Grand Designs cinema house
Grand Designs Old Cinema house in Doncaster

The old cinema house in South Yorkshire

These Grand Designers transformed an old community asset into a Modernist-style family home

By Charlotte Luxford |

Entrepreneur Gwyn ap Harri and his wife Kate didn’t set out to be massive risk takers when they went house hunting in their hometown of Thorne, South Yorkshire. Their search was borne purely out of practicality – they wanted a bigger garden and an open-plan living space. What they’ve ended up with, the iconic Grand Designs cinema house, is something they could never have imagined in their wildest dreams.

The couple looked at plenty of existing properties in the area, but it would have cost more than half a million pounds even to get close to what they were looking for. They eventually decided that the only way might be to build their own home, and realised that the old cinema in town had the potential to be something spectacular. Buying it would save a local landmark and, most importantly, it would provide the all-important spacious garden for their sons.

TV House The Old Cinema in South Yorkshire7

With the rear hydraulic window raised, the living space is linked to the garden, which used to be the auditorium. Photo: Darren Chung

Ambitious plans

‘Even though it was a bit of a mad idea, it was actually based on practicality,’ explains Gwyn. ‘Buying the cinema was a calculated risk, but we went to the planners twice before putting a bid on the building and I was confident that we’d get permission to turn it into our family home.’

Initially Gwyn wanted to knock it down and start from scratch, admitting that he didn’t truly appreciate the building for what it was. He remembered it as the grotty Merlin’s nightclub from his teenage years rather than the former Kensington Palace Cinema of its 1920s heyday. Naturally, the planners swiftly rejected this request.

After some hard negotiation, the cinema was purchased for just £90,000 in February 2011, and the couple contacted Gwyn’s old school friend Jeremy Southgate, a London-based building designer.

Kevin McCloud called them ‘remarkably brave’ when they decided to put complete trust in the only designer they knew, especially as he wanted to transform the cinema into a daring and minimalist concrete-laden building that would maintain only its original façade. Southgate showed them some pretty radical contemporary projects and, despite both Gwyn and Kate being very sceptical, they agreed to his ambitious plans.

Grand Designs TV House The Old Cinema in South Yorkshire

All that remains of the former Kensington Palace Cinema is the original façade, to which Gwyn and Kate added the diving-board overhang. Photo: Darren Chung

Planning and construction

For Gwyn, the hardest part was playing the waiting game – getting permission took eight months, not the eight weeks they were expecting. ‘That was the most stressful time because it was the only thing we weren’t in control of. It got to the point where I spat my dummy out and phoned the council and said, “Come on, are we going to do this amazing thing or what?” To be fair to them, they did agree shortly after.’

The building work itself was relatively straightforward, except perhaps Gwyn and Kate’s decision to tear up the original terrazzo floor that Kevin tried to persuade them to keep during the TV show. Despite their best efforts to restore it, the pair decided to replace it with aggregate flooring – something that Kevin was actually very impressed with.

TV House The Old Cinema in South Yorkshire2

A large kitchen diner runs along the back of the house, with access to the garden through Gwyn’s beloved hydraulic window. Photo: Darren Chung

The Grand Designs cinema home

The old cinema is now a Modernist-style house, with white render and timber cladding. An open-plan living area is connected to the garden, which once housed the auditorium, by a giant hydraulic window.

The interior is inspired by London’s brutalist National Theatre, with its board-marked concrete; this pushed them over budget, but it was worth it for Gwyn. ‘You have to strive to make something beautiful by being courageous. You have to really celebrate what you’re doing,’ he says.

The old foyer is now a spacious hallway that leads directly into the kitchen, dining and living area.

TV House The Old Cinema in South Yorkshire2

Gwyn and Kate’s master bedroom with en suite is decorated in soft greys to mirror the concrete walls. Photo: Darren Chung

Spacious and light

Their old house, just 200 yards away, was quite dark with a small, north-facing garden, so the