Walsall and Wolverhampton face major challenges from deprivation – could the success of a cinema in one provide a template for regeneration in the other?.

Tom Tomston (@TomTomSton

Like many post-industrial parts of the UK, Wolverhampton and Walsall are struggling. Despite their rich manufacturing histories, both rank uncomfortably high in terms of deprivation. Whilst Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club fans may have dollar signs for eyes following the colossal cash injection from their current owners, public perception of Wolverhampton as a city remains a bit Ken Loach. The cause is a familiar one: its high street is on life support. In fact, not only Wolverhampton, but nearby Dudley, Stourbridge, Stafford and Cannock all had more shops close than open in the last year. And yet neighbouring Walsall had a healthy net gain of 13 more stores opening than closing during the same period. Both towns have lofty plans for regeneration, but it appears that Walsall has gotten the jump on its big brother – and with a strategy that puts cinema at the heart of its future.

Over to Walsall

The story of Walsall’s previous town centre cinema is a perfect encapsulation of the decline of the British high street: formerly a theatre, the cinema ran from 1938-1993 before its demolition giving way to a Woolworths, which in turn fulfilled its destiny as that shining monument to austerity and cheap Toblerones: a Poundland. In the intervening 23 years, the fine people of Walsall had to drive to the outskirts of town for some hot multiplex action, but this all changed in 2016, when a £12 million canalside development with restaurants and an eight-screen cinema opened within walking distance of the high street. Already proving popular, it has sparked further regeneration plans in the town. This should all sound eerily familiar to those in the land of old gold and black. Wolverhampton similarly lacks a city centre multiplex, the nearest being an ageing Cineworld out on a retail park. What it does have is a criminally overlooked independent cinema – The Light House – tucked away near the bus station, its difficulties exacerbated by diminishing footfall in the city centre. Perhaps enviously glancing over its shoulder, Wolverhampton now, too, has plans for a £55 million waterside development with cinema. But will this be enough to change the city’s fortunes?

Well, before they hulk out and jam some sort of 4-D cathedral of light and sound next to the canal in a teenage strop of sibling oneupsmanship, Wolverhampton could do worse than take a look under the bonnet of what’s actually working next door. I visited The Light Cinema Walsall on a cold Wednesday night. I hadn’t been here for a while (becoming a recent doggy daddy has modified my evening options), but it’s busier than I remember at its opening in 2016. Maybe it’s the launch of Bohemian Rhapsody, or the Meerkat discount tickets, but whatever it is, the queue extends to the door, the surrounding restaurants are packed and the cinema’s own Green Room bar is bustling. The Light isn’t a goliath cinema chain – despite being founded by ex-Cineworld and Warner Village directors – instead pitching itself as a ‘community cinema’, with most of its nine picture houses in regenerating towns.

It clearly takes some cues from successful independents like Birmingham’s Electric Cinema (the UK’s oldest working), which has successfully carved its own niche: take it from someone who spent a (clearly excellent) first date watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, nestled into a cosy leather chaise longue while sipping a bespoke ‘Bill Murraymint’ cocktail delivered by table service. The Light isn’t quite as audacious, but its semi-independent feel extends to a healthy mix of arts screenings, autism and dementia-friendly seasons, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that each of its eight screens are licensed so you can bring your pint with you from the bar. This ‘small-multiplex’ feels like a good fit for Walsall, and what is perhaps most heartening is its clear ambition to be a social and cultural hub for the town. Sit down for the trailers here and you’ll find adverts for local colleges, the lobby hosting leaflets for the town’s businesses and restaurants. Its Green Room bar hosts a monthly book group with appearances from authors. In its short two years to date, The Light has been quick to integrate with its community.

And back to Wolves

So if Wolverhampton builds it, will they come? Maybe – but if the city wants people to stay, they need to invest not just capital, but in the sort of engagement that Walsall is so successfully demonstrating. Concerningly, Wolverhampton council’s Tim Johnson sounds like he thinks big means best. Talking to the local paper, the Express & Star, Johnson asserts that “people come in, they have a meal, have a drink – they have an experience… We want our offer to be a premier offer.” Lord only knows how much I love condemning my belly to bloated bliss by bookending my film with dinner and dessert, but it’s not just about the holy trinity of burritos, cinema and gelato-waffles, Tim. Not quite, anyway.

Wolverhampton should consider the role its cinema can play in its community (or, better yet, incorporate, rather than cannibalise its existing one) before simply dumping an identikit iMax into town and hoping for the best. As Walsall is proving, get it right and it could be the catalyst for a high-street renaissance. Wolverhampton’s own high street is recognisable for its iconic local landmark (and place you meet your mum before she pops to the bank), ‘The Man on the Horse’. Let’s hope the council don’t overshadow it with a giant white elephant.