I love the way Sally Wilton – founder of Kensal Rise’s extraordinary state of the art indie cinema, the Lexi which sends all of its profits to an eco village in South Africa – signs herself at the end of her emails, not as chief executive, but as dreamer. Yes, yes, yes. She has certainly ‘dreamed’ her cinema into a thriving community enterprise and has recently set up Nomad, a travelling pop up version of the Lexi soon to arrive at Harlesden’s Misty Moon (Movies at the Misty Moon start on March 1st with a new documentary called Lover’s Rock) which is, of course, a former cinema. Oh, the cultural satisfaction of turning a pub back into a picture house. Although it will stay a pub as well.
It’s a grim, cold, rainy morning when Sally appears on my doorstep weather-ready in hat and gloves. “We’d call it a ‘mizzly’ morning in Ireland,” she says revealing her Antrim roots. She grew up in Nigeria until she was 8. I thought she might cancel but Sally is made of sterner stuff. As we march down Anson Rd, she’s telling me how she used to put fliers about the Lexi into people’s letter boxes herself back in 2008 when it had recently opened. “I could do a PHD in the potential dangers of letter boxes,” she jests unexpectedly, “there are the ones with teeth that almost bite you, the ones that are hell to push open and the ones that say ‘No Junk Mail’. One day I was about to put a flier through one of the latter when the woman of the house greeted me with an absolute ‘No’, so I explained about the Lexi and she changed her mind instantly. I’ve never thought of Lexi fliers as junk mail.”
Sally Wilton initially appears to be shy and self-deprecating but she is also humorous. Quietly but bitingly.
Sally is a full-time philanthropist, as well as a dreamer. Having sold her business – Etc Venues, which created affordable temporary training and conference facilities – in 2006 for 21 million pounds, she and her directors became not so secret millionaires and Sally found her way to her own causes and passions without the aid of a TV programme. The Lynedoch eco village in South Africa – a community created out of the principles of the Sustainability Institute – was her first commitment destination. The Lexi – her daughter is called Alex – was the second.
Did it really result from the amazing community spirit that emerged at the time of the bizarre micro- 2006 tornado in Kensal Rise? “Well, I was already looking for a building,” she says, “although I had no idea how to run a cinema, it just stemmed from my love of film. I was out in South Africa when it happened. I thought my children were pulling my leg but I flew straight back when I realised it was true. Roofs had been ripped off, one side of a building had gone. Luckily only our house’s windows had smashed because a furniture van outside had taken much of the impact. However, the community spirit was amazing, everyone was helping each other. And the Lexi was very much born in that atmosphere. Today we have 50 volunteers from the community all helping us out, and some of them get involved with the eco village too.”
The Lexi is housed in an Edwardian building that used to be called Pinkham Hall. “Colonel Pinkham created it in 1928 as a theatrical space and as a part of the Conservative Men’s Club next door,” she says. It’s surprising we agree, that he was a Conservative but one who obviously liked the theatre so much he funded one next door. He was apparently big on snooker as well. “I saw it was for sale,” she says, “and they said it had already been sold, but I instantly wrote a document for what I envisaged as a community cinema and I got it. I had to go and meet the Men’s Club committee which was an experience in itself. The Constitutional Club is like going back into the 1950s. The treasurer is 85 and remembers queuing round the block for the two old cinemas that used to be further down Chamberlayne Road.”
By this time, we are walking up Harlesden High St towards the Job Centre Plus, the brick abomination which was built at the turn of the century as the very grand Willesden Hippodrome. It became a cinema in 1928 as audiences’ appetites for variety theatre diminished. During that era, there were seven cinemas in the area, now sadly there are none. “I love cinema as a place where you can be with others,” she says, “or to completely escape to, and be alone. The old-fashioned picture houses were magical and they were for the working classes not just the posh. We had two cinemas down Chamberlayne Road near the Moberley gym, that’s where the Consitutional Club treasurer remembers the queues. Together, they had 3,000 seats, imagine that. Cinema was having its golden time. Of course, that was when we had a train going straight to Liverpool St, so lots of workers from the City lived in Kensal Rise. There were tailor shops then.”
