“ Address: Three Close Ln / Berkhamsted / Hertfordshire HP4 2FG / England „
In 2006 The Telegraph asked "Is this Britains's most beautiful cinema?", and my answer is most definitely yes! The Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted is a 1930s art deco cinema that by some incredible good fortune was left with its 1930s features intact, to be restored by James Hannaway to create the most incredible cinema I have ever visited.
Present Day Rex
Devotees of the Rex will travel across London and join a two hour queue to get tickets - and I can tell you that it is well worth it!
Sadly the original entrance to the Rex was divided off by the council and sold as a restuarant (the Gatsby). The new entrance is round the side of the building, but as soon as you walk up the steps you enter a plush 1930s foyer, with authentic lighting, stylish 1930s seating, a glitzy bar, complete with black and white film posters and a collection of books on film on the shelves. Inside the auditorium itself, your attention is immediately drawn to the stage, which is surrounded by a golden and richly ornate proscenium arch. I have never ever seen anything like this in a cinema, and if you look on the website you can see that it is exactly the same as it was in 1930. Around you is rich marine themed decoration. Everything seems plush black and red. On the black walls are many scalloped art deco shell lights, the ceiling has an intricate plaster and is also golden, there are waves of light on the black walls. The level of ornate detail on all of this will just astound you!
I always try to get the £10 downstairs table seats - for an extra £2 you are whisked back in time to a 1930s Fred Astaire film set. Huge plush red swivel chairs are set around small cocktail tables with little tea light lamps on them. You sit in the most fantastic surroundings, with a glass of wine in your hand and the table lamps twinkling away all through the film. A full length licensed bar runs along the back of the seating area, and you can get drinks and snacks throughout the performance without missing a thing. If you order the cheese platter, this is served to your table just after the film begins. Most people arrive very early to enjoy a drink in the fabulous surroundings, and then swivel round to the screen as the film begins.
The slightly cheaper circle seats are the big bucket seats that many of us remember from our childhoods. The experience of sitting upstairs is also good, but not a patch on the luxury of downstairs!
As you may imagine, coke and popcorn are not to be seen! Wine, beer and soft drinks are served with pots of olives, little pots of nuts, and other non-rustly snacks.
Before each film, the cinema's owner-restorer James Hannaway, comes into the stage to introduce the film. He gives a little speach about the film and talks about films that he has booked for future weeks. His love and dedication for the cinema are what makes it special.
He chooses a varied range of film, from art house, foreign language film to the big blockbusters and some old but special films. For example, this month he is showing 'North by Northwest', 'Drag Me to Hell', 'Pierrot Le Fou', and 'Last Chance Harvey', amongst others.
The cinema was built in the 1930s, designed by David Nye in 1936 and opened in 1938 but by 1973 it had become a bingo hall, and by 1988 it had closed down for good. Only English Heritage and its Grade 2 listed status prevented it from being demolished. All of its original features remained in place, boxed in or hidden behind boarding, but surviving vandalism and general decay.
A long, long campaign by James Hannaway and Friends of the Rex eventually led to the re-opening of the cinema in 2004, with all of the art deco features lovingly restored, 294 large cinema seats from Amsterdam, and the decaying structure of the building rebuilt to a high standard.
I have to add a word about the restaurant which is situated in the original foyer of the Rex. The Gatsby restaurant has also kept all of the art deco features present in the original cinema, and they have a set pre film menu for £12 for two courses plus a glass of wine or other drink.
I recently had the perfect night out - a really lovely meal in the Gatsby (Basil Infused Chicken With Red Onion Marmalade, seared Salmon and a glass of wine for £12), followed by a drink in the fantastic auditorium of the cinema, followed by a showing of 'Young Victoria', followed by a Q and A session with the writer, Julian Fellowes.
It may be difficult to get tickets for the Rex, but DO NOT GIVE UP ! It is very, very worthwhile.
The Box Office is open Monday to Saturday 10.30-6.00 and Sunday 4.30-5.30. Tickets for the coming month are released on the last Saturday of each month, from 10.30, and people start queueing well before that time. Film listings are published on the website a couple of days before the tickets are released.
If you want to sit at a table, I would say you almost definitely have to queue. I tried to phone once, and the line was permanently engaged until about 4pm, by which time all the films I was interested in had sold out.
Prices are: Tables £10, circle £8, Royal Box (seats 6) £12 or £66 for the box.
Box Office 01442 877759