We’re going to take you into Orbit - the return of the silver screen to Wellington
After a wait of more than 30 years, Wellington is all set to get its own cinema once again.
In 1937 the films Captain January starring Shirley Temple and The Big Noise featuring Alastair Sim attracted excited cinema-goers to Wellington’s brand new Clifton cinema.
The crowds were a sign of things to come. The cinema thrived, and the popcorn was constantly flowing.
Yet even though the Clifton was still ringing 110,000 through the till a year in 1983 – 26,897 people flocked in to watch Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic ET alone – it closed its doors.
It reopened as a cinema in altered form, using just the old circle, in May 1987, but closed again on December 24, 1988, and that was that. Until now.
Now, the silver screen is about to return to Wellington. It has taken a long battle, which at one point looked lost, but now a cinema and art space in the form of the Wellington Orbit on Station Road – slap bang in the middle of the town centre – is nearing completion.
“It’s a reality,” says Sophie Eades, a wide, beaming grin spreading across her face.
And she’s right. Standing in the cinema auditorium, which will be called the Clifton Cinema Suite, there are rows of blue high quality seats and sofas, a top class surround sound system and a state of the art digital projector.
“This room used to be the HSBC foyer and back offices,” says Sophie, who is the chief officer at the Orbit.
“But now this is going to be a proper functioning cinema.
“The transition is amazing. It’s looking good. This building has had extensive refurbishment and remodelling.”
The battle to bring back a cinema to the town has been a long one and is testament to the hard work of those involved in the Clifton Community Arts Centre Limited (CCAC), which was set up in 2013.
The Bridge Street building was converted to house a laser gun entertainment game and during the 1990s was sold to Dunelm, when the CCAC initially planned to reopen the building for the benefit of the community.
There were numerous many attempts to purchase or lease the building from Dunelm, but to no avail.
In October 2017 a developer confirmed that it had agreed terms with Dunelm and was purchasing the site for residential and retail redevelopment.
The dream of bringing that building back as a cinema had died. Or so it seemed.
But in truth, the vision of a cinema and arts venue was alive and kicking.
When the former HSBC bank in Station Road became available, the CACC swooped.
It was a pretty dull and drab building. The walls were cream and the carpets worn.
There was definitely a job to be done. But the view today – just four months on from when the project really started – is considerably different.
A five-year lease has been taken on the empty bank building, and 6,500 sq ft of space is being converted across three floors.
On the ground floor is an artisan café and bar, along with the cinema which is kitted out with seats from Atcham-based company Ferco – perhaps better known for providing the safe standing seats at Shrewsbury Town FC’s home ground.
“A lot of volunteers and supporters were very keen to get a cinema back in the town,” says Sophie.
“Originally we were looking at taking on the Clifton building so we needed to look for something else in the vicinity that would have the space to enable us to have what the community wanted.
“Initial opening days will be Wednesday to Sunday. On a Wednesday morning we will be holding a over-60s screening which will include lunch and a cuppa, so people can come here and they may potentially be here for something like four hours making new friends and meeting new people.”
Specific screening days will also be organised for people living with dementia and learning difficulties, as well as making it as affordable and inclusive for people as possible – as well as looking back to how cinemas were run back in the Clifton’s day for inspiration.
“There will be a Sunday matinee for the family and we have worked out a really good price for two adults and two children which will be £14,” says Sophie, 50.
“We want to enable those who might be finding things financially difficult to come and have a bit of fun and watch a film.
“We are also reintroducing Saturday morning cinema. It will be a child-friendly screening where mum and dad can be in the cafe have some time while the child is in the cinema. I used to go to Saturday cinema as a child and it was fantastic.
“It’s what a lot of people consider when you talk about the Clifton, it’s about the memories that they had. Going as a child, going on a first date and things like that.”
In the decades that followed the Clifton’s closing those who passed through its doors shared a host of memories, particularly the children whose lives it shaped.
“The Clifton name will always be at the forefront and will always be a reference. It’s a big nod to something that was so important to the community,” says Sophie.
The cinema will of course also be running recent releases although these are likely to be shown four to six weeks after release date.
“We have done a lot of work over the years asking people what they want to see from a community centre and in terms of screenings we’re looking to appeal to the diverse community that we have,” Sophie adds. “We are looking at putting on Bollywood films, but we’d be doing something different and putting on an Indian feast in the cafe, people can dress up.
“Similarly we are looking at immersive screenings. So if we had Quadrophenia we would see if we could get some scooters, put on 60s food, and dress up.”
She continues: “We are also looking at doing films for the LGBTQ community and the Polish community. There’s lots of plans.”
But this is more than just a cinema – Sophie says the plan is for the cafe, bar and restaurant area will also be as important.
“We are looking at locally sourced food that will be freshly made on premises where possible, so nothing brought in apart for flour, butter and cheese, those sorts of things,” she says.
“We have great plans for the food and will be asking local allotment holders over the summer for any excess they’ve got to turn it into something else and to save it going to waste.
“Because we have the cafe space and what we will be offering food-wise isn’t replicated anywhere else in the vicinity, we’re hoping that even if we have quiet nights in the cinema we will be busy in the cafe and restaurant.”
There will only be a limited staff of four – Sophie, the chief officer, a managing projectionist, catering manager and chef who will be supported by a team of volunteers, who will do stewarding, cleaning and some food preparation.
But this is not the end of the work.
As part of the second phase of development, the upper floors will be multi-purpose and can be used as an art gallery, for training, as meeting rooms or to host community groups and exhibitions.
“We are fundraising to develop the upper floors which will be things like art course rooms as well as things like drama, music, theatre, anyone can hire,” says Sophie.
“It’s a huge building, so we will be looking at all different kinds of things.”
Directors behind the Wellington Orbit have been using a Social Investment Tax Relief campaign to secure money needed to convert the building, as part of a phased redevelopment that will ultimately utilise all three floors.
It has already raised more than £300,000 after receiving financial backing from both the local community and councils.
Wellington Town Council chose to use its £150,000 Telford 50 Legacy Fund grant to support the project.
The grant is part of a £750,000 scheme funded by Telford & Wrekin Council’s £2 million Telford 50 Legacy fund.
The support, Sophie says, has been incredible.
The CCAC now has a membership of over 800 people and a shareholding of £40,000, along with a database of 300 volunteers.
But there are also other incentives to help raise money from the community too which includes cinema seat sponsorship which costs £100 and will be renewable after five years.
In return, the seats will have their own engraved plaque and people can use it as a memorial to passed loved ones, pets or something else that is meaningful in their lives.
“It’s been going really well and people have been really keen to sponsor a seat, which helps a lot,” says Sophie.
The buzz for opening day is growing.
People are now talking about the Orbit on the street, in the pubs and cafes around Wellington – but there is no firm official date set as yet.
“Within the next few weeks,” said Sophie. “I can’t wait either.”