Brynmawr, Big hill in English, is thought to be the highest town in South Wales, around 1,500 ft above sea level. The traditional market town is in the borough of Blaenau Gwent, close to Ebbw Vale. Being close to the industrial valleys, Brynmawr grew in size during the early 19th century, prospering as the heavy industries developed throughout the valleys.
As with all valleys in the area, the decline in the traditional industries had a destructive effect on the wealth of the town and Brynmawr struggled to recover. More recently, local funding and grants from the Welsh Assembly together with other grants from the European Union has enabled regeneration and modernisation of the once busy town centre.
Built on land donated by the Duke of Beaufort, the Market Hall was built in 1894, at a cost of £1,500. Initially the hall was built to hold a weekly market, the hall would form the centre piece of the market square.
As entertainment became a popular pastime in the industrial valleys, the Market Hall was converted for use as a cinema as early as 1913, with seating for 1,400 patrons. When no films were showing, the hall would host stage plays, performed by travelling theatres, which had started to pitch tents on the square outside prior to the venue becoming an auditorium.
The venue has a good stage, 30 foot deep and 35 foot wide, with three dressing rooms.
During the 1920s a new stone facade was created. Sometime during the sixties a metal cladding facade was added, covering the original ornamental decorative stone facade and windows. Over time the modern metal cladding facade became an eyesore as it deteriated over the years.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the venue was known as the Town Hall Cinema, operated and booked by the proprietor’s R.W. Phillips & Sons of Greenland Road. With cinema becoming a popular attraction in the Valleys the venue was renamed the Market Hall Cinema during the 1950s. Over the years, some work was done in the auditorium to improve facilities, each time improvements were applied seating would be reduced.
Although mostly functioning as a full time cinema the Market Hall has also been home to a number of annual performances by the now long established Brynmawr Amateur Operatic Society.
Sometime during the mid-1970’s the hall was reduced in size when a wall was dropped, creating a permanent indoor market area and a new stage for the auditorium, in order to accommodate this new look seating was reduced to 350. Nowadays the former indoor market area is used as the local library. Seating capacity has again been reduced slightly to meet the requirements of the disability discrimination act, enabling an area towards the rear of the auditorium for wheelchair access.
The façade was also given a facelift in the seventies in an effort to modernise the appearance of the ageing hall, metal cladding covered the entire front of the hall, it was a common practice to apply this cost effective method of modernisation.
In 2007 the local authority, who own the Market Hall, submitted plans and applications to the Welsh Assembly for a funding grant to restore and renovate the Market Hall Cinema, mostly the facade, removing the now unsightly metal cladding and returning the venue to its original look by exposing the original stonework and windows. A Steel canopy, signage and lighting now show the place in a much better light. The original clock featured on the facade has also been restored and is working once again.
The Market Hall Cinema is considered to be the oldest, continuously running cinema in South Wales and remains the sole surviving cinema in the Blaenau Gwent region of the South Eastern valleys. The cinema serves a large area, including Abertillery, Ebbw Vale, Tredegar, Blaenavon and Rhymney, all towns that once had several cinemas but now have none.
Earlier in 2013 the Market Hall Cinema came under threat due to local authority funding cuts and the opening of multiplex cinemas some distance away. Blaenau Gwent council were forced to withdrew funding for the venue in order to cut expenditure following financial cut backs to local authority funding by central government.
A strong vocal group is campaigning to save the Market Hall Cinema for community use, demanding that the local authority reviews funding to enable this valuable community landmark to serve the community that is already lacking in entertainment venues. Additionally the Market Hall and square is a considerable feature for the town.
The campaign received considerable coverage, featuring on local television news and arts programmes together with regional newspapers and national newspapers covering the Principality. The campaign was a huge success and while the local authority was unable to reverse their decision to withdraw funding, operation of the cinema was handed over to the newly formed partnership of the Market Hall community group, a combination group formed from activists of the Save Our Cinema and Market Hall Cinema Trusts groups.
Following a three week closure to enable essential maintenance works, the new owners of the cinema reopened the cinema on Saturday the 22nd June 2013 with the film Despicable Me 2, now boasting the latest in cinema equipment with a new HD screen and digital projector. Volunteers staff the venue with extended performance times. The venue will also continue to be the home for the annual Brynmawr Amateur Operatic Society production.
With the risk of closure and possible loss of a much loved local landmark and community service the cinema can look forward to entertaining cinema audiences in the years to come. With a prime location in the centre of the thriving market town the cinema and the trust that now runs the cenue deserves the support of the local community.