A love of Art Deco, with its elegant logic and lush curves, was instilled in me subconsciously from the age of 6 years old when my father took me to see my first film. (Incidentally, Dr. Doolittle. They’d have you believe Rex Harrison was the star but top billing, for my money, went to the giant pink sea snail).
I was hardly to know then that The State Cinema would be, in 2012, a Grade II listed building, one of the few remaining 1930’s masterpiece picture palaces left in the country, but the grandeur of the sculpted lobby lights and sweeping staircase seeped into my DNA and would cause me to forever gaze upon symmetrical geometry as perfection of form and the epitome of splendour and grace in design. I am enthralled and entranced by it to this day – it makes me go weak at the knees.
Since then I’ve enjoyed far more spectacular examples; the Wiltern Theater, The Pantages, both in Los Angeles, and the Holy Grail, the Big Daddy of them all, Radio City Hall in New York.
My fellow travellers, otherwise known to some of you by the name Culture Club, were jazzed to be playing a prestigious venue. Me, I was wandering around the empty building during the sound check, reverentially touching the walls and exploring the fabled ladies powder rooms with joy in my heart.
Sadly The State in Grays, Essex now lives up to its name, having languished decaying for 10 years while developers argue about how, or even if, to make the 2000 seat auditorium a useful public space again. It is rudely crowded by the greenly garish Morrisons supermarket and most likely will receive less salvation than the mire of a town Grays has now descended into.
Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for any rare survivor of the era that may lay waiting to be discovered in the most unlikely places. Such a building is the Mecca Bingo Hall in Hornchurch. The old Towers Cinema screened its last Bond movie in 1973 (Live And Let Die) and was snapped up by Top Rank. Outside, they could dress the old lady in a spandex jumpsuit but her pearls still shone – if you looked hard for them.
I wondered if there was anything worth loving left of her on the interior and decided to chance my arm and blag my way in. Cunningly disguised as a bingo-winged granny I might fool the entry guard.
If Sunny was rolling her eyes I chose not to look.
The bleak aluminum double doors were locked tight and my door rattling was as effective as the frenzied ‘elevator button press’ we do in the vain hope it will arrive faster, so I did the shaded eye with hand motion and pressed myself up to the glass. I wanted to see if anything was recognisable in the once ornate lobby. A few plaster ceiling tiles suggested a past. The rest was obliterated by neon blinking slot machines and gaudy enticements for cheap food and cheap entertainment.
Sunny noticed that the entry guard had buzzed us in but my glee was short lived.
The rhythmically named Mr.(according to his tag) Abimbola Mporampora, as polite and well clad as he was in his sharp suit and tie, said we could go no further than the door unless we swiped a membership card.
“Oh,” I said, rather crestfallen, catching a tantalising glimpse of decorative grill work in the distance over his shoulder, “I only want to look at the building.”
“You want to look at the building?” He seemed confused, out of his range of standard patter for old ladies desperate to drop a fiver on a bingo card. “I think you need some kind of special permit or permission to do that.”
“I just want to see it for a minute.”
Sunny, bored, patently used to low levels of eccentricity from her mother, continued to consume half of a tuna and cucumber sandwich with nonchalance in his colourfully flashing lobby.
“You cannot go in without joining.” Mr. Mporampora pointed out reasonably. Apparently, I couldn’t take ten further steps to look over the glassed in auditorium either. Rejecting a lengthy discursive on seeking out architectural bygones as a strategy to win over Mr. Mporampora, I had a sudden light bulb.
“What if…” I put it to him, “What if I want to look around because I am considering becoming a member?”
Jackpot. The correct combination of words.
“In that case,” he said, “I will be happy to let you look around.”
I felt it was only fair to allow him his sales pitch while I grabbed an eyeful of Deco that soared up to a gilded ceiling somewhere behind the digital read out boards that blared out numbers and the plastic booths that now sat in place of the original (probably red velvet) seating. Some of it lived and breathed behind the ugliness still.
I was slightly happy.
Mr. Abimbola Mporampora waved us off, his ears ringing with our promises to fill out membership forms online according to the leaflets we’d been supplied with, which advertised ‘Great Fun and Games’. I have the registration form in front of me now. Amongst many other considerations, it wishes to know if I am a member of other clubs (I fret upon what might exclude me for candidacy – being paid up annually to Hornchurch Fist Fuckers?) and also if I am a smoker, as though if I were to tick YES they would direct me to the smoking section of the building. Or not like me as much. Or get the mints ready as my approach were heralded. Who can tell.
Alas. The days one could puff away and be sheltered from the weather are vanquished, along with the faint flickering strains of ‘The Phantom Light‘ starring Binnie Hale, the first film ever to be shown at the Towers in 1935.
After that we walked on to Langtons House Park, hidden behind Sainsbury’s, un-signposted and hitherto unknown to myself, although Sunny had chanced upon it recently.
A Georgian manor and grounds, gifted to the borough in 1929, it had been bought in 1797 for the Massu family, Huguenot silk merchants who added on to an earlier structure. The duck filled lake (there’s also Canadian geese and a family of giant terrapins) and beautiful surrounds were designed by the renowned landscape architect Humphrey Repton, although there are records of a house on the site from 1350, the name deriving from old English for ‘a long hill’.
None of which I found out in the grounds or in the house, I’ve researched it online (not on the official web site, mind).
We peered into the windows and saw rooms full of corporately arranged chairs. Then we realised there were people walking around inside and we might conceivably be some of them. We found a back door open, the front said No Entry. From the one leaflet, we gathered the local council hired out the venue for weddings, so we decided our cover story would be (getting used to this) a mother and daughter considering the house for a wedding venue.
I approached the disinterested receptionist, who was seated behind a desk in the peach flocked hall. I noticed that the grand staircase ascended three flights and I dearly wanted to see the upstairs and what, if any, architectural features remained.
“May we look upstairs?”
“Look at what?” she snapped.
“Whatever there is,”
She went blank, as if nobody in a decade had expressed an interest in the building for its own sake.
“There’s nothing to see. It’s just old offices.You can look at the rooms downstairs if you want. That one has a handicapped bathroom.”
We did want, although it was not the most je ne sais quoi I’ve ever encountered as far as sales pitches go.
Left to our own devices we snooped around, opening random cupboards and tutting over walled up great fireplaces. A back staircase, clearly for kitchen staff in old times, beckoned temptingly but we chickened out when Sunny thought she heard someone on it, higher up. Maybe it was the ghost of servants past.
Attached to the house outside is an 18th century Orangerie. It is locked, but inside someone must regularly tend to the ‘exotic plants’ it has been furbished with ‘similar to what would have been inside originally’, according to the sole notice. To the east lies a small, unloved rose garden.
All of it suggested a wholly under-utilised asset to my retail eyes; an uncelebrated historical building only superficially used for weddings, no corporate organisation, no tea room in the Orangerie to make optimum use of the kitchens and ancient walled gardens, no information available, no staff that gave a monkey’s toss that they inhabited such a wonder that was drowning in a sea of Eighties tat.
I hunted down the email of the head of the county council. Rather than moan and do nothing, I wrote to him asking if I could be so bold as to forward some ideas to maximise the potential of the jewel it could be.
I am currently taking bets on whether or not I get a reply. Go on, you can risk a fiver. If you lose, I’ll put it towards bread for the ducks.