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Renewing Lyceum Govan’s faded ambition


We’ve missed out on plenty during our lockdowns and in particular no one’s had a night out at the movies in what seems like aeons. Currently Scotland’s legal reopening date for cinemas is May 17th although it’ll be later than that for many. I’ll bet more than a few of you can’t wait…

You’re not alone. After decades of drastic decline, cinema attendance in the UK has staged a gradual comeback before being kyboshed by the pandemic – but you wouldn’t know it looking at the dilapidated grandeur of Govan’s semi-derelict Lyceum Cinema.



Despite multi-channel TV, streaming film services and the all-pervading distractions of the internet, the allure of the big screen has proved stubbornly enduring. It serves up an experience they simply can’t come close to. This makes the Category-B listed Lyceum’s current parlous condition all the more poignant.

Sitting in the dark munching popcorn surrounded by strangers and gazing up at the big screen as the lights go down and opening credits roll is still one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things you can do across generations. For a host of reasons it’s still a great night (or afternoon) out.



UK cinema admissions peaked in 1946 at incredible 1.6 billion and by 1984 had fallen to just 54 million. Since that 1984 low point, UK cinema admissions have climbed to 176m in 2019, although in the last decade numbers have largely been flatlining.

Multiplexes have helped repopularise the cinemagoing pastime since the eighties, but people can’t always do that locally as pile-em high multiplexes are often distant.

Now that we’re being encouraged to walk, cycle and take public transport more to stem air pollution, reduce carbon emissions and make streets more people-centred, many will rightly be asking why you should have to own a car or trek into town to access the silver screen and its wares, whether blockbuster or arthouse?


Lyceum Govan corner view from McKechnie St
Lyceum Govan’s curved tile, glass and brick frontage


In a big city of villages like Glasgow, staying local has all sorts of advantages – cost and convenience benefits to locals and a myriad of benefits to the local economy: jobs, a boost to nearby businesses, visitors from elsewhere. Most of all, having great gathering places like a cinema lifts up community identity, cohesion and pride.

Given how much we’ve come to rediscover and rely on the value of local services and culture in this pandemic, it’s more than a little ironic to note that at the very moment restrictions lift – and as people flock back to neighbourhood bars, restaurants and shops in ever greater numbers – there’s so few local cinemas in Glasgow.

So let’s take a closer look at the Lyceum which has long lain empty after a typical spell as a bingo hall…


The Lyceum's locked-up entrance doors
The Lyceum’s locked-up entrance doors


Historic Environment Scotland note: “After being sold to County Bingo in 1974, subsequent conversion entailed adapting the stalls for bingo with a 480-seat cinema retained in the balcony. The cinema closed in 1981 and the bingo hall closed in 2006.” That makes it unused for 15 years now…

While currently defunct as a working venue, the Lyceum is still one of Scottish inter-war cinema architecture’s great survivors. Others have been gutted or reduced to rubble. To compound both its importance and the gravity (and potential) of its situation, the signature style of cinema of which the Lyceum is a futuristic branch member – Art Deco – has just one functioning operation left in the city, the Glasgow Film Theatre (1939), another example of the later European-influenced phase of this ‘moderne’ movement.


Glasgow Film Theatre, James McKissack and WJ Anderson II, 1939. Photo: Daniel Naczk
Glasgow Film Theatre (formerly Cosmo), James McKissack & WJ Anderson II, 1939. Photo: Daniel Naczk


Glasgow and Art Deco’s double-decade Centenary


As the Centenary of the 1920s settles into its second year – and the double-decade Centenary of Art Deco (or ‘Jazz Modern’ as it was known at the time) and related ‘moderne’ styles that transformed our buildings, interiors, fashion and consumer goods starts to take centre stage – where better to go in Glasgow to get a feel for this dramatic era this than the pictures and one of the city’s greatest movie theatre landmarks.

In cinema’s peak period building-wise – the 1930s – there were around 130 picture houses in Glasgow according to T. Louden (1983). Govan itself reached its peak in the 1950s with 9 working cinemas, more than the entire city of Aberdeen. Not for nothing was Scotland’s only metropolis known as Cinema City.


The Lyceum’s backstory and early days


Even further back, on the same spot, there was a Lyceum music hall. Built in 1898, it was adapted to a cinema in 1923 before it burnt down in 1937. That former variety theatre can be spotted in the mural adorning the Lyceum’s upper wall on the McKechnie St side.


