101-year-old Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield thrills new generation

Abbeydale Picture House is old and battered but, crucially, it is loved.

By David Walsh
Sunday, 29th August 2021, 4:55 pm

The white landmark still thrills with its style and space and has a survivor’s allure after so many were demolished.

Abbeydale Road is the best it’s been for years thanks to a host of dynamic new firms, from bakehouses to beer shops, and an enthusiastic and newly unconfined clientele with wide tastes.

The picture house is no different - demand for weddings, screenings and festivals far outstrips what it is allowed to put on.

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The grand auditorium.

It should be a flagship cultural and events venue that defines and elevates the area. But its uniqueness has a flip side - cost.

Manager Mark Riddington said: “The architecture was designed to wow. And even though it is damaged it keeps all that.

“We’ve spent £60,000 on repairs and it wouldn’t be open at all if it wasn’t safe, but there is a long list of jobs that could be small, huge or really huge.”

The venue had a long and illustrious career in entertainment beginning in 1920 when it opened as a cinema with a ballroom in the basement, “a complete night out,” Mark says.

Designed by Dixon and Stienlet of North Shields, it is neo-baroque with art deco influences and a classical style interior.

It adapted when ‘talkies’ came in 1930 but after 55 good years it closed in 1975.

Luckily, the auditorium was later used as a furniture showroom and warehouse. Lucky, because at that time disused theatres tended to get flattened.

Today, only the Adelphi in Attercliffe and Abbeydale from that period remain in Sheffield, Marks says.

But when Drakes furniture closed in 1991 it fell empty for a long time. In 2008 it was reopened by Friends of Abbeydale Picture House. In 2012 it was snapped up by Phil Robins and the fight has been on to repair and restore it ever since.

Abbeydale Picture House manager Mark Riddington.

But cash is a problem and water damage from its disused days is still evident today. Mr Robins, who rents it to charity CADS, for whom Mark works, abseiled down the outside himself to fix a leak recently.

For the last few years, the goal has been to obtain a full premises licence.

Without it, the venue can only do 15 events a year in the auditorium, 15 in the ’fly-tower’ space back stage and 15 in the car park.

“That licence would mean a huge jump in what we can achieve,” says Mark, who says he receives up to 15 enquiries a day.

Lights on the balcony.

Getting it will take another year he estimates, requiring health and fire safety and disability measures, as well as new equipment.

But progress is being made. After an alarm was fitted they no longer need seven fire marshals in the auditorium. And the building is no longer on the theatres at risk register.

But it can feel like three steps forward and two back.

Mark said: “We are the closest we have been for four years, building on the work of previous organisations and individuals over more than 15 years. It’s a long slog but to be honest but we’re getting there.

“Most events we do are full. The building wasn’t always loved but there’s been a resurgence and people want to see it open.

“You can see how much the Abbeydale corridor has evolved over the last 10 years, it’s a destination.

Robert Agus, CADS cleaner, in the 'fly tower' back stage area.

“Abbeydale Picture House will make it one of the best nights out in the country. We’ve had people come from Bristol, the reach is there. There’s definitely the appetite for it.”

Comedy, poetry, cabaret, silent cinema, bands, weddings, films and food and drink festivals have all proved popular.

He added: “People are interested in culture and anything that improves culture has got to be a good thing.”

As a charity, CADS can apply for grants and has had cash from the Arts Council. The Heritage Lottery Fund is in its sights.

A full restoration back to former glory would cost ‘multi-millions’, which sounds unlikely if not impossible.

But, Mark says, look at Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds and the Band on the Wall in Manchester and of course Sheffield Lyceum which was disused and in danger of being flattened for a car park - unimaginable today.

But it could take 25 years.

Mark added: “I have to pinch myself when I go to work sometimes. I love that it’s gone back to its original purpose as a space for entertainment. People coming together, especially after last year, is really vital for wellbeing and community.

“I see it as more than bricks and mortar but also what people have achieved in that building.”

Four CADS staff are based there and they sometimes feel overwhelmed at the task.

Mark added: “We will never give up. We will do it.”

Today the picture house is stained in places and bent brackets and other fixings still cling to the walls. A few windows are boarded up. Inside, the huge balcony is not in use and there is water damage.

But there are also original features, including plaster reliefs of classical figures, which are a reminder of the money once lavished on an important venue.

The building was Grade II listed in 1989. Designed by Dixon and Stienlet of North Shields, it is neo-baroque with art deco influences and a classical style interior. It was opened on December 20 1920 by the Lord Mayor of Sheffield.

Today, it is also home to Picture House Social and a new games bar in the former snooker hall in the basement, which belong to a separate business.

Tomorrow, Sunday, at 7pm, Abbeydale Picture House is screening a Night of the Living Dead & Demons double-bill.

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.

Mark Riddington on the balcony.
An original plaster feature.