The Regent Centre is situated in the middle of Christchurch High Street and is the cinema, theatre, concert hall and entertainment centre serving Christchurch, East Dorset and the New Forest.
The Regent opened on Boxing Day 1931 as the town’s cinema, showing The Taming of the Shrew with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The Regent retained this important role in the life of the community for over forty years until July 1973, when it was closed as a cinema and then re-opened as the Mecca Social and Bingo Club. The final cry of ‘house’ was sounded in February 1982
The need for an arts centre in Christchurch had already been well established in the town and in November 1982, Christchurch Borough Council purchased the Regent. A unique relationship was formed between the local authority and a group of over 100 enthusiastic volunteers. Together, they lovingly restored the Regent to all its early Art Deco glory. The Regent Centre in its present form was finally opened on June 11th 1983 by the actress Dora Bryan.
Today, the Regent Centre is one of the finest examples of an early 1930s cinema to survive in Britain. Its 484 seats are regularly filled for events as diverse as the latest film releases, professional touring theatre, jazz, big band, ballet, opera and celebrity star shows. The Regent is also the home venue for many local amateur companies, who regularly stage productions at the Centre.
The Regent maintains a rolling programme of development and improvements and on 28th March 2000, a new Studio Theatre was opened, at the rear of the building, jointly funded by the Regent Centre Association and the Council as the Borough’s main Millennium project.
During the latter part of 2006, funding was provided by Christchurch Borough Council for a major refurbishment of the Centre. This included the introduction of new seats, air conditioning, disabled lifts and loos and the Modernist re-design of the Foyer.
In February 2007 the final stage of the major refurbishment began with the re-introduction of a canopy over the front doors of the Centre for the first time since 1967. Two new convex poster boards on the two supporting pillars at either side of the canopy combined with 1930s neon style signage, have tastefully re-created the early Art Deco heritage of the Regent.
Since 2008 the Regent has been able to use new technology to bring in Event Cinema satellite broadcasts of major artistic events from around the world to the Centre’s big screen. The Metropolitan Opera has been broadcast live from New York to sell out houses at the Regent ever since. Then in 2009 the National Theatre began broadcasts from its stage live from London’s South Bank to enthusiastic audiences at the Regent. In 2010 the Regent was able to beam in live satellite broadcasts from the Bolshoi and Opera de Paris, bringing the very best in international ballet to Christchurch.
Since then the Regent has gone on to set national records for Event Cinema. For four years running, in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 the Regent achieved the Highest Admissions in the UK for the Royal Opera House and Royal Ballet Season of screenings and Best Performing Site for Andre Rieu’s screenings of his Maastricht Concerts. These achievements resulted in a nomination for the Event Cinema Association’s Best Independent Event Cinema in Europe for 2016.
In recognition of the great contribution that the Regent has made to event cinema and live satellite broadcasts in the UK, the Regent General Manager, Felicity Porter and her Marketing Officer, Laura Dean, received a personal invitation from Andre Rieu to join him as his guests at his Christmas Concert at the SSE Arena in London on Wednesday 12 December 2018. There the King of Waltz was able to pay homage to the Queen of the Regent!
In April 2012, Digital Cinema was introduced to the Regent Centre to replace the existing 35mm film projector. This has brought this 80-year-old cinema right up to date with the cutting edge of technological advances in the film industry in the 21st Century. Digital Cinema has also meant that the Regent has been able to add to its existing programme of satellite broadcasts to the big screen, with The Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet making their debut at the Centre from August 2012. Most recently, during 2013, musical shows and plays from London’s West End have also started to be made available to the Regent Centre by satellite broadcast.
However, 35mm still plays a major part in the Regent Centre’s repertoire, for in December 2014, the Regent’s Cinema Museum was opened. Situated in the Projection box high up on the roof of the Centre, the Cinema Museum is one of Dorset’s smallest museums. Packed into the small space alongside the new Digital projector are a pair of old 35mm projectors, one of which is kept in working order by a small group of enthusiasts. Vintage cinema posters, film memorabilia, winding gear, lenses, carbon arcs that used to burn brighter than a lamp to illuminate the film and even the old Automaticket machine that once gave out paper tickets to patrons at the Regent are all on display to visitors. To begin with public access was by appointment only but in 2017 a series of bookable public tours were introduced. Although the tours are limited to just eight members of the public at a time, they have proved very popular. In September 2019, the office in the Projection Box was completely re-decorated to provide additional space for the ever-growing collection of film artefacts in the Cinema Museum.