McKechnie St corner view of Lyceum


In terms of its architectural style the Govan Lyceum of 1938 defies neat classification, having elements of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and the International Modern Style, the latter being the most dominant outside and Streamline commanding the interior.

Like most successful cinema programmes then, there’s a bit of ‘something for everyone’ about it design-wise. All the more reason it should prosper as a community enterprise as well as a heritage landmark. All at once momentous, varied, welcoming and streetwise, it’s got that magic… boldly European in style and ambition but also 100% Govan.


Lyceum exit doors on McKechnie St
Lyceum exit doors on McKechnie St


Designed by CJ McNair and Robert Elder, it opened in December 1938 and was built to seat 2,600, one of the new suburban super-cinema generation, although Govan is hardly suburban. According to Scottish Cinemas and Theatres:

“The main entrance, on the corner of Govan Road and McKechnie Street, is below a three-storey high curtain-wall frontage of five tall glass windows, which were originally backlit. The rest of the public exterior was tiled at ground level, with bricks above, and a strong horizontal emphasis.

The circular entrance foyer had a central island paybox, from which patterns radiated in terrazzo on the floor, and a mural ran around beneath a central light fitting. The auditorium was originally decorated in blue, pink and lilac.”


Lyceum viewed from opposite side of Govan Road, with entance doors cast into shade by the wide Art Deco canopy
Lyceum viewed from Govan Road, with entance doors cast into shade by the wide Art Deco canopy


The Dictionary of Scottish Architects notes of the architects’ working partnership:

“McNair was primarily a cinema architect mainly through his partnership with George Urie Scott in the Cinema Construction Co: between the wars he worked with Robert Elder who was first chief assistant and then partner from 1936. It used to be said that McNair got the work and Elder designed it: Elder was an able designer but was remembered by an assistant, Robert Forsyth, as ‘a very shy man who didn’t want to take the credit’. Some of their later work was considerably influenced by T S Tait.”

Tait’s most famous landmark on the Southside was the tower at the Empire Exhibition of 1938 in Bellahouston Park, dismantled along with most of the site when the Exhibition ended and WWII commenced.

Below is the Tower of Empire looming behind the Steel Industry Scotland Building at the Exhibition, an apt conjunction given we’re talking about a similarly-designed cinema located in Glasgow’s historic shipbuilding district and they both were completed in the same year. Take a look at it – what parallels with the Lyceum can you see? Was Tait an influence?


Thomas Tait's Tower of Empire behind the Steel Industry Scotland Building at the Empire Exhibition, Bellahouston Park, Glasgow 1938
Tait’s Tower of Empire behind the Steel Industry Scotland Building, Bellahouston Park 1938


Charles James McNair (1881-1955) had jumped into the modernist space early on in the 1920s, and by the time of designing the Lyceum he’d fashioned numerous Glasgow buildings in Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style, mainly in unison with Elder.

Coincidentally – for Southside aficionados – McNair’s first credited work was as Chief Assistant to John Nisbet on the recently-restored 1906 Glasgow Style tenement block Camphill Gate in Shawlands opposite Langside Halls, so he’d already cut his teeth on adapting Art Nouveau to the indigenous tenement style of Glasgow.


Charles James McNair’s first credited work (as Chief Assistant to John Nisbet), the 1906 Glasgow Style tenement block Camphill Gate on Pollokshaws Road facing the southern fringe of Queen's Park and Langside Halls near Shawlands in Glasgow Southide. Photo: 1st October 2023, following Camphill Gate's recent restoration in terms of stonework and major roofing repairs; improvements to the buiding's historic fabric continue
Camphill Gate (1906) 1st October 2023 after stonework & roof repair project


Having earned his spurs on one of the greats in its antecedent style, McNair was well placed to get stuck into the new wave of Art Deco and full-blown moderne buildings sweeping the globe.

One of his first was in Laurieston, as mentioned in our previous post on James Miller’s Art Deco Leyland Motors building.


Alexander Sloan & Co Drapery warehouse, Gorbals in 1930 (CJ McNair, 1928). Photo: Glasgow City Archives
Alexander Sloan & Co Drapery warehouse, Laurieston in 1930 (CJ McNair, 1928). Photo: Glasgow City Archives


This 1928 building was for Alexander Sloan & Co drapers store and drapery warehouse, but had another concrete top storey added in 1937 by Whyte, Galloway & Nicol. The Art Deco Egyptian-style detailing at the 1928 top is still very impressive if you fancy trekking down there to peer closely at it, and the building as a whole has that mini-skyscraper feel.


McNair & Elder – the odd couple Glasgow powerhouse of cinema building


Historic Environment Scotland expand further on the duo: “The architects, Charles John McNair and Robert Elder, had entered into partnership with Glasgow entrepreneur and cinema exhibitor George Urie Scott early in the 1930s. Together they formed the Cinema Construction Company, soon becoming one of the most prolific cinema design companies in Scotland, producing designs for independent cinemas as well as the ABC chain…

“Stylistic changes within the McNair and Elder partnership lead to the conclusion, based also on anecdotal evidence from Robert Forsyth a junior draughtsman with the practice at the time, that Elder was responsible for most of the designs, especially the interiors.”

As mentioned earlier, the Cathcart-born Elder (1899-1963) was the artist hidden from sight, “a very shy man who didn’t want to take the credit”. We certainly have plenty to equally thank both Elder and McNair for now, a legacy sadly mostly lost.

In total McNair and Elder’s resulting range was enormous, sometimes simplified due to the harsh commercial pressures of the period and its hard-nosed clients, but occasionally producing outstanding cinemas. Here’s two more of their ghosts from the Southside…


Plaza Govan, 1937, designed by McNair & Elder 1936. Photo: Glasgow City Archives
Plaza Govan, McNair & Elder, 1937. Photo: Glasgow City Archives


State Cinema, King's Park, Glasgow, McNair & Elder 1937
State Cinema, King’s Park, McNair & Elder 1937. Photo: The Glasgow Story


The above photos don’t do these buildings justice, as they were also designed to be transformed by neon light into magnetic nocturnal beacons. Like most of the period, they have both since been demolished.

The Lyceum is definitely distinct among their works, but not completely alone, in having a daylight presence as strong as that of the night-time hours. Another survivor from the McNair & Elder pantheon on a par with the Lyceum is The Ascot in Anniesland on Great Western Rd. Now converted to flats only the facade remains but what a belter…


Ascot Cinema, Anniesland, in 1940. Photo: Glasgow City Archives


Here’s quiet man Elder, the wizard behind the curtain, at it again, speaking volumes in his drawing of the building design…


Ascot Cinema, Glasgow, drawing by Robert Walter Elder, 1939. Source: The Glasgow School of Art Archives
Ascot Cinema drawing by Robert Walter Elder, 1939. Source: Glasgow School of Art Archives


Govan’s lost Art Deco emporiums


What makes the Lyceum stand out most, even today, is how different is looks to both its Victorian and Edwardian neighbours in the historic quarter of Govan Burgh it’s situated in and from all the other modern buildings nearby.


Lyceum in 1971. Photo: Glasgow City Archives
Lyceum, 1971. Photo: Glasgow City Archives


Poised and puffed out on the corner of Govan Rd and McKechnie Street it looks utterly space age… like a stranger landed from another planet but somehow fitted in without losing their weirdness and ended up staying and becoming one of the gang.

Remarkably, the Lyceum is the sole ‘moderne style’ structure still around locally. But it wasn’t always on its lonesome. Not only did it have the Plaza and Vogue cinemas (the latter designed by James McKissack opened in 1938) for some competitive company, there was also the fashion for adding Art Deco shopfronts onto older street-level shop buildings, explored in the Leyland Motors article.


The Lyceum Cafe, August 1939. Photo: Glasgow City Archives
The Lyceum Cafe, 853 Govan Rd, August 1939. Photo: Glasgow City Archives


Maybe it’s just me but when I look at this I think every cinema should have its counterpart shop or cafe, and in the Art Deco era many of them did. As the cinema became part of the area’s DNA, it made sense that its brand extended locally. That said, it’s probably a blessing most of them don’t now, when you look at the deadening design of them. Where has the beguiling pizzazz of cinemas and ability to design for life gone to?


Black Cat cafe, 1223 Govan Rd, May 1939. Photo: Glasgow City Archives
Black Cat cafe, 1223 Govan Rd, May 1939. Photo: Glasgow City Archives


The Black Cat café was much further along Govan Road heading east, at Linthouse. The frontage is gone and it’s now clumsily converted, as is its neighbour on the right, into the ground floor residence of the tenement building it occupied. The lack of shops, services and streetlife in general in this stretch of Govan Rd nowadays is really noticeable.

