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Godin’s Anvil: A Short History of Sheffield’s Municipal Cinema

How did a cinema become owned by Sheffield City Council? The now little-known Anvil was a tangible cultural emblem of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire – and it laid the foundations for cherished institutions like the Showroom Cinema.

Anvil cinema frontage

The Anvil Civic Cinema in 1985.

Sheffield Newspapers Ltd

As a cultural emblem of the David Blunkett-led Sheffield City Council, the so-called Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, The Anvil Civic Cinema survived for seven years (1983-1990) amidst a growing regional film audience with a desire for adventurous programming and support of local production.

But how did a cinema become owned by Sheffield City Council?

Roots of independent cinema-going

In mid-1970s Sheffield, one of the few places for alternative film was at the Sheffield City Polytechnic on Psalter Lane, which became a home for students and non-students to drop in and watch art house films and repertory cinema rented via the 16mm print circuit.

Independent film making in Sheffield was beginning to flower at this point, driven by a progressive art school, Yorkshire Arts Association funding and the emergent facilities provider Sheffield Independent Film (SIF) group. But while the means of production were becoming more open, exhibition and distribution remained a barrier.

Steel Bank Film Co-op’s Simon Reynell remembers an environment where “if you wanted to see anything you had made, you had to work to create a situation to make it shown... There was no art cinema in Sheffield, so all we had were various informal places,” including the library theatre and the backrooms of pubs like The Beehive.

The Cineplex frontage charter row

The Cineplex, the forerunner to the Anvil Civic Cinema, visible below the Grosvenor House Hotel tower on Charter Row, c. 1970s.

Taylor Richardson Associates

This changed when the Cineplex on Charter Square was opened in 1972 as a commercial enterprise. For the next ten years the Cineplex was one of few cinemas in the city to serve mainstream Hollywood cinema alongside foreign language film. In 1979, Cineplex manager David Williams and SIF instigated the first Sheffield Independent Film Week, which would run for over a decade. (More about that shortly.)

Early in 1983, the Cineplex faced closure. In a bold measure of increasing municipal integration with the cultural sector of Sheffield, it was taken over by the Council to become the Anvil Civic Cinema, boldly declared as the first of its kind in the UK.

Sheffield City Council in the 1980s

In Sheffield’s fragile industrial economy of the mid-late 1970s, marked by steel and heavy engineering decline, structural reforms to local government began to undermine a historically safe group of council personnel and politics in the city. A new tier of local government candidates slowly emerged, some with different educational and occupational backgrounds from what had gone before. This young group of university educated politicians were often natives of the city and fiercely socialist. They would eventually form the insurgent ‘New Left’ group which took over the City Council in 1980.

David Blunkett’s election as Sheffield’s Labour leader in 1980 cemented the New Left’s emergence to power, and his Fabian tract, written with Geoff Green, Building From The Bottom, would be the guiding document. Over the next five years key symbols of this local programme of socialism included flying the red flag from the Town Hall on May Day, establishing an annual Council-sponsored Marx memorial lecture, twinning the city with communist cities in the Soviet Union and China, establishing the city as a nuclear-free zone, and contributing £100,000 to the miners’ support fund.

David blunkett council leader

Still taken from Road To Ruin! Sheffield Bus Campaign documentary, 1984.

Steel Bank Film Co-Op

The 1980s also witnessed a significant moment in the framework of local media policy development. The Department of Education Employment (DEED) was established in 1981 to help drive ‘non-traditional’ job creation, business opportunities and training needs identified by those activities which were yet to be labelled the ‘cultural industries’: film, music, arts, media production.

Widely regarded as the first of its kind outside of London, DEED was a regional government department which attempted to shape cultural and employment policy in a climate of central government cuts. The Anvil was at the heart of this development.

Anvil cinema david godin with lady mayoress

Manager Dave Godin (left) with Councillor David Brown (centre) and Lady Mayoress Kathleen Jones (right) at the Anvil Civic Cinema in 1983.