On the 2 December 2013, the management of the Christchurch Information Centre, just next door to the Regent, was transferred by Christchurch Borough Council to the Regent and its hard-working team of dedicated volunteers. The CIC is now the main Regent Centre Box Office. The amalgamation of the Christchurch Information Centre with the Regent Centre is historically important as well, because it re-integrates another part of the building that made up the original Regent Cinema complex in 1931.
The CIC continues to provide all of its usual services as well, including coach holidays; providing information from the new local authority, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council, on community and environmental matters; providing tourist information for the Borough and beyond, and ticket agencies for local attractions ranging from the Dorset Steam Fair to the New Forest Show.
In February 2015 the original bar at the Regent, which many patrons will remember with great affection as being under the stage and down a flight of stairs was closed. It was replaced by two new bars, a temporary bar in the top Foyer and a brand-new state of the art Circle Bar situated in the Spreadbury Suite on the mezzanine area half-way up the stairs to the Circle. Its Art Deco, liner style design with windows looking out over the Regent roof made it an instant success with the Centre’s patrons. It also serves as fitting tribute to the former Mayor of Christchurch, the late Eric Spreadbury MBE, whose support and enthusiasm for the Regent in its early formative years during the 1980s and 1990s helped to ensure the Centre’s future for successive generations to come. Finally, in August 2017, the temporary Foyer Bar was replaced with a permanent facility to match its partner in the Circle.
In July 2015, the Regent announced the opening of brand-new toilets off the Foyer. This included the use of the old office, just beyond the Coffee Bar, which was transformed into one of the most spacious Ladies’ loos in the area. A new Disabled toilet and a new Gentlemen’s toilet were added, which all helped to reduce the regular show interval queues. Meanwhile, the Regent Centre administration office was re-sited in the flat above the Christchurch Information Centre and Box Office.
Nobody can accuse the Regent of not looking to the future, as patrons can now follow developments at the Centre on Facebook www.facebook.com/regentcentre Twitter @regentcentre and on the web at www.regentcentre.co.uk However, the Box Office also remains open to personal callers from 10am daily, except on Sunday when it is at show times, whilst Box Office staff can also be called on 01202 499199.
The mutually beneficial relationship between Christchurch Borough Council and its successor, BCP Council and the Regent (Christchurch) Ltd, the charity set up to maintain the day to day running of the Centre with the volunteers, has prospered over the years to such an extent, that it is often held up as a shining example for others to follow.
It is hard to believe that this enormously popular and well-loved building was nearly lost to the town, the borough and the surrounding area, when a fire in the side alley, during the heat of the summer of August 2010, threatened to breach one of the fire doors directly into the Regent’s fabulous and irreplaceable auditorium. Only the quick thinking of the staff and the prompt arrival of Dorset Fire Brigade saved the day. Despite the smoke damage to the public areas of the building, the Regent was barely closed for a week with staff moving into temporary office accommodation in the Studio at the rear of the building whilst hasty repairs were made to re-open for the Summer Season of family films and shows.
Amongst the many stars of stage, screen, TV and radio to appear at the Regent in recent years are: Justin Hayward, The Searchers, Nathan Carter, Georgie Fame, The Manfreds, Foster & Allen & Chris Barber from the world of popular music. Stand-up comedians such as: Jethro, Paul Chowdhry, Rob Beckett, Tom Allen, Lee Nelson, Griff Rhys Jones, Dillie Keane and Jenny Éclair have all sold out very quickly.
Strictly stars are on tour throughout the UK and the Regent has hosted Pasha Kovalev, Natalie Lowe and Ian Waite, all putting their best foot forward on the Centre’s stage. Finally, celebrities from the world of sport, gardening, politics, broadcasting and heritage are an increasingly popular form of entertainment at the Regent and these have included: Michael Portillo, Alice Roberts, Mark Kermode, Tony Blackburn, Nathan Carter, Johnnie Walker, Chris Packham, Henry Blofeld, Peter Allis, Lucy Worsley and Monty Don, not forgetting the last of the great silent stars, Sooty, who, after all these years in the business, is still packing in the family audiences at the Regent.
