PRESS RELEASE: Help! Cinema which inspired the Beatles needs a ‘Lidl Help from its Friends’
14th April 2021
A cliffhanger worthy of Hollywood’s golden age surrounds the fate of an art deco cinema in Liverpool, treasured as the childhood dream palace of Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison.
Retailer Lidl this week announced plans to demolish the streamlined 1939 Abbey Cinema in Wavertree village, an historic conservation area rich in architectural and Beatles heritage.
An application to protect the Abbey as a Listed Building has been submitted by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, and a report by Historic England inspectors is now on the Whitehall desk of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.
Retention of the building has been supported by experts from the Cinema Theatre Association, the Twentieth Century Society and Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, as well as Liverpool University’s emeritus Professor of History John Belchem and local community group ‘Love Wavertree’.
Superstar John Lennon cited the ‘happy hours’ he spent as a teenager in the Abbey cinema circle as among the most resonant of the ‘places I remember’ in his original lyrics to the nostalgic Beatles classic ‘In My Life’, often rated by fans as one of the Fab Four’s finest compositions.
Lennon featured the Abbey alongside locations from his youth like Penny Lane and the ‘Dockers Umbrella that they knocked down’, scouse slang for Liverpool’s much lamented Overhead Railway.
Beatles bandmate George Harrison, who was born immediately opposite the building, mentions the ‘big art deco cinema called the Abbey’ as one of his earliest childhood memories on the first page of the group’s official anthology.
Architectural historian and SAVE executive president Marcus Binney CBE criticised the supermarket chain’s plans, which involve total demolition, despite the cinema being legally protected as a ‘designated heritage asset’:
“It’s wholly premature for Lidl to pitch demolition while the Abbey Cinema is still being considered for listing – it looks like an attempt to pre-empt the process.”
“Liverpool only recently lost the remarkable Futurist Cinema on Lime Street to a Lidl, in one of the worst acts of municipal vandalism of the century. We must resist a false choice between investment and dereliction – there is no good reason why Lidl cannot reuse the existing building, which has been empty less than a year.”
Binney added: “Architecturally, the Abbey Cinema is a highly sophisticated and stylish example of the Art Deco ‘moderne’ design of the 1930s, and has proved its flexibility by serving as a supermarket for over 40 years, even longer than it was a cinema. Lidl should see it as a privilege to work within such a striking Liverpool landmark.”
A petition set up by Wavertree resident Clare Devaney calling on the building to be saved with ‘a Lidl help from its friends’ has already been signed by almost 6,000 supporters. Ms Devaney wrote:
“The Abbey’s Beatles heritage and the building itself are of huge significance to our community. It stands proudly as a gatekeeper to our high street, overlooking a group of other listed buildings, including the famous Lockup (1796) and Picton Clock (1884).”
Liverpool planning expert Jonathan Brown, who prepared the listing application for SAVE, said:
“To replace an elegant 82 year old survivor of the Blitz with a single storey shed in a car park is the equivalent of recording over an Oscar-winning epic with a wobbly home movie.”
Brown added: "When the Abbey opened in 1939, its architect Alfred Shennan was also the leader of Liverpool’s City Council, and was later knighted for guiding the city through the dark days of War. He is an important figure, and the contrast with today’s city leadership could hardly be more stark.”
A decision on listing from the Culture Secretary is expected imminently. Lidl say their surveys show the Abbey, which was in use as a supermarket from 1979 until April 2020, is ‘not economically viable’ to reuse.
SAVE has now offered to fund an independent survey to explore options for retaining the building as a Lidl store, and a number of architectural practices have stepped forward to offer creative design assistance.
SAVE challenges Lidl to produce the structural survey which is being used to condemn the building. Binney adds: "With the building in active use as a supermarket until just a year ago, objectors must see the arithmetic and engineering calculations now being used to condemn it.”
Notes to editors:
1. For more information and images contact Ben Oakley, Conservation Officer at SAVE Britain's Heritage: firstname.lastname@example.org / 07388 181 181.
2. Images from top: The Abbey in April 2020 still in use as a Co-op supermarket (wikipedia) / The Abbey Cinema, Wavertree, Liverpool: Past, Present and Proposed (Share the City) / The Abbey's auditorium in 1939 with its distinctive fluted ceiling domes (CTA) / The Abbey in 1969, still in use as a cinema (CTA).
3. SAVE's full listing application can be found here.
4. See here for SAVE's ongoing campaign to protect other Beatles landmarks at risk.
5. See here for The Observer's feature article on the Abbey on 30th August 2020.
6. See here for the latest feature in the Liverpool Echo on 7th April 2021.
7. See here for coverage in Rolling Stone Magazine, Germany.
8. To sign the petition to save the Abbey cinema, click here.
9. SAVE Britain’s Heritage has been campaigning for historic buildings since its formation in 1975 by a group of architectural historians, writers, journalists and planners. It is a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic built environment.