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Regal / ABC
Townhead Street

Hamilton’s Regal Cinema opened its doors in Townhead Street on August 17th, 1931. The site was less than a minute away from the La Scala (later Gaumont) cinema in Keith Street, opened ten years previously, and would also find itself almost facing an Odeon which would be built across the street in 1938, making for an unusually dense concentration of the town’s main cinemas in one small area.

The Regal was initially built to the designs of Charles J McNair, and was one of around thirty cinemas he designed over the three decades from around 1909.

Many of these were designed as part of the partnership of McNair and Elder, the best of which is widely considered to have been the Ascot in Anniesland.  A third of these buildings, including the Hamilton Regal, were commissioned by the ABC circuit, whose flagship Glasgow Regal in Sauchiehall Street was also a McNair project, completed in 1929.

A surprising number of McNair’s cinemas were rebuilds inside older buildings, such as the Bridgeton Olympia, the Kirkcaldy and Kilmarnock Regals and even parts of the Glasgow Sauchiehall Street Regal.  At Hamilton, however, he had a chance to design the whole building from scratch, and the resulting façade would be an early example of a style he would later return to at other Scottish sites.

Externally, the cinema presents a very linear front to the street, with no curves evident on the façade at all, a move towards the more modernist architecture of the 1930s.

Archive exterior,
courtesy of dusashenka

1950s auditorium decoration,
courtesy of Kevin Gooding

Exterior window detail

Exterior Doors

Main Foyer
The symmetrical foyer block is set slightly back from the main entrance doors and shops, and adopts a style the architect would return to for later cinemas - in this case, McNair went for the elegant solution of a large central section, with stair towers and ancillary accommodation set increasingly further back to the sides.

Above the main entrance, three tall, thin rectangular windows framed the small upper foyers, with similar single windows in the stair towers to either side. At the top, running the full width of the central section of the block, was a band of small square windows, filled with coloured glass. A plant room for extraction equipment capped the main facade, with a pagoda-style roof and vent providing the final flourish.

As mentioned, this symmetrical, linear approach, with minimal decoration, tall central windows and box-like elements stepped back from each other, was a style McNair was to repeat in later work. Amongst his other ABC work, the Rex cinema in Glasgow’s Riddrie area, opened only two months after the Hamilton Regal, and the Coatbridge Regal, opened in 1936, are perhaps the most obvious examples of this.

Where the earlier Hamilton Regal differed from later designs, however, was in the rather dull grey harled finish applied to the exterior. Although the windows were outlined in brighter, lightly decorated stonework, with two similar horizontal bands across the façade, the grey finish detracted from what would otherwise have been an uncluttered, clean modernist design.

Entering the cinema through elegant wooden glazed doors, the main ground floor foyer was fairly small, with a corner paybox and wooden panelling on the walls and ceiling. A separate entrance for the rear stalls was to the right of the main doors, bypassing the foyer altogether. Stairways to the upper levels were placed to either side of the foyer. 

At the first floor level, another small foyer was decorated in a similar style, with a large star-pattern in the terrazzo floor - which strongly resembles a larger version in the main entrance foyer of McNair’s Glasgow Regal. This earlier example has recently been uncovered and restored in the latest redevelopment of that building – and this feature proves to be far from the only decorative similarity between the interiors of the two buildings.

From this first floor foyer, a single wooden-panelled vomitory deposits patrons into the centre of the balcony, and stairs to either side again lead to the upper levels. On a half-landing on each side, doors gave access to where the projection box and what was presumably office space were accommodated. Further up the main stairs also gave access to the rear of the balcony at both rear corners.

Returning to the ground floor foyer, the entrance to the rear stalls led to a small vestibule, from which stairs led down to either side of the rear stalls. This odd arrangement was a result of the sloping site on which the Regal was built, with the auditorium being considerably lower than the front of the building.

