The man who built a Regal future

The room was packed and the bids were coming in…going, going gone! The hammer came down signalling the end of the road for another Norfolk cinema.The Regal at Wymondham had lasted longer than most other town cinemas thanks to its colourful boss, former boxer Les King but even he couldn't win the fight to keep it open.

The room was packed and the bids were coming in…going, going gone! The hammer came down signalling the end of the road for another Norfolk cinema.

The Regal at Wymondham had lasted longer than most other town cinemas thanks to its colourful boss, former boxer Les King but even he couldn't win the fight to keep it open.

But there was one man watching the auction in his former home - The Queens Head - in June of 1993 who was determined to give the Regal a future. His name was Michael Armstrong.

The building became the Wymondham Ex-Servicemen's Club - a real meeting place for the people.


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As the various parts of the Regal were sold off Michael salvaged what he could, helped by Les who knew how much Michael loved the cinema.

Why?

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The love affair began when Michael was a boy growing up in the pub and spent much of his time playing around the back of the Regal with his brother. Eventually he was tempted inside…into the magical world of the movies.

The manager was Bert Galey, well known on the Norfolk and Norwich cinema scene as a man who ran the place like a military operation.

And he could see that young Michael was different from the other boys hanging around the Regal. Even at a young age he had a rare passion for the place and loved helping behind the scenes.

“I remember running to fetch the fish and chips on Saturday nights for the staff and delivering leaflets. I just loved being involved,” he said.

He moved on to playing some records before the movies started, operating the screen curtains by hand and learning how the projectors worked.

It had been Douglas Bostock, a member of the famous Bostock & Wombwell Menagerie family, who had bought the land for the Regal to be built by Norwich builders Thomas Gill & Son, experts at putting up movie houses.

The 503-seater Regal had been built to last 25 years. It opened in 1938 with Swing Time starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and closed in June 1962 - just as Douglas had predicted.

“I, along with many other people in and around Wymondham, was so sorry to see it close,” said Michael.

But it became one of the few Norfolk cinemas to re-open thanks to Norwich businessman and another great character on the local entertainment scene - Roy Dashwood.

He opened it again in April of 1965 with The Beatles film, A Hard Days Night, and the man in charge was none other than Les King.

There had been trouble before with rowdy youths - not any more.

No-one messed with big Les - and the kids loved him. He also started up regular discos.

Michael was delighted at the turn of the events and he was there, always ready, willing and able to help Les behind the scenes.

But keeping the Regal open was a struggle. It was a difficult building to maintain.

Les performed all kinds of wacky stunts to get the people in but the final curtain came down in 1993.

Even then Michael was determined that it would not be the end of the road for the Regal.

So, from what he salvaged from the old Regal, he built a wonderful mini replica at his home.

He loved putting on shows in his eight-seater cinema. Visitors would make a contribution to local charities and Michael received a rare Wymondham Civic Award for his work helping others and preserving the silver screen in the town.

Then, a couple of years ago, Michael, now 61, decided to move house and has now built a brand new Regal, a gorgeous replica of the town cinema which is as near to the old place as you are ever likely to get.

It includes the original seats - he has expanded from eight to 12 seats - various fixtures and fittings including the box office, ticket machine, projection equipment, the film category board, the front of house still photograph frames and even the telephone from the 1950s.

“People have been very kind and helpful. I couldn't have done it without their help and especially from David Oldfield and talented craftsman Trevor Wright who produced miniatures of mouldings and panels in the original Regal,” said Michael.

He is proud of his cinema and he has every right to be - it is a beautiful place.

It was an honour and a privilege for me to be asked to open the cinema and attend a special film show with other members of The Regal Experience Group.

The star of the show was Les King. Michael had cleverly put together a special film telling the story of Les and the Regal.

This came as a surprise to Les and it rendered him almost speechless for the first time ever!

The cinema is not open to the public although you may be able to arrange a visit. Michael doesn't charge for film shows but guests can make a donation to local charities. More details from Michael on 01953 603246.

If it wasn't for Michael Armstrong then the chances are that The Regal Experience Group, that has given so much pleasure to so many people, wouldn't have got off the ground.

He is chairman of the group and shows the films at the Sunday afternoon screenings at the old Regal - the Ex-Services Club - that have attracted so many of the film stars from the 1950s and 1960s.

A whole host of them have attended and they are bowled over when they are invited into Michael's own cinema.

Dora Bryan was speechless when Michael played her a cigarette advert she has made in the 1950s encouraging us all to have a smoke!

Other guests have included June Whitfield, Jean Kent, Rita Tushingham and Virginia McKenna.

And the group have been met other stars, including the likes of Tony Curtis, when they visited Hollywood.

“What can you say about Michael? He is an extraordinary man. Quiet, unassuming and modest and his cinema is unique. An exact replica of the Regal. It is a magical place,” said author, historian and fellow film buff Philip Yaxley.

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