Film buff's £3m plea to save sights and smells of cinema

THEY are the remnants of a bygone age of cinema: ornate commissionaires' outfits that look like dress uniforms for an army, art deco swing doors and boards displaying stills from the latest Technicolor epic.

Such once-familiar items would have been lost were it not for the obsession of a 71-year-old Scot who has spent a lifetime collecting cinema artefacts that no one else wanted.

Ronald Grant has accumulated hundreds of thousands of items from a time when every cinema had its own distinctive character and was not part of a multinational chain of near-identical multiplexes.

But all that could be lost for ever unless Grant and his friends are able to raise 3m to buy the building that houses the collection. If they fail, the property will be sold and demolished and the land turned in to a lucrative residential development.

Grant has collected square clocks and assorted signs from cinemas in Scotland and England. He has samples of carpets and has even kept a container of Floradol, a perfume that was sprayed into the auditorium to mask the niff of nicotine and other unsavoury aromas.

"Think of 1,000 wet raincoats and what they would smell like," said Grant, as he showed off his collection. "And in downmarket areas people may have had a bath once a week, if that, in a tin bath."

Other film fans collect posters and stars' autographs, but few have a collection so all-embracing that it includes the mechanism of a cinema toilet door, including the slot into which you inserted your penny.

The toilet door mechanism came from Aberdeen, where Grant began work at 15 as an apprentice projectionist at the Playhouse in Union Street. He worked in the area for about 15 years before moving to London to take up a job at the British Film Institute.

Back in Aberdeen for a visit, he acquired vanloads of artefacts and cinema equipment from the Donald family, his former employers, who once ran a chain of cinemas in the North-east. Included in the purchase were 100 tip-up cinema seats, a snip at 1 each.

He took all the stuff down to London with him and set up The Cinema Museum in 1986, subsidising it from the fees he charges newspapers, magazines and other publishers to borrow pictures from his huge photo library.

The Ronald Grant Archive is another offshoot of the same collecting bug. It contains more than a million film stills.

For the past 10 years, both museum and archive have been housed in an extensive, two-storey brick building that once served as the Lambeth Workhouse. It already had an impressive historic link with cinema before Grant moved in, for Charlie Chaplin spent time there as a boy.

But the NHS, which owns the property, has decided to sell it, probably for conversion to flats. And Grant has been told to be ready to quit at a month's notice.

Finding a new home for the extensive collection of bulky artefacts is a challenge and there is a danger that it could be broken up.

"It's an interesting social history of this tremendous entertainment that everyone went to so often before television. It has a lot to do with cinema-going, which other collections like the film institute don't cover. I think it's more important being together."

Grant started collecting as a boy in Banchory, near Aberdeen, where he got to keep scraps of film in exchange for helping the projectionist prepare films to screen in the town hall.

His collection really took off in the 1960s when he was passing Aberdeen's City Cinema. It had been able to seat 2,500 people, but had fallen victim to the rival appeal of television and had closed. He saw workers removing the seating and went inside.

"There were great bundles of stills, lobby cards and posters tied up. I asked what was happening to them and I was told that they were waiting to go to the corporation dump.

"So I came round in my Vauxhall and filled it up with these photos. There were so many that I couldn't see the back window or side window. I think I made a couple of trips."

Grant has a staff of four at the archive and museum, which is open to the public by appointment. He does not advertise it, but nevertheless can get 100 visitors a month.

On one wall of the museum is a board from Aberdeen's Majestic Cinema featuring colour stills from various films, including Desert Legion with Alan Ladd. "I saw my first film there when I was two… Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. I don't remember, but my mother wrote it in her diary."

Grant said he and his team are investigating grants and will also be launching a public appeal for donations. No definite figure has been put on the appeal, but it is expected that they will need to come up with around 3m.