle, Rome – so it’s something I’ve really missed. Indeed, I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough to start properly enjoying the cinema too.