ABC Tunbridge Wells

The 1,600-seat Ritz - "Kent's most luxurious cinema" and a part of the Union Cinemas circuit - opened on 3rd December 1934: when I took the photographs in early 2006 - just a few weeks prior to the building's planned demolition - there was still visible, painted on the rear of the building, a faded "Ritz" sign. The first programme, which punters could watch for 3d, was headed by Gracie Fields' Sing As We Go. It become the Essoldo in 1954.

The inevitable tripling was arranged somewhat unusually. Most Odeon cinemas, for example, were tripled by keeping the original circle as a primary screen (utilising the original projection booth) and fitting two smaller screens into the space occupied by the stalls. Essoldo, on the other hand, initially split the cinema into only two screens. Both the stalls and the circle were kept intact, leading to a surprisingly large Screen 1 in the original stalls, which meant it was a pretty good place to go and see films, notwithstanding the occasional train rumbling by in the railway tunnel beneath. In 1972, Classic acquired the cinema and added a third screen in the Florida restaurant where, as music folklore has it, David Bowie's parents met each other. Obviously this was a part of the building not originally intended for film exhibition, leading to an odd arrangement in which films were projected through the ceiling via a periscope contraption.

The Compton organ from The Ritz was removed at the time of the doubling and has been preserved. A picture of it is located at The Cinema Organ Society.

Architecturally, the building was nothing particularly special but it did have two unusual features. A glass tower over the entrance was removed (probably for safety reasons) in the 1950s. But the overall layout of the building was out of the ordinary: the foyer was offset at a 45-degree angle (facing into the centre of the crossroads and the Assembly Hall opposite) and almost separate to the auditorium. Parades of shops were attached to each wing of the foyer but with a distinct gap between them and the auditorium itself, as shown in the aerial photograph (© Multimap).

Cannon took it over along with the Classic chain in 1982. Subsequently it became an MGM, briefly a Virgin and finally an ABC in 1996, becoming obsolete in 1999, when Odeon (by then sharing a parent company with ABC) opened their multiplex outside the town. The last film shown was on Sunday 29th October 2000. At that time, the cinema was still financially viable.

Unexpectedly for a provincial High Street cinema, it remained pretty cutting-edge until the end. It was the first non-multiplex in the country to have a Pick 'n' Mix stall and one of the first to show popular films simultaneously on more than one screen.

It's not clear from the history presented in the Chronicle article, or on, what happened to the Ballroom that was originally present in the building. Screen 3 cannot possibly have been both restaurant and Ballroom - it wasn't big enough. Perhaps one or other became the projection room above the third screen.


Not applicable

Current or most recent chain: 
Previous chains: 
Date visited: 

I first came to know the building in the late 1980s, well after its heyday and after tripling, when it was the Cannon. It was not exactly the most beautiful cinema in the world, and in its final days was a far cry from being "Kent's most luxurious cinema", as it was originally billed, but still, I really miss it.


Sevenoaks Chronicle, 2nd November 2000 - article "Curtain closes on seven decades" by Tim Knight.

There's also an excellent brief history of the ABC at - if not entirely consistent with the Chronicle version.

Mad Cornish Projectionist - a wonderful site by someone with a true love of the technical and architectural side to cinema - has some personal reminiscences from Mervyn Collard, a former Ritz projectionist, who also worked at the Opera House and at the Sevenoaks Granada and Sevenoaks Odeon.

Previous names: 
Union Cinemas Ritz
Essoldo Tunbridge Wells
Classic Tunbridge Wells
Cannon Tunbridge Wells
MGM Tunbridge Wells
Virgin Cinema Tunbridge Wells
Recent images: 
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - front
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - front
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - detail
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - rear
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - rear with visible "Ritz" sign
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - attached shops with auditorium behind
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - attached shops with auditorium behind
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - front
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - front
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - front
ABC Tunbridge Wells 2006 - aerial showing layout
Image credits: