Andy Bonner: Can an old cinema help bring Prescot back to life?

"Did you know Liverpool was once known as Liverpool-near-Prescot?", an enthusiastic man shouted as he crossed the road towards me.

"And Daniel Craig spent some of his childhood here," he continued.

I didn't know either but I was about to learn much more about this small Merseyside town and the exuberant figure approaching me.

"Do you know Prescot? I'll show you around," he added without catching a breath.

John Sullivan Credit: ITV Granada

It turned out that this was the man I was waiting to meet.

Wearing dark glasses and a scarf, John Sullivan was dressed for a cold but sunny day. I detected an Australian accent.

Having filmed in Prescot many times before, I politely parked the idea of a tour in favour of looking around the dilapidated old building I was really here to see.

As I had waited for John, I had already taken in the cracked windows and the weeds growing on the rooftop.

Yet this was once a grand building. The architectural flourishes of a bygone age were still visible on the top two floors.

"This was an amazing find," John exclaimed as he switched on the lights and showed me the auditorium.

Inside Prescot Picture House Credit: ITV Granada

John is a cinema consultant.

He's the man who co-founded The Light Cinemas chain, developed NightFlix Drive-In Cinemas and is behind the fastest growing cinema chain in Saudi Arabia.

Now he's here to sprinkle some movie magic in Prescot.

We are in the Picture Palace - a century-old hidden gem that John hopes will be the key to bringing the town back to life.

When it opened in 1912, the picture house was Prescot's first cinema.

It was owned by Mr L Hughes, someone John wants to know more about.

The silver screen brightened up Prescot for 45 years before closing in 1957 and the building has since housed been everything from a carpet warehouse and a bingo hall to a church.

Smart-suited ushers line up outside Prescot Picture Palace Credit: Knowsley Council

John has been asked by Knowsley Council to help bring things full circle and steer it back into use as a cinema.

The Antipodean loves our heritage and was delighted when he first came here.

"I have a fondness for tradition in cinema. I discovered this. I just came into it. There was a church service on at the time, and I was invited in and I looked and I picked it immediately. This was an original picture house. This is like finding a vintage car or something like that just discovered in a garage gathering dust. This was it!"

John showed me around the building.

While the church goers kept the interior up to a standard it is clear the years have taken their toll.

Many original fixtures and fittings remain however and John sees the promise within its walls.

"The modern multiplexes don't have this architecture. Modern multiplexes are boxes. These were built for occasion. Modern multiplexes need to learn from what these cinemas did. Modern multiplexes need to create that sense of occasion. Within the auditorium is not just about the seats, it's also about the space."

Taking a look inside the old projection room Credit: ITV Granada

On the face of it Prescot could be any north west town.

Many high streets are in crisis with superstores and multiplexes taking business from traditional shops and cinemas like this.

Here it was the Cables Retail Park which could have been the nail in the coffin for the town centre.

Knowsley Council, however, is hoping the two can survive in harmony.

The Picture House is perfectly placed between them and it is hoped it could link the areas.

Funding from the authority and Historic England through the Prescot High Street Heritage Action Zone could be used to rejuvenate the building and support the local economy.

John said "To me, this is where a lot of communities should be looking at. Looking at their existing assets, their existing history and building on that. We at The Big Picture can actually turn this into a multiplex that will compete with any multiplex in the region just using the land next door of the existing space. Because this is quite cavernous we can use these spaces and create something that's very exciting and a development that any community would be proud to have."

Prescot High Street Credit: ITV Granada

I did go for a walk around Prescot and things have changed since I was last there.

There was now a buzz around the place.

I'm sure that is in part thanks to the increase in outdoor dining after lockdown but cranes also tower high above the the town.

They are shaping the £28m Shakespeare North Playhouse which is due to open in summer 2022.

All of it aims to use the town’s heritage as a resource to enrich people’s lives.

The Shakespeare North Playhouse takes shape in Prescot Credit: ITV Granada

Community groups and business people have already expressed an interest in restoring and running the cinema.

Potential operators have until April 30 to enter the process.

John believes with his expertise, he can help make it work where other local cinemas have failed.

"I will predict it will be one of the most loved cinemas in the region once it once it opens."

Daniel Craig would, I'm sure, be proud.