Life & Culture

My Jewish grandpa had an iconic cinema chain where I met royalty

An illuminating family memoir tells the story behind Britain’s first film theatres


Most children’s upbringings do not involve meeting royalty or hanging out with the stars of their time.

But for the granddaughter of a musician who co-founded a chain of Art Deco cinemas across the south of England, meeting the likes of Roger Moore and Peter Finch was part of normal life. And to celebrate her grandfather’s great work in cinema, Jenny King has published a memoir, Cinema King.

Sam King was the son of an impoverished Jewish immigrant, Lewis, who arrived in the East End in the mid-1880s and made shoe uppers, having escaped the pogroms in Poland with his wife Kate. Born in Mile End in 1890, Sam started out as a schoolteacher and a part-time violinist.

It was when accompanying silent movies as a musician in the Queen’s Light Orchestra in the early 20th century that he met his future business partner in film: fellow violinist Alf Shipman. The pair became firm friends, launching Shipman and King after the First World War.

They opened their first cinema in a barn at the back of a Sussex pub around 1918 and built their first new cinema just up the road in 1921 — the Hailsham Pavilion, which still exists today.

“They were both so enthralled with cinema and the possibilities, because it was just starting,” says Jenny, a psychologist.

“My grandfather gave up teaching, because he was very excited about the opportunities. He really imbued all of us with this love of cinema.”

Shipman and King opened cinemas through the 1920s and beyond. The partnership continued until Shipman’s untimely death in 1956, when Jenny’s father Peter gave up his career as a barrister to support Sam in the running of the family film business.

“He saw that my grandfather was bereft suddenly of his beloved business partner, and also it was his brother-in-law because Shipman had married my grandfather’s sister. Business and family were very much intertwined which was typical of that time in Jewish families, and my father just stepped up,” Jenny recalls.

“As a child, I remember tea-time visits from my grandparents every weekend, and my father and grandfather would be talking business in one corner and I’d be hearing about all the cinemas.”

By the 1960s, the firm had 45 cinemas. Sam would make trips to film studios in America, bringing back signed pictures for the family.

Although Jenny remembers him as the “quietly spoken” one while her father was more involved in the glamorous side of the industry.

“My father was more flamboyant and loved to be in the middle of all that,” she says. “He made it his business to network and he was very highly thought of in the industry. But unlike my grandfather, he hadn’t run cinemas. So their focus was different.”

And it was Peter who brought glamour into family life. Jenny had her first taste of that aged seven when she presented a bouquet of flowers to Princess Alexandra, the late Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, at the Royal Film Performance.

She remembers actor and director Laurence Harvey, movie mogul Lew Wasserman, composer and lyricist Sandy Wilson, actor Peter Finch and director John Schlesinger all spending time at the family’s Hampstead home — the highest house in London, sitting atop Hampstead Heath. “He described it as his ‘folie de grandeur’,” says Jenny. “He loved to entertain there.”

Her love of film grew further, thanks to the private cinema Peter built in the attic, with velvet tip-up seats, for which he would hire a projectionist every weekend, and where he introduced his daughter to Funny Girl, Annie Hall, The Heartbreak Kid and Fiddler on the Roof.

“He particularly loved Jewish humour and music.”

Peter left the family business to work for Paramount Pictures, before joining Lord Bernard Delfont of the Grade Organisation, who in 1965 bought the Shipman and King cinema chain, and her grandfather stayed on as honorary president.

The cinemas became ABCs. In her teens, her father took her to premieres, where he introduced her to stars of the day such as Finch and Roger Moore.

“I spent a lot of my teenage years going to the premieres like The Sound of Music. I remember the glamour of those first nights,” she says. “I was completely overawed by it.”

And as a testament to her memories of Shipman and King, Jenny launched Cinema King: A Granddaughter’s Memoir at the Hailsham Pavilion, and commissioned a commemorative blue plaque for the cinema.

All the book’s profits will go to the Hailsham Old Pavilion Society — the charity supporting the ongoing maintenance and survival of the cinema.

“My grandfather was an inspiration,” says Jenny. “Despite his poor beginnings, he demonstrated that anything was possible if you worked hard and treated people with dignity and respect.”

Cinema King: A Granddaughter’s Memoir by Jennifer King is available from

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