Regular readers of Come Step Back in Time know that I love to find vintage bygones that are quirky and have a fascinating back story. When I spotted a Vintage Mobile Cinema parked-up in Southampton’s Guildhall Square, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to find-out more.
The Vintage Mobile Cinema is a true British transport heritage gem, owned by Emma Giffard and Ollie Halls. The unit was built in the late 1960s for the government by The Ministry of Technology. Originally, there were seven custom mobile cinema units in the fleet but Emma and Ollie’s is thought to be the only one still in existence. These mobile cinemas toured Britain promoting modern production techniques to British industry and were operated by the Production Engineering Research Association (PERA). When the fleet was launched in 1967, it cost the government a staggering £1million.
Arts graduate Ollie purchased the mobile cinema eight years ago when it was in a pretty rundown state. Ollie always wanted to own a mobile cinema and poured his heart, soul and money into renovating this one, bringing it lovingly back to life. It took him five years of part-time hard graft before restoration was finally complete. Ollie and Emma launched their mobile cinema business in Spring 2010. Ollie is rightly proud of what he has achieved: “I love it and am very glad that I did the restoration.”
The coachwork fitted to the Bedford SB chassis was supplied by Coventry Steel Caravans, a firm set-up by designer Clifford Dawtrey at the end of the 1930s. Dawtrey previously worked as Chief Designer at Airlite Trailers of Coventry, prior to Airlite he had worked at the car manufacturer Jaguar (formerly SS). He was a prolific industrial designer whose work contained elements drawn from two popular interwar design styles known as Streamline Moderne and Art Deco. During World War II, Coventry Steel built trailer ambulances. After the war, further industrial commissions followed, including utilitarian mobile units which were used as clinics (dental and medical) and banks, the latter containing a clerk’s office and waiting-room. Dawtrey also designed luxury touring caravans for the domestic consumer. One of the most popular caravans he designed was the Coventry Knight 48 and Ollie’s current restoration project is the renovation of a Coventry Knight. Ollie has had the privilege of meeting both Dawtrey’s son and grandson.
In 1967, the cinema’s interior was masculine, utilitarian and functional, all earthy tones and harsh strip-lighting. Today, the interior is bright and brimming with nostalgia. It has seating for twenty-two people, although the original seats have long since been removed. Ollie purchased the seats you see today from a reclamation yard and they are from the 1930s. This nod to art deco is a fitting tribute to Dawtrey’s early design ethic.
One original feature that I find particularly intriguing is the streamlined, steel-framed, perspex glazed dome above the cab which once housed the remote-controlled projection equipment. Ollie pointed-out that the dome had been designed to let light in, which is unusual, projection rooms are normally pitch-black spaces from which all light has been banished. The dome still has its original curtains that would have been pulled to block-out light when the projector was in use and left open to let light in when the cinema was in transit. It is a striking design feature which certainly caught my eye across the Guildhall Square.
The projector you can now see in the dome is one manufactured by Bell & Howell (16mm), a model original to the 1960s and donated to Ollie by a film enthusiast. Although this projector works, films are now shown on the HD digital projection unit with Dolby 7:1 surround sound.
I asked Ollie what was the most unusual or remotest location that he has been to with the Vintage Mobile Cinema? He said: “A coastal peninsular in Essex as part of a community outreach event organised by Colchester Arts Centre. It was blowing a gale and raining hard but we still got an audience!”