Picture Sheffield

The Anvil

The cinema (re)opened on the 31 March 1983 under the provisional name Cineplex-Anvil. The three shop units which formed part of the original Grosvenor House Hotel and Cineplex development on Charter Square were combined and altered to create three auditoria seating 110, 65 and 76, with the cinema only running 16mm projection.

On welcoming patrons to The Anvil, Julian Spalding, Director of Arts at the Council, defined the buoyant, socialist rhetoric of the Blunkett-led Council and its drive to supply funding for the arts:

A cinema for the 80s needed, we felt, to be a cinema for the
public, not in a reach me down way, but in true egalitarian spirit.
There is no reason why a cinema should not be both popular and
experimental, entertaining and educational, accessible and stylish.

Anvil programmes 1 cover

Front cover of the Anvil opening programme, 31 March 1983.

Sheffield Local Studies Library

The man tasked with realising these ambitions was music industry veteran and recently graduated Psalter Lane Film Studies mature student, Dave Godin. Before moving to Sheffield in the late 1970s, Godin was an advocate of black soul music, a journalist, record company adviser, record shop owner, activist and most famously first coined the term ‘Northern Soul’.

In his opening programme notes – with sleeve designed in vivid red Constructivist style by local graphic artist Sergio Bustamante – Godin promotes a diverse bill of foreign language cinema, Hollywood classics, and a Yorkshire Arts-sponsored season on Latin American cinema for the opening three months.

He begins with a reference to Soviet film director Pudovkin:

'Film is the greatest teacher, because it teaches not only through the brain, but through the whole body.'


I share those sentiments entirely since film has enriched and
broadened my own outlook on life; I hope now, the Anvil will help
perform that role repeatedly for us all.

A month later, in December 1983 the program was designed to “counter the portrayal of war as glamourous and exciting” as part of the ‘Steel City – Peace City, CND Annual Conference’ in Sheffield, showing films like The Atomic Café, No Nukes, The War Game, Children of Hiroshima, and Dr Strangelove. This was a cinema with left ideals surging through its messages, images and films, a tangible cultural emblem of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.

Under Godin’s stewardship the early years of the Anvil appear to have been a success. The programme was richly diverse and admissions steadily grew to reach over 50,000 in the first year alone, meaning consistently higher average attendances than at commercial cinemas in the region.

Local reaction to the programme was also positive, as these feedback forms courtesy of the Anvil Civic Cinema collection at Sheffield City Archives suggest:

Not wanting to creep or anything, but the Anvil is superb because of the continual change of programme, the varying (and cheap) prices and, most of all, because of the chance to see films that only posh left-wingers in London can see.

Tim Jones, Crookesmoor Road
Anvil programmes

Anvil programmes from 1984.

Sheffield Local Studies Library

With supplementary finance from the Yorkshire Arts Association and Sheffield Council, the previously-mentioned Sheffield Independent Film Week became a growing annual event at the Anvil. The week was primarily used as a showcase for the SIF membership to be given a platform to display their most recent work. It was described by one reporting filmmaker as “fantasy on paper – a daydream of an expanding British Cinema,” with full attendances most nights and a programme composed of narrative, documentary and experimental work.

For Sheffield and Yorkshire filmmakers to share a bill with this range of production was an important milestone; independent film made in the region being shown in the right context to full houses. These were local projects that, without the Anvil’s support, may not have screened at all.

The Cultural Industries Quarter

Members from the City Council who supported the Anvil’s continued survival would often turn up at the independent film festivals – with mixed results. There remained “a lot of the councillors [who] were ex-steelworkers, it was kind of that attitude – ‘I know what I like’ – so they would come and see stuff that we were making and you could see the puzzlement on their faces,” says filmmaker Colin Pons.

This intriguing dynamic between the older, traditional Labour councillors and the younger members of the Council is perhaps reflected in a sentiment shared by a Council report on sustaining Sheffield’s media industry. The note suggests that one of the great barriers to building a cultural industries in an industrial city like Sheffield is born from an historical feeling among its older councillors “to see things cultural as peripheral, not quite real, not quite solid” – and therefore not important enough for investment.

