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Len Ironside: Community-focused Montrose Playhouse is a great example of what Aberdeen’s Belmont cinema could be

There is huge public supporting for the reinvention and reopening of Belmont cinema in Aberdeen.

The Montrose Playhouse opened in 2021, passionately supported by locals (Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson)
The Montrose Playhouse opened in 2021, passionately supported by locals (Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson)

The Belmont cinema has had a chequered history since it first opened in 1896. It closed in 1953, after which Aberdeen City Council had an ambition to reopen it as an independent cinema.

This dream was finally realised in the millennium, when it reopened its doors.

As leader of the council at the time, I was privileged to be at the opening, where they the screened the film Billy Elliott. It was then considered to be a film likely to be enjoyed by a small minority of cinemagoers – how wrong that turned out to be!

Since then, the Belmont has had a turbulent history. Though the building is owned by Aberdeen City Council, in 2011, the running of the premises was taken on by the Cineworld chain.

However, a ruling by the Competition Commission stated that there was unfair competition in Aberdeen, due to the number of cinemas which were already run by Cineworld.

Consequently, the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI) took over the lease from 2014, and ran it in conjunction with Edinburgh Filmhouse. This was done under a charitable status. Regrettably, in October 2022, CMI ceased trading, and the doors of the Belmont Filmhouse were closed.

When administrators summoned the staff of the Belmont and, in my view, rather brutally dismissed them, there was an uproar. The people of Aberdeen had appreciated and enjoyed the benefit of a quality cinema which showed screenings of international, nostalgic and independent films. They were not letting this go.

The public were quick to react. Hundreds attended meetings, and the Save the Belmont Cinema group was formed. It contains local politicians, business leaders and people interested in the arts.

Recently, the council passed a cross-party motion agreeing that the Belmont should remain as an arthouse cinema, run locally by local people. Against all the odds, it continues to make progress.

A jewel in the crown of Montrose

Ironically, 40 miles south, in the Angus city of Montrose, they have achieved Aberdeen’s aim – a “jewel in the crown”, and a great example of a collaborative public and private sector project involving local community volunteers.

When the new swimming pool was built in Angus, the old one (originally built in the 1950s) was declared surplus to requirements. That was in 2012.

This sparked the imagination of local architectural designer, David Paton, who had long held a passion for making creative use of old buildings, as well as enjoying films and the arts. David drew up plans, using the old swimming pool as a possible cinema. Many people thought this would not be possible.

However, when David Paton’s plans were created, over 500 people supported them, and such was the enthusiasm of the local population that a public meeting was organised to discuss them. A working group was formed, and the project took shape.

In 2017, Angus Council sold the swimming pool, for the peppercorn sum of £1.

David Paton’s idea for the Montrose Playhouse went from doodle to reality thanks to vision and community spirit. Photo: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

Incredibly, over 80 individual volunteers, with help from local businesses, gave their time and even materials in order to strip the building back to a shell in preparation for refurbishment. This saved around £250,000, as well as about six months of time.

In March 2019, the Scottish Government awarded them £2.26 million from the capital grant regeneration fund, in conjunction with Angus Council. A competitive tender was produced, and the process awarded the contract to Bancon Construction.

Despite Covid lockdowns and delays, the job was completed by September 2021.

Since its opening that year, Montrose Playhouse has been a genuine example of a local community hub, hosting various activities, and home to The Reel cafe bar, a gift shop, an activity room and, most importantly, three cinema screens.

A successful community hub, driven and supported by local people

Complementing regular film showings, there are special screenings for families and children with autism, those with dementia, or people with sensory sensitivities. The Playhouse also runs “Baby and Me” shows (for those with children under 12 months) in a calm and relaxed atmosphere, where parents and carers can move around freely.

During the Christmas period, over 2,000 children, in conjunction with their schools, were given a chance to enjoy a film there in a relaxed environment.

Another of the recent Montrose Playhouse initiatives was to hold a mini film festival, which featured two acclaimed documentaries, with a director Q&A and an in-person “music for film” workshop, with one of Britain’s top film and TV composers.

The activity room provides space for community meetings, yoga sessions, tai chi classes and birthday parties.

The Belmont Filmhouse closed down with immediate effect in October 2022. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

The gift shop sells various quality items, with references to artists like James McBey and James Morrison, who spent some time in Montrose. Additionally, they host a regular local fruit and veg stall twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Overall, the Montrose Playhouse is a fantastic place to visit. Its staff are welcoming and friendly.

As plans for the future of the Belmont cinema progress, let’s hope Aberdeen looks to Montrose for a genuine example of how to organise and run a successful community hub, driven and supported by local people.

Len Ironside CBE is a former champion wrestler who served as an Aberdeen councillor for 35 years, with four years as council leader