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Curzon, a new chapter

24 January, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

The flagship Curzon cinema in Mayfair, pictured in 1985

IT was 85 years ago that Harold Wingate set up the Curzon cinema group.

Two weeks ago, the family’s long-standing connection with one of the best British independent film firms finally came to end with the sale to New York-based Cohen Media Group.

The firm’s first screen was in Mayfair, and is still in operation. Their 20 other cinemas are all based in London while Curzon’s Artificial Eye group, bought from the late, great filmophile Andi Ingle in 2006, releases up to 20 movies a year.

They have a great track record at the Oscars, too: A Separation, The Great Beauty, Son of Saul and A Fantastic Woman, were all Artificial Eye films.

The celebrated Roma and the Ballad of Buster Scruggs, both on Netflix, were also from their stable.

Roger Wingate, whose family established the firm, said: “Curzon has been present throughout my entire life. I will miss it but am confident that its future is in good hands.”

And the flagship cinema in Mayfair has a wonderful history.

Originally built by The Marques de Casa Maury, in 1934, it was fashioned in a Bahaus modernist style and had to be one storey – in those days the highly flammable film stock meant there were laws that said no cinema could have homes or offices over them.

And its Bauhaus styling was also in stark contrast to the gloriously ornate picture theatres of the 1930s, giving it the sense of being truly cutting-edge.

Roger recalls in an interview published on the Curzon website on how his father Harold bought the site in 1940.

“Sadly I have no record of the wartime programming, but I do remember my father telling me it was a busy time for the entertainment world, heatless homes and poor food encouraged going out, not to mention London’s floating population of young men and women ‘in uniform’ on the look-out for dating venues,” he says.

Harold began scouring foreign film markets for interesting films he could buy and show in London, becoming a distributor as well as a cinema owner.

Roger adds: “My mother was fluent in French from school days and was picking up kitchen Italian, which she was able to improve upon at Berlitz courses. As a result, she undertook the translation and sub-titling of films in both languages. ‘Dialogue’ and ‘spotting list’ were terms often heard at home.”

Films first screened in the UK by Curzon included such classics as Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, which enjoyed a 22-week run and sold 150,000 tickets.

“Although still a child, I was allowed to see it,” recalls Roger. “I could not make out what the father had bought his son to eat in a restaurant scene, they were the principal characters, and was told it was called pizza and that this was to show their poverty!”

In 1950 the Mayfair success encouraged the Wingates to build the first post-war cinema in central London.

It was also first to benefit from fire-resistant film. Because of improvements to film stock, the theatre could be placed in a basement with offices upstairs.

Harold gave the lease to Columbia Pictures, who used it to show off new releases in modern surroundings, the main auditorium holding 700 people. A 1998 remodelling turned it into a three-screen cinema.

The financial details of the deal with Cohen are not public yet, but the new owners say if it ain’t broke, why fix it? So we can expect many more brilliant releases under the Curzon brand.

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