I mention that I first came to Harlesden in the 80s when the Mean Fiddler put on brilliant bands and people travelled to come here for gigs. “I did too,” she exclaims, “I came to see Nico play there, it was amazing.” It turns out that Sally used to live in a squat in Brixton, whilst I lived in a squat in Shepherd’s Bush. That information re-modelled my preconceptions of millionaires! “It was pretty run down,” she says, “we didn’t have hot water. I love London though, it’s always interesting.”
We pass Paddy Power and I can’t help letting her know that over a year ago, I discovered that this had been a cinema called The Picardy. I looked it up on the internet and it showed a photo of the interior where you could see that the films were projected onto that wall that backed onto the street. It looked like the inside of a train and had posters for Barbara’s Stanwyk’s Golden Boy from the 1930s. Later it turned into a night club called Top 32 and I’m sure Mean Fiddler former boss, Vince Power, met his first wife there when he was a teenager! It’s all coming back to me.
There was also a cinema at 24 Harlesden High Street opposite Peacocks. Now it’s a hair shop. And then there was the Odeon – later to become the Roxy theatre where bands used to rehearse in the 70s at the same time as being a fleapit apparently – which was knocked down in the 90s and has now become a faceless ‘new’ build on the corner of Odeon Court. That’s what’s left of the history.
We stand in the entrance to the Misty Moon – formerly the cinema, the Coliseum – where there are old photos of film stars. “Tony Curtis was so sexy in those days,” says Sally in another unexpected bit of banter. I laugh again.
She then admits what she would really like is “one of the vans that the government used to send out in the 1950s with little cinemas in them for disseminating public information. It would make a brilliant pop up cinema.” There is one out there apparently that has been restored.
I inform her that the Clash and the Slits played here in 1977. She is suitably impressed and surprised.
In the meantime, we notice the amazing statistic on the wall that in 1946, the audiences for cinema is the UK were 31 million. Wow!
What would she like to screen here? “Unusual stuff,” she says, “we don’t want to do the obvious.”
Ah there’s the rub. She explains that the most difficult aspect of screening films is obtaining the rights to old films. “We’re trying to get the rights for Pulp Fiction at the moment but it’s very difficult,” she explains. “That’s where it helps to be a newcomer, I’m endlessly optimistic. I think we can do anything. Others are more pragmatic. I’m a dreamer and I’m determined. I want Twin Peaks. I’d like to do bring your duvet nights at the Lexi like they do at Battersea Arts Centre.”
It also helps if you know a few of the right people. “I’d always wanted to meet David Puttnam,” she says. “His former chauffeur lives down the road from me. So when I was at the same awards ceremony as him, I introduced myself to him with this little fact. He has been to the Lexi and he has helped us out with rights. He’s a very nice man.”
I love that the Lexi always have someone there introduce the film. It feels old-fashioned and caring. “I was inspired by the genuinely wonderfully eccentric gentleman who runs the 600 seater Rex in Berkhampstead,” she says. “He always introduces his film. It makes it an individual experience. It’s cinema with heart. We also do newsletters where we say what we honestly feel about new films, we don’t gush without meaning it and we are critical.”
One of the recent projects of which she is most proud is working in South Africa at Lynesoch teaching schoolkids to be camera men and women. “Then we show what they make at the Lexi,” she says, “there is a 16 year who had been in trouble for violence, and is now going to film school in Cape Town.”
And what would she like at the Lexi? “A second screening room, that would really help with programming.”
The Lexi’s Pop up cinema Nomad is coming to the Misty Moon on March 1st. It’s a free event with special cocktails to buy. You can find more info about the film here and there will be other screenings over the following few months.