Jon Perks meets the couple for whom the term ‘home cinema’ has a whole new meaning.
Hitchcock is a lucky little chap – but then so are his owners.
Tom Lawes, partner Suzie Norton and their eight month old pug have a home that many of us would give our right arm – and probably the matching leg – to own.
They live on the top two floors of The Electric Cinema in Station Street, of which Tom is the owner, having taken over the Victorian picture palace in 2004.
The two-bedroom duplex apartment oozes with character and history – from the original parquet flooring in the lounge to the Polish poster for the 1960 film Please Don’t Eat The Daisies (which Tom unearthed in the basement), there is something intriguing to see at every turn.
For two self-confessed cinephiles, you couldn’t think of a better place to call home.
“I think you get a fantastic sense of history and it’s terribly romantic, especially if, like us, you are interested in vintage stuff and period architecture and furniture” says Suzie.
“It’s a real privilege – you’re never ever going to find anywhere else like this.”
The oldest working cinema in the UK, The Electric first opened its doors to the public in December 1909. Renamed several times throughout its lifetime (Select Cinema, Tatler News Theatre, The Jacey, The Classic and The Tivoli), it reverted to its original title in 1993.
Bought a decade later by Tom, a sound engineer and composer by profession, The Electric was extensively refurbished and restored. Further renovations earlier this year saw Tom’s sound studio moved to the basement and the upstairs re-open as a digital screen.
When Tom took over the cinema four years ago, living ‘above shop’ wasn’t his intention. He has architect Glenn Howells to thank for that.
Tom recalls: “Glenn gave me the idea; we were chatting and I said I was looking for somewhere in the city centre to do a renovation and he said ‘why don’t you just renovate here?’”.
With the help of family and friends – in particular his stepfather David – Tom set about turning the cinema’s top two floors – previously a collection of staff and store rooms – into a des res with a difference.
Enter the first floor of Tom and Suzie’s home, and you know you’re somewhere special. The main wall in the lounge is dotted with small black framed windows – now blocked off, they originally looked into the main auditorium from this, the old projection room. There is still a projector here, albeit mounted on the ceiling, showing DVDs and video games onto what Tom jokes is ‘The Electric’s fourth screen’.
“If you get too many mates over, you can always use one of the other screens downstairs and put a film on,” Tom smiles. “It’s great – we can watch films whenever we want to... well, almost anytime... regretfully we have to let the public in!” he laughs.
Having your own cinema downstairs is one obvious bonus to living here, but it means the couple had to be careful when choosing Hitchcock.
“You can’t have a dog that barks in a cinema,” Tom explains as he strokes the friendly pug, who can only ever manage a snuffly ‘hello’ that will happily never disturb cinemagoers.
Head from the lounge into the spare bedroom and another piece of Electric history is there before you.
The former rewind room, the original oak bench where staff would wind back the reels of film, is now a beautifully restored piece of shelving at the foot of the bed.
Upstairs and there are even more surprises and delights; the bathroom (formerly the staff changing rooms) still has the original 1930s terrazzo floor, while Tom and Suzie’s bedroom was once where the usherettes got themselves ready for work.
The floorboards are top grade American oak – like the marble and terrazzo, a legacy from the 1936 high quality refurbishment which was the building’s biggest single change. No wonder Tom is keen to retain as many original features:
“We’ll do that wherever possible; if anything can be kept it will be,” he says.
The couple are a great design team – while Tom focuses on the ‘big things’, Suzie’s forte is clearly the soft furnishings and ‘things on the walls’.
Everywhere you look, original items like the Doris Day poster and box office noticeboard sit happily alongside new acquisitions all sympathetic and complementary to the ‘look’.
The 1930s style mirror on the landing could so easily have been discovered in the basement; it didn’t – it came from a shop on Hurst Street. The art deco lights in the lounge? Straight off eBay.
It doesn’t matter; it all works.
In the lounge, there’s Suzie’s grandfather’s photography and his 1950s gramophone cabinet (which now houses the Sky+ box and other technical gizmos), while David Bowie watches over the stairs from a signed print of his Hunky Dory album cover. Even the kitchen, perhaps the most functional and least eyecatching of the rooms, has its own nice touch in the shape of the fabulous Newgate Metro wall clock.
If having a cinema downstairs and such a great location were trump cards, the apartment has one more ace in the hole – the roof. It is vast.
Whether it’s eating al fresco or simply taking Hitchcock for a walk, the sheer size of the roof is enough to send fellow city centre apartment owners the colour of Robin Hood’s tunic.
The space itself could soon be green – the couple hope to transform it into one of the city centre’s first environmentally friendly ‘living roofs’.
Tom and Suzie, it seems, have created the perfect home.
“The bloody stairs,” Tom smiles.“We live up four flights of stairs and it’s not too bad if it’s just yourself, but when you have shopping – or furniture...”
A small price to pay, it seems, for such a fabulously unique address.