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Wednesday, 22 May, 2002, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Cinemas feel Continental divide
Tourists outside the Eden theatre in France
A government grant has helped to save the Eden theatre
At this year's Cannes Film Festival, the French Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon informed the likes of Woody Allen and David Lynch of a 3m project to restore a rundown old picture house just along the Mediterranean coast at La Ciotat outside Marseilles.

Once the scene of more innovation than even a Lynch or Allen film-set, peeling white paint and rusty iron balconies currently characterise the Eden, the oldest cinema in the world.

The Eden was wowing audiences just four years after the French Lumiere brothers first proved in a Paris basement that they had captured the moving image, in 1895.

Now the cinema, described by the region's director of cultural affairs, Jerome Bouet, as having "huge historical value", is to reopen with the help of funds from both the French Government and European Union.

Under threat

But in contrast, the fate of some of Britain's most historic old picture houses hangs in the balance.

The oldest purpose-built cinema, the Electric Theatre in Stourport, closed over 20 years ago.

The Dome cinema
A working cinema again - but the Dome needs urgent repairs
The Dome in Worthing has narrowly avoided the bulldozer.

When the curtain first rose in 1911, the entrepreneurs of the day wanted to distance picture houses from the seedy penny peep-shows that had gone before, so they chose lavish interiors to make them look as respectable as possible.

Punters at the Dome used to roller-skate to a live orchestra downstairs while the cinema screen was upstairs.

This changed when the "Talkies" came along and became the prime attraction.

But the Dome fell from grace with the arrival of newer, swisher cinemas and in the 90's was scheduled first for demolition then for conversion to a nightclub.

It was saved by its sloping floor, which proved too difficult to convert to a dance-floor.

'Proper cinema'

It is now a working cinema again, but the Dome Regeneration Trust which now owns it must raise 500,000 if they are to qualify for a Lottery Grant to pay for urgent structural repairs.

"The 1930's projectors were the most modern things here when we took over," says the trust's James Tennet.

"When you come in, it has a beautiful box office, wonderful oak doors and red carpets, marble floors that is so cinema.

Duke of York's, Brighton, at its opening in 1910
Brighton's Duke of York's theatre was popular in its heyday
"Ok, the seats aren't that comfortable, it's pot-luck, you might get a bad one, but it has a good atmosphere. It's a proper cinema."

Along with the seats, the cinemascope screen, the 1920's chandelier, mirrors, the ticket-machine, a rosewood confectionary counter and even penny lavatories - installed in the 1950's - have all survived.

Other old picture palaces like the Harwich Electric Palace and the Duke of York's in Brighton are proving they can do more than survive.

They can flourish. Offering independent films and kids club, the Duke of York's is heading for the big time, relatively speaking.

So forget your multiplex. Next year the oldest cinema in continuous operation in the country is expanding to four screens, when it takes over part of the old fire station next door.

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