Upper foyer terrazzo

Upper foyer

On opening, the auditorium originally provided seating for around 1,800, although the balcony was swiftly extended in 1937 to provide a total capacity of just over 2,000 (the cinema was closed between June and September, and the work supervised by architect Alec Cullen). Decoratively, although the exterior was a development from classical facades of the 1920s, the interior was much more traditional, certainly when compared to McNair’s later schemes such as the Bridgeton Olympia. Internally, Hamilton had much more in common with the classical style 1929 interior of his Glasgow Regal, with both cinemas having semi-atmospheric elements of decoration.

Exit at side of proscenium

Remains of splay wall decoration

View from projection room towards screen
The proscenium was rectangular, the border around it being decorated with a ribbed pattern and occasional diagonal crosses. Some more elaborate scrollwork adorned the vertical element of the screen opening, above the fire exits. The sidewalls, were like a smaller scale version of those of the Glasgow Regal, decorated with pilasters and an arch, with a pseudo-balcony front protruding between them.

True atmospheric style cinemas had three-dimensional decoration which would create a fantasy setting, such as an outdoor courtyard in a foreign land, often capped by a ceiling painted or lit to look like an open sky.  Simpler, semi-atmospheric cinemas would try to recreate these effects within the confines of more conventional auditoriums with painted, two-dimensional decoration. In the Hamilton Regal, the arches on either side of the splay walls contained landscape murals, giving the effect of looking out onto a country setting. It is like that there may also have been, as in the Glasgow Regal, fake decorative foliage hanging from the walls and ceiling.

Another consequence of the steeply sloping site is that the auditorium roof is on two levels, being very much higher above the balcony. The steep vertical face marking this change in level was decorated with geometric features to prevent balcony patrons facing a large blank surface area, and two deco-style chandeliers also hung from the higher part of the ceiling.

Despite the competition after the opening of the nearby Odeon in 1938, the Regal soldiered on. By the 1950s, the interior décor had been simplified, with the landscape scenes painted over, and the cinema was renamed the ABC in 1963 as part of a nationwide move to standardise the chain. An illuminated readograph was installed above the main doors, and the lozenge-style individual letters of the new ABC signage installed high up on the façade.

Sadly, in September 1976, the cinema suffered a fire in the auditorium. The damage was extensive but certainly not irreversible, but ABC chose to close the cinema rather than repair it. Of the triangle of cinemas in this corner of Hamilton, the Regal had comfortably outlived the La Scala/Gaumont, which had closed as a cinema in 1960. Ironically, the Regal’s own closure was to prove the saviour of the ailing Odeon, which was then later tripled and continued in operation as a cinema until 1999.

Remarkably, almost 30 years after it was last used, the Regal still stands, decaying gently as the town centre around it is regenerated. The interior, as well as being fire damaged, was largely gutted at some point as part of an abandoned plan to convert it to a nightclub.

By 2005, when the following photographic survey was made, many of the walls and ceilings had been stripped to bare brick and concrete, and large girders had been inserted into the front stalls to allow the balcony to be extended fully forward to the proscenium end of the building. Some fire and smoke damage was still evident, but despite this, much remained of interest.

Surviving splay wall decor

Detail of light fitting at rear of balcony

The upper sections of the side walls still had the blackened remains of the pseudo-balcony, pilasters and arches, with the latter containing a vertical array of light fittings from its last makeover when a cinema. The fire exits to each side of the proscenium were also still present, as were large portions of the main foyer decoration.

As part of the much-heralded regeneration of Hamilton town centre, it was inevitable that action would finally be taken with regards to the sad shell of the Regal, and in 2005 it was compulsorarily purchased by South Lanarkshire Council. Demolition took place in February 2006, with the site being mooted as a temporary car park until a suitable development scheme can be found for it. It is thanks to South Lanarkshire Council, and in particular Stuart Hodge and his colleagues, that the opportunity to look around the building in October 2005 arose, and the gallery of interior photos presented here date from this visit.

Click here for the full detailed photo survey (October 2005).

An exterior picture from 1993 is here, courtesy of Chris Doak.

Click here for a gallery of demolition photos from February 2006, and a second gallery here from February 21st.

Lanarkshire’s Legendary Cinemas, Bruce Peter, Stenlake, 1999
ABC: The First Name In Entertainment, Allan Eyles, CTA/BFI, 1993

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