Photography by Kate Elliott.
Really Local Group is the team behind the talk of the town: Catford’s new three-screen cinema, live music venue, food court and community space. This project is the ‘revival’ of Catford Mews; a building behind what used to be Poundland in Catford Shopping Centre.
Before closing down in July 2011, Catford Mews was a retail space home to 30 independent businesses. Eight years later, Catford Mews is reopening as a cultural hub for the community.
“We’re going to be the first multi-screen cinema in Lewisham, in almost 25 years. I’ve always found it strange that a borough of this size, with this diversity, history and energy, didn’t have a permanent cinema?” says Preston Benson, Founder of Really Local Group.
Catford once had the Eros Cinema on Rushey Green, the Electric Picture Palace and the Central Hall Picture House, which later became the ABC. Today, a residential building called Eros House, and the Brazilian based Universal Church of The Kingdom of God (UKCG), stand in their place.
Originally from North Dakota, Preston moved to the UK in 2005. In this interview, we discuss not only what the Catford Mews cinema will look like (although we’re all keen to know), we also explore how it will operate to enrich Catford’s community.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be the founder of Really Local Group?
I’m originally from a small town in North Dakota. It’s called Bismarck, it’s about 60,000 people. The borough of Lewisham is home to about 301,000 people, which is just over half the population of North Dakota as a whole. I went to university near Chicago, and whilst there I lived in London for a year. When I moved back in 2005, I got a job with an accountancy firm.
I was working with property and hospitability clients, so I got to know the industry and how things were done. It seemed lazy, developers coming in and signing up the biggest chain that were willing to pay the highest rent. They didn’t care about what the community wanted, they only cared about the development. So I left and got into property development. What I noticed again, was that there was nothing promoting localism.
So I thought, what if we did development a bit differently? Instead of building a shiny new tower, and then worrying about what we put in the ground floor last, why don’t we start with what the community wants and then over time we can do development. I think developers have done a terrible job of engaging over the last fifteen years, and we’ve really annoyed people. Regeneration has become a bad word and that’s because we’re not giving the community anything. What benefits are they seeing? So that was really the genesis for my starting this three years ago. It was to start looking at development, in particular, cultural development in a different way.
Ah, so that’s where the name Really Local Group came from?
Exactly, we’re not a chain, each one of our venues will be totally unique and bespoke to the area that we’re in. In what amenities are there and in what is relevant to the demographics of the area. So here, as I research, this old Poundland used to be quite a busy area for local traders to sell. People definitely have memories and stories of the old Catford Mews, it’s quite controversial and so there is a bit of circular social justice here.
So art and culture are essentially coming back into the space?
Yes, but instead of focusing on things and items, we’re going to focus on experiences. Our venue is anchored by a three-screen cinema; showing blockbuster movies and special interest films. One thing that’s come through very clearly in our interviews, we’ve done about 500 surveys, people want to see black interest films, there is also an Irish population in the area. They want to see films about their history.
Everyone asks if we’re going to have the same films as any other cinema, the answer is yes. We’re going to be programmed through the Independent Cinema Office (ICO), they work with lots of independent groups like us. We’re also going to do things like live streaming theatre shows. The first year is really going to be trial and error to see what the community wants.
What do you think you’re most excited about over the next 12 months?
The cinema is a key aspect, but there are other things we’re doing as well. Music is as essential to the offering. Music and film fit really nicely together and London’s lost over half of its live music venues over the last ten years. Having a stage and being able to bring in local artists will add to the experience. We want to put fifteen flexible recording studios in that space for south London music producers. This gives them the opportunity to do things professionally. Maybe they’ve outgrown their bedroom, but who can afford rent for £30,000 per year in central London?
We’ve heard there’s an offer for those who work remotely and need environments which are both conducive and affordable?
Yes. We’ve noticed the two Costas are very busy with people on their laptops - that’s the way people work today and there aren’t a lot of co-working spaces in Catford. We know that we’re going to have people coming in, having tea and also working.
Is there anything that you’re worried or concerned about in terms of the future of the project?
We want our staff to reflect the community and to be from the community and are recruiting in a way that gets our message out and makes as many people feel comfortable while visiting us.
We’ve talked with a number of local stakeholders and we’re asking them to help us with the recruiting process. We’re not just going out and posting on a normal jobs board. It’s really about getting out and talking to different parts of the community and saying “Do you know someone who this might work for?” That’s how it’s been different.
We’ve put a lot more thought and care into recruiting for these roles.
As you said, Catford is a patchwork of all these communities, and it’s a very fine line. Some people are getting it right, others aren’t. We’re creating a space that will appeal to as many people as possible.
We also pay the London Living Wage and I think we offer a good proposition for people to want to work with us.
We’re also going to have four food stalls as you walk into Catford Mews, selling a variety of food including jerk chicken, pizza and vegan food. Traders will be from the area, so when you come into Catford Mews the first thing you’re going to see are faces that you recognise, selling food that you want.
Instead of running for the exit because your ticket was too expensive or you can’t afford a £10 drink, like most cinemas, we’ve got a nice big space, tables, couches and chairs. It’s a place where people can come multiple times a week and spend more time than they would in a traditional cinema.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is the beginning of an exciting time for Catford Town Centre. The more people involved, the better the needs of the whole community will be reflected. Have your say via Commonplace, and share the project with people you know locally.