The Art Deco styling of The Linthouse Café nearby extended beyond the typography and glossy tiling to the jazzy etched detailing on the windows. This frontage is now concreted over, barring some reduced window space, and is the Diamond Dogs Salon. I wonder if any of its Art Deco glory remains hidden beneath..?


The Linthouse Cafe, 1203 Govan Rd, 1939. Photo: Glasgow City Archives
The Linthouse Cafe, 1203 Govan Rd, 1939. Photo: Glasgow City Archives


I noticed this little Art Deco critter below near ground level on the marble front of the shop right next door to the Lyceum, which was once a Bank of Scotland. There were previously two, but the one on the other side seems to have been removed or concreted over. Since then I’ve spotted a few more around the Southside; there’s an identical series of them on a building at 463-471 Victoria Road.


Art Deco chevron patterned vent (since infilled) in former bank next to Lyceum
Art Deco chevron-patterned vent (since infilled) in former bank next to Lyceum


Glasgow subway’s lost ‘moderne’ period


More ghosts from the Art Deco era in Govan come in the form of subway stations. As the 20s and 30s saw the birth of the makeover as we know it today, so most of our old subway stations got a complete modernist update. Govan has three stations in its orbit that got this treatment.

While most people call it the Subway, and that’s also its official name, it’s interesting that the new signage of this era adoped the ‘Underground’ moniker. Was it mimicking both the look and name of London Underground’s famous revamp in the same period? Very probably, but Glasgow was also big and confident enough to hoover up styles from elsewhere without too much consternation.

There was plenty of indigenous style architecture and local adaptations of global trends in Glasgow already. Adopting a style wholesale from elsewhere didn’t mean the city’s identity was threatened, and the fashion for Art Deco transcended borders globally.


Govan Cross modernist subway station entrance beneath a tenement housing block, undated. Photo copyright of Stuart Neville
Govan Cross subway station, undated. Photo: copyright of Stuart Neville


Govan Cross station entrance above, like many others, was inserted on the ground floor an old tenement. An unlikely pairing that somehow works.

These perky modernist portals were not well maintained however, compared to London’s – a reflection of the managed decline of Glasgow in general since the 1940s – and eventually had to be replaced with the underwhelming station designs we live with now (although the train redesigns were quite iconic). Built in the late 1970s, the new ‘Clockwork Orange’ reopened to the public on 16th April 1980.


Glasgow subway, Cessnock station. Photo copyright of Stuart Neville, undated
Glasgow subway, Cessnock station. Photo: copyright of Stuart Neville, undated


While each of the modernist stations were unique, some were more similar than others. Cessnock (above) is a curio. Entered almost imperceptibly at tenement basement level, from a distance the sign is practically the only inkling there’s a station located here at all.

Copland Rd station (now renamed Ibrox) was another oddity, with its diagonal shape covering the previous design behind it, but this also provided continuity to an already recognisable local icon. The main difference shape-wise was the change to stepped rather than sloped diagonal inclines, in tune with modernist structures elsewhere.

Do you have any old photos of the Lyceum, the shops or the subway stations (including their interiors) of this period? Get in touch if so; we’d love to include them in our archive.


Copland Road subway station in Govan, in 1965. Photo: Mirrorpix
Copland Road (now Ibrox) subway, Govan, in 1965. Photo: Mirrorpix


Many of these modernist station entrances also feature near the start of this brilliant mini-documentary made about the Glasgow Subway in 1974 that came back to prominence recently when a clip from it went viral on social media during lockdown.

We have the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive at Kelvinhall to thank that its digitised and still available to watch freely in full today. Thanks also to Stuart Neville for permission to use his subway photographs.


Snapshots in time: a rare glimpse inside the Lyceum


Concluding our tour of Art Deco-era Govan and returning to the Lyceum itself, what’s less obvious from outside is the remarkable remnants of the old cinema that abide within, despite its increasing dilapidation.

The interior design is dizzying and noticably more Streamline in design, in contrast with the International Style exterior.


Lyceum auditorium interior, 15th November 2010. Photo by Ben Cooper
Lyceum main auditorium interior, 15th November 2010. Photo: Ben Cooper


In her World Art Deco Day talk on 28th April 2021 for the Twentieth Century Society, Elain Harwood likened this particular style to “ice cream architecture” – when you feast your eyes all those curves, the rolling scoops and whilrling swirls, it certainly has that resonance.