As the latter half of the decade approached, questions began to be asked about the long-term sustainability of the Anvil. Like much of the embryonic Council-subsidised projects of the early eighties, the Anvil appears to have been, as another Council report stated, “established without a clear understanding of the implications of public cinema provision... Its initial policy and direction was confused.”

In a strict new era of media policy and cultural industries strategy, the Anvil simply wasn’t making enough money to survive. Recommendations in a 1988 report suggested that the cinema needed to move to a larger premises and increasing bar and catering income.

In its location on Charter Square, even successful mainstream screenings could not make enough sales to cross-subsidise the other screens’ more art-house led content. In this pressured economic climate, a bitter dialogue unfolded in the pages of the Anvil’s programme and the local press. Admission prices were raised, some of the avant-garde programming replaced by Hollywood content, the Soviet-inspired graphic design style phased out, and Godin himself openly railed against the “Anti-Anvil meanies.”

Meanwhile in 1988, consultants URBED were employed by the DEED to produce a feasibility report on ‘Developing The Cultural Industries Quarter’. As part of this document to redevelop the Kennings car showroom building, there is reference to relocating the Anvil by 1990 and reshaping it as a new type of arts cinema or ‘media centre’ like the Corner House in Manchester or Watershed in Bristol.

The proposed new space was to be run as an independent trust with charitable status, a “new type of regional cinema” with three screens and a catering provision. Against a backdrop of further council cuts, and the new project being devised as the Showroom, it began to spell the end for the Anvil.

Kennings car showroom later Showroom Cinema

Kennings car showroom, which would later become the Showroom Cinema, c. 1950s.

Closure

As a result, by February 1990, Godin announced the proposed end of the Anvil through the local press, “despite the tremendous support it has from the community, and the mounting opposition to its closure,” which included an impassioned Save The Anvil campaign.

On 3 November 1990 the Anvil officially closed with a triple bill of Cinema Paradiso, The Smallest Show On Earth and Les Enfants Du Paradis.

As a case study of the city’s growing cultural industries project, the Anvil was a precursor to the new 1990s language of ‘public-private partnerships’, ‘feasibility studies’ and ‘urban regeneration developments’. Despite fragile funding support, it chiefly survived for seven years not by its ‘long-term strategy’ and ‘enterprise plans’, but on a current of the film passions shared by its Senior Film Officer and a growing regional film community with a desire for adventurous programming.

The Anvil programmes held at Sheffield City Archives sometimes read as an apologetic litany of sound problems, projection issues, funding troubles and barely masked frustrations from Godin himself – countered by an eclectic and well-researched film programme with a social(ist) conscience. A cinema for the Sheffield community: audience and filmmaker alike.

Perhaps its most important legacy was the foundation of a cinema for Sheffield which broke the dominant mode, enlarged the range of choice in the city and helped challenge the stranglehold of mainstream Anglo-American programming by giving an exhibition platform to the burgeoning independent regional film sector.

These are the same tenets of an authentic independent cinema which The Showroom would emulate from its establishment in 1993 right through to the present day, as one of the largest multi-screen independently owned cinemas in Europe and a centre of film exhibition and distribution for the North.

Dave godin

Dave Godin in the 1980s.

Final word – Dave Godin

After the disappointments of the Anvil, Godin settled in Rotherham and remained passionately engaged in everything he did.

In 1997, his highly respected taste and knowledge of black music history was once more foregrounded as he compiled four volumes of rare soul recordings for Ace Records. Dave Godin’s Deep Soul Treasures are widely considered cornerstones of the genre and it’s said Godin himself was immensely proud of the work.

A long-term vegan, he became a tireless campaigner against cruelty to animals in film production, demonstrated against film censorship and protested with numerous anarchist and anti-capitalist organisations.

Dave Godin passed away in 2004. His contribution to British and American culture should be recognised and celebrated.

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This article is an adaptation of a 2018 essay by Alex Wilson. You can read the full version, including sources and further reading, on Alex's website.

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