JOHN Keil fancies himself as a bit of a magician. And it’s actually a fair claim from the man who has been involved in the cinema industry for more than 45 years.
“When you think of what a cinema is, we are just illusionists,” says the 63-year-old.
“What do we do? We sell an experience. We take money from people who sit in a darkened room, in front of a white screen to watch pictures that do not move – we just show still pictures, but we show them very very quickly.
“And we play with your emotions – we make you laugh, we make you cry, we make you angry. And it’s all an illusion.”
And you can’t argue with that.
And for his next trick, John will pluck a number out of the air – 10.48 million. That is how many people have paid to see movies at the multiplex cinema in Shaw Ridge since it opened exactly 23 years ago. John was general manager of the cinema on that opening day – March 28, 1991 – and he retires from that position today.
But his picture house career goes back much further than that.
When he was 16 he finished school – his last day was a Friday, and the following Sunday he started work at the Gaumont in Frome, close to where he grew up in West Wiltshire.
“I was a rewind boy,” he states proudly. “My job was rewinding the film.
“That’s how you started in those days – cleaning up, polishing floors, and rewinding movies.”
And all for the princely sum of £2 10s.
But after 18 months at the Gaumont it was onwards and upwards and in 1969 John got a job as a trainee cinema manager in Cardiff.
“Now that was really good,” he said. “I was paid 13 guineas a week! That started me on my illustrious career.”
It was good grounding – the 2,500 seat cinema was regularly full, although as John pointed out, it was not necessarily to see the films. “You have to remember in those days a lot of people didn’t have fridges, so they came to the cinema as much for the ice cream as the movies. We didn’t have Coke on tap in those days though, only in bottles. Although I think everyone had Kia Ora anyway.”
And after Cardiff? “I was all over the place after that. I was a young man, I was single. I’d jump in anywhere different. From Falmouth to London and everywhere in between – Plymouth, Exeter, Gloucester…”
And Staines. John had run a cinema at the Middlesex town for nine years and by then had clearly proven himself to be a very good general manager, because the world – or at least Swindon – was about to open up before him.
“I got called into head office. The operations director said: ‘You’re from Wiltshire, aren’t you?’ ‘Yeh,’ I said, wondering where this conversation was going. ‘Here you go,’ he said, and gave me the brochure for the proposed Shaw Ridge multiplex.
“‘When would you like me start?’” I said.
Swindon, like most towns throughout the country, used to have lots and lots of cinemas. And like most cinemas, they had enjoyed the golden years of the 30s and 40s, and weathered the storms that TV and the video boom had brought.
But in 1990 Swindon had just one cinema. The Cannon stood at the top end of Regent Street, occupying the building that is now the Savoy pub. It had three screens, a small but dedicated staff and a fluctuating audience.
It was a nice cinema, but by 1990 was looking a bit tired.
But a revolution in the cinema industry was quietly but forcefully taking place.
In 1985 The Point in Milton Keynes became the first multiplex cinema in the country, boasting 10 screens.
Others started popping up around Britain and at the end of the 1980s it was clear that Swindon, a town growing in size all the time, cried out for a multiplex.
An area of land at Shaw Ridge was being developed as an entertainment centre – there would be a hotel, restaurants, pub, nightclub, bowling alley. And at the heart of it, a seven-screen cinema. It would be called the MGM.
“I first arrived in early 1990,” John said. “When I first saw the site it was just a green field.
“There was an architect, a quantity surveyor, six million quid, and me. We opened on time and on budget.”
The opening day – it was the day before Good Friday – went to plan. There was a moderate fanfare, there were local VIPs, who were fed, watered and given behind-the-scenes glimpses of a bright, shiny new multiplex.
But most importantly, there were people – hundreds of them – who came to see the films. One of the opening seven movies was the recent Oscar winner Dances With Wolves, which projected with new equipment accompanied with a state of the art sound system was quite fantastic.
The Adver’s film critic (me) flitted about from screen to screen as one film finished and another started, enjoying the experience – and the choice – as much as the movies.
And standing in the middle of it all, with a big grin on his face, was John.
“It worked,” he said. “It was an exciting time. I had a good team around me and there were no catastrophes.
“But at the end of that first day, I was exhausted – that was enough. By eight that evening I was finished and went home to bed.”
Since then the cinema has gone from strength to strength. Different owners have come and gone – MGM gave way to another familiar brand, Virgin, which was taken over by French company UGC, before finally settling down as Cineworld, now the country’s biggest multiplex chain.
Even the arrival of competition in the form of a 12-screen cinema at Greenbridge failed to ruffle John’s feathers. Attendances may have fluctuated, but it was business as usual.
Now he’s leaving it all behind, but is confident the cinema will flourish without him.
“Our industry as a whole is fairly stable in the UK at the moment. With technology changing we have to keep up with it or we will lose out.
“Over the years it’s been quite fascinating. I can’t think how many people have worked in the building in all this time. People who came when the building opened in ’91 have come back with their children and grandchildren – staff and punters.”
What’s the best thing about the job?
“Being my own boss with someone else’s money. Yes, things have changed – things are run more centrally now, but I was running it myself and I was having a ball. It wasn’t a job, it was a way of life – it had to be or I wouldn’t work the hours.
“There’s lots of things I’m proud of. Did you know we were the first multiplex to bring back Saturday morning pictures?”
And the worst thing? “Making people redundant. I’ve had to do it a few times – they’ve not deserved it. I’ve always found that the most difficult thing, particularly when I have to pick people to make redundant.”
John has no immediate plans for his retirement, other than taking things easy and doing a spot of fishing.
He lives in Gloucester with wife Amanda – she runs that city’s new multiplex – and daughter Ava, who will soon start secondary school. John also has two grown up children from a previous marriage, and he wants to spend more time with his own parents, who are both in their 90s.
What he doesn’t plan to do is go to the cinema very much – at least not for a while. He claims he won’t miss the industry at all, although he admits he will miss Shaw Ridge.
“It’s going to be difficult to give it back,” he said. “I do treat it as mine. I was there at its conception, I was there at its birth.
“It’s not going to be easy to hand over the keys.
“But we’ve got to look forward and give someone else a chance. The team is very solid and they will help the next one in.”
AN AWKWARD CUSTOMER...
CUSTOMERS can be awkward so-and-sos. Early in his career, working at a cinema in Reading, John thought he had a particularly difficult one on his hands, when he seemed to refuse to budge when a film finished.
“At the end of the show this guy was still seated. Staff came up to me and said he wouldn’t move. The house lights came up, the national anthem had played, and he was still sitting there.
“I went up to him and said ‘Excuse me…’. Nothing. I touched him and he fell over. He was dead.”
Behind the scenes “difficulties” are part and parcel of the business, and perhaps a dead punter is difficult to beat.
But there have been other moments, and some at Shaw Ridge.
One of the big movies in the summer of 1995 was Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which was expected to be popular.
“The first weekend of Braveheart, we had one of our very few equipment failures.
“We were playing the same print on two screens. Unfortunately the link broke and we could not show it.
“Out front we had a longer queue for refunds than we had for people waiting to pay to get in.”