Lyceum main auditorium interior and celiling, 15th November 2010. Photo by Ben Cooper
Lyceum main auditorium interior & celiling, 15th November 2010. Photo: Ben Cooper


You can see further atmospheric interior shots in this blog post and Flickr set from Ben Cooper in 2010. It was largely intact then, and the main auditorium still hugely impressive. Who knows how much it’s declined inside in the intervening years..?


Lyceum, February 1939. Photo from Glasgow City Archives
Lyceum, February 1939. Photo: Glasgow City Archives


Sharing Lyceum memories for the future…


In 2019 we ran the ‘Southside Memories’ project to collect memories for our archive, in conjunction with researching and writing our ‘South Glasgow Heritage Trails’ guidebook.

Postcards were distributed at venues in areas around the Southside, each with a map of their specific neighbourhood on one side and space to write memories on the other, along with post boxes for people to put their completed postcards into.


Southside Memories project: Govan postcard front showing map
Southside Memories project Govan postcard: front map. Image: SGHET Archive


Below is one of the Govan postcard memories contributed. Perhaps you, or a family relative or friend, have your own recollections or comments on Govan or the Lyceum – tell us in the comments here below, or on Facebook or Twitter, or email them to info@sghet.com


Southside Memories project: completed Govan postcard
Southside Memories project Govan postcard: completed side. Image: SGHET Archive


The Lyceum is held in great affection by the community and has personal importance for many, as well as being an architectural landmark. This suggests it could be used for a number of community purposes, not just film screenings.

There is a planning application (not the first in its period of disuse however) currently under consideration for ‘Use of vacant building as cinema, concert hall and restaurant and external alterations’, although the period for submitting comments has now closed. More details here.

For now the only certainty is that it remains a building at risk with enormous symbolism, history and potential.  Through better understanding its story, and what it means to Govanites and Glaswegians past and present, we can help shape a positive future for it.


By Deirdre Molloy

Published: 5th May 2021




McKean, Charles; The Scottish Thirties, Scottish Academic Press (1987)

Kenna, Rudolph; Glasgow Art Deco, Richard Drew Publishing (1985)

Louden, T., The Cinemas of Cinema City, self-published (1983)

UK cinema annual admissions – 1935 onwards; UK Cinema Association (online)

Virtual Mitchell: Glasgow City Archives online – images kindly reproduced with credit

Glasgow, 908 Govan Road, Lyceum Cinema; Canmore, Historic Environment Scotland

Lyceum, 908 Govan Rd, Govan; Scottish Cinemas and Theatres

Glasgow Film Theatre; Wikipedia entry

McNair & Elder architectural practice; Dictionary of Scottish Architects

The fading grandeur of a former cinema giant; Lost Glasgow (online)

Item NMC/0680 – Ascot Cinema, Glasgow – perspective; The Glasgow School of Art Archives and Collections

Neville, Stuart; Govan Cross and Cessnock subway stations – photographs (online) reproduced with permission

Cooper, Ben; Lyceum Cinema 16th November 2010 (online)

Harwood, Elain; World Art Deco Day Twentieth Century Society talk, 28th April 2021 (online)

Glasgow Subway (1974); National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive at Kelvinhall

Special thanks to the team at Govan Old for hosting our Southside Memories project Govan postbox, in some great company alongside the Govan Stones

All photographs, unless otherwise credited, are by Deirdre Molloy

Follow the #SouthsideModerne hashtag on Twitter


Read the other articles in our #SouthsideModerne series:

James Miller’s Art Deco Leyland Motors

Art Deco fragments of Shawfield Stadium


3 replies added

  1. Carol Hughes May 5, 2021 Reply

    Great article .Thank You. Hope the building survives.

    My blog – Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

  2. catherine cowie May 6, 2021 Reply

    stayed in mckechnie st growing up loved going to the pictures bueatiful building remember looking out the window and seeing the crowd waiting to get in and an old man going up and down looking for money happy days

  3. John Pickett May 6, 2021 Reply

    Love the artical and loved the Lyceum as well as the Vogue. I was brought up in Govan in the 40s and 50s and went to all the local cinemas including the Plaza and the Elder. I left Govan in the early 60s but still make visits and always make a point of going to see the Lyceum as it is now. Have any fund pages been set up ?.

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