The Moderne

The Moderne Cinema, 713 Wimborne Road, Bournemouth
The Moderne Cinema in Moordown, Winton shortly after it succumbed to the Bingo craze in 1963

The Moderne Cinema in Moordown opened on 11th October 1935 with screenings of Music in the Air starring Gloria Swanson and John Boles and Denis O’Neil in Barnacle Bill. Designed by local architect Edward G. de Wilde Holding in an art deco style, the cinema seated 1,500 film fans and included a café in the balcony foyer plus an ice cream parlour. The state-of-the-art cinema was one of the first in Bournemouth to install Cinemascope with a four track stereo sound system.

Initially the Moderne was a hit, drawing in big audiences but after a couple of years it became a struggle to fill the seats and it was bought by Portsmouth Town Cinemas, who also owned the nearby Ritz. In 1958 an ambitious manager, Hugh Byron Davies, or Uncle Hugh as he was popularly known, was appointed from the Plaza cinema in Northam, Southampton. In a bid to increase revenue he introduced the Saturday morning matinee for kids, talent nights and more importantly, the opportunity for skiffle groups to air their talents, or lack of, in front of a live audience.

Like every other town and city across the country, skiffle groups sprang up in Bournemouth on the back of the January 1956 Lonnie Donegan hit, “Rock Island Line”. Most were just school friends trying to cobble a few chords together in sheds and bedrooms for their own amusement, but the more ambitious groups took whatever gigs they could get at church fete’s, youth clubs and garden parties or even better still, on the large, well-equipped stage at the Moderne, albeit with no remuneration to show for their efforts. Walking out to an auditorium full of ruffians from the surrounding council estates must have been a nerve-racking experience for most and the high point (or low point) of their musical careers, but for a select few it would be the first step on the road to becoming a professional musician.

The Moderne auditorium from the stagea daunting sight when full for any prospective skiffler

Some of the groups that trod the boards at the Moderne included George ‘Zoot’ Money’s first combo The Four Ales and The Midnighters with future Police member Andy ‘Summers’ Somers on guitar. Gordon and David Dowland played there as The Blue Earth River Boys and a little later as the Dowland Brothers and the Drovers with Roy Phillips, the future organist of The Peddlers, on guitar. Other regulars included The Korvettes, one of several groups formed at Bournemouth School for Boys along with The Tennessee Tramps and another group whose name has long been forgotten in the mists of time featuring drummer Michael Giles and his guitarist brother Peter, the eventual rhythm section of a short-lived version of King Crimson. Then there was a bunch of older college students called The Voltas, The Viscounts from Parkstone, The Riversiders from Winton formed by vocalist Tony Head who later went under the pseudonym of Dave Anthony. Plus a group of apprentices from the De Havilland aircraft factory in Christchurch called The Red Star Skiffle Group and The Jesters, whose drummer Colin Allen went on to fame with the Zoot Money Big Roll Band, Stone the Crows and Focus. Most skiffle groups lasted no longer than the time it took to bash out a twelve-bar blues in E, but for one bunch of art students, The Kapota All Stars, they kept on going well into the early sixties.  

The Moderne auditorium pictured from the rear of the balcony, the expensive seats

The regular gig for most of these groups was the Saturday morning matinee, where a good crowd could be guaranteed as kids from nearby council estates and the surrounding area converged for their weekly fix of movie magic. For the princely sum of sixpence, a programme of cartoons, cliff hanger Cowboy and Indian films such as Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy, climaxed with a main feature that more often than not was mind-numbingly boring, provoking the restless rich kids in the ninepenny balcony seats, to shower the unlucky peasants below with debris and half-eaten ice creams. During the interval, a gaggle of awkward looking youths, not much older than the audience, would nervously meander onto the stage with assorted kitchen accoutrements and guitars and self-consciously strum their way through a catalogue of American folk and blues tunes, trying their best to ignore the building crescendo of booing and catcalls. It was at one of these baptisms of fire that the Tennessee Tramps braved the crowd, performing their versions of “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O” and “Diggin’ my Potatoes”. However, it was during washboard player Al Kirtley’s set piece, an interpretation of “Frankie and Johnny”, that it all kicked off. As a barrage of coins and jeers from the unruly crowd rained down on the hapless singer, he gamely struggled through numerous verses to the end and remembers picking up sixpence in coppers from the stage floor as they shuffled off. So, although not exactly lucrative, it wasn’t an entirely wasted morning.

The Tennessee Tramps braved a baptism of fire at the Moderne (Photograph courtesy of Al Kitley)

The Moderne also hosted several skiffle competitions that were all the rage for a couple of years. The Korvettes scored a victory at the ‘Grand Skiffle Jamboree Contest’ held in the summer of 1958, when they beat off a field of thirteen groups of varying musical ability in front of a crowd of over a thousand enthusiasts. It was a close-run thing with The Voltas, who surprised everyone by introducing a set of bongos into their set, The Blue Earth River Boys, the winners of a similar contest held earlier in the week at the Royal Ballrooms in Boscombe, The Viscounts from Parkstone and Tony Head’s Riversiders. Self-styled England mascot, socialite and man about town, Ken Baily, presented the Moderne Trophy Cup to the winners, however, the result proved to be contentious as a noisy faction of the crowd, who had forked out the princely sum of two bob to sit in the stalls or half a crown in the balcony, felt cheated and booed the decision believing the winning song to be more rock ‘n’ roll than skiffle. Head Korvette, Charlie Allen, responded to the criticism by stating that “purists were holding skiffle back” and “that it had to develop or remain in a rut”. Blimey, and Bob Dylan thought he had a rough ride when he plugged in a electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

Colin Allen, an apprentice at De Haviland’s in Purewell also made his first public appearance with his group The Jesters at a Moderne skiffle contest. However, this was no lean, mean quartet, anybody who could string a couple of chords together on a guitar was in. On the day, chief guitarist Terry Rigler trooped onto the stage with almost a dozen scruffy herberts in tow. Drummer Colin, who had a rudimentary kit of snare and hi-hat, found his tub thumping skills in demand on the day as Colin Perry, a fellow De Haviland’s apprentice, persuaded him to sit in with his combo The Red Star Skiffle Group as their incumbent percussionist had failed to turn up. Much to the chagrin of the unplaced Jesters, the Red Stars came in second to the more polished and professional Dowland Brothers and the Drovers.

The Blue Earth River Boys skiffle group became the more polished Dowland Brothers and the Drovers (Photograph courtesy of Al Kirtley)

Skiffle proved to be a tiny stitch in the great tapestry of rock and the musicians who were serious, soon moved onto electric guitars and rock ‘n’ roll. As for the Moderne, times were tough during the early sixties as “unruly elements” disrupted screenings and the then manager brought back a modicum of decorum by taking the unusual step of banning over two hundred and fifty customers which, along with television, sounded the death knell for the cinema. It sadly closed on 25th May 1963 with a screening of The Wrong Arm of the Law starring Peter Sellers. The Moderne reopened a month later, after a refit, as a bingo hall on 8th June with a guest appearance from Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner (Pam Phoenix). Over the years it was operated by Granada, then the Gala group, but in February 2008 the doors closed on the bingo hall for the last time. An application submitted to English Heritage to protect the Moderne by turning it into a listed building was rejected that summer, as some of the original decorative features had been removed. It has since been renovated sympathetically by the Bournemouth Community Church who occasionally use the building for what it had first been intended, a cinema.

The Moderne, now owned by the Bournemouth Community Church (Photograph John Cherry)

Although not strictly a music venue, the Moderne played a significant role in the development of a nascent Bournemouth music scene, by giving several young musicians their first taste of live performance in a professional setting, even if it was in front of a crowd of rowdy kids, and for that we should thank Hugh Byron Davies.     

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