On Friday 13 September 2019, The Regent Centre was able to present the new Downton Abbey (PG) film on its UK national cinema release day, alongside multiplex cinemas the length and breadth of the nation. This is the first time that the Centre has been able to screen a first release film since the Regent closed as the town’s cinema in 1973. The Regent is now a multipurpose entertainment centre and with its busy schedule of live shows, concerts and live satellite broadcasts, it is not easy to find a clear, free fortnight in the auditorium that the film distributors require for their latest box office blockbusters.
To mark this momentous occasion, the Regent had six 1920s classic cars outside the Regent in Christchurch High Street and the staff joined in the Downton spirit by donning 1920’s costumes to welcome film fans on the evening. Then to add the cherry to the top of the cake, BBC TV South Today came over from Southampton to cover the event with a live broadcast link for the local evening news!
When the first day’s figures for Downton Abbey were phoned through to London at 10.30pm on Friday 13 September, Universal Studios emailed back the next day to say that the Regent was the No 1 Independent Cinema in the UK and Ireland for the highest gross box office figures. Then at the end of the first week of Downton Abbey’s release, the Regent was mentioned in despatches to Universal’s bosses in Hollywood when the London office sent in their weekly report. The Dowager Countess of Grantham would have approved!
In July 2017, Christchurch Council, had contracted builders to redecorate the outside walls of the Regent. As the work started it became clear that the south wall of the Regent had taken the full force of the prevailing storms over nine decades and the integral RSJ structure of the wall was showing signs of corrosion. It was established that the Regent could continue with its programme of shows and films, whilst scaffolding was erected around the south facing wall and temporary repairs were made good. The temporary repairs were designed to last throughout 2018 and into 2019 to allow the Regent’s fully booked programme of shows to continue.
It was decided with the new BCP Council, to set permanent repairs to the south facing wall in place during the summer of 2019 and contractors began work and continued right through until Christmas 2019, when the last of the scaffolding was removed. Although some film times had to be adjusted to allow the builders time to do their work, the repairs were achieved with a minimum of disruption and the record-breaking run with Downton Abbey was achieved during this period. The successful repairs mean the Regent can look forward to entertaining the community for many decades to come. Indeed, Downton Abbey, following three extra showings of the film in December 2019, became the highest attended film of all time at the Regent pushing Mamma Mia and Mamma Mia Here We Go Again into second and third place.
All three films came from Universal Pictures UK, whose delighted MD in London said “ I am loving those records!”
In July 2020 there are exciting plans afoot to refurbish the Regent which will include a sympathetic re-decoration the Centre’s famous art deco auditorium to echo the Centre’s historic past, together with new carpeting and most importantly brand-new seating throughout.
The cost of this work will be approximately £350,000 and although a substantial sum has already been raised towards achieving this goal, a further £50,000 is required to realise this important upgrade to the Regent. To this end, a major fundraising campaign is being launched including the opportunity to sponsor one of the new seats and have a plaque attached to it recording the donor’s wishes. Please see the Regent website at www.regentcentre.co.uk for more information on how to get involved and support the Regent.
On Thursday 13 February 2020, the Regent’s new General Manager, Matthew Vass-White, who had succeeded the previous incumbent, Felicity Porter, who left in January to look after her son and her new baby son, attended the annual Event Cinema Association Conference. The Regent was awarded the prize for “The Best Independent Exhibitor Award 2019” for the highest box office returns in Event Cinema in the UK and Ireland. The Regent is the first winner of this brand-new award and pushed London’s Barbican Centre into third place in the rankings.
Event Cinema covers a broad range of live broadcasts from arts, cultural and sporting events that are either beamed in live to the big screen or pre-recorded and then presented on the big screen.
This achievement comes off the back of the Regent’s success in Event Cinema over nearly a decade. Le Miserables – The Staged Concert on 2 December 2019, became the fastest sell-out int Regent history, with all 484 seats being sold in three hours flat. Dan Butler at Universal Pictures UK, who handled Les Mis, said: The Regent “was the highest grossing independent cinema and has achieved a gross in line with some of the circuits which have multiple screens. Thank you very much for all your efforts.”
The Regent was also the highest grossing independent cinema in the UK in 2019 for Kinky Boots the Musical, 42nd Street and for the fifth year running, for Andre Rieu’s concert screenings.
Today, the Regent Centre remains firmly at the heart of entertainment in Christchurch and there is an exciting, rolling programme of improvements planned for the Regent over the coming years to ensure that the Centre remains in the forefront of new and innovative developments in the world of theatre, cinema and performance for future generations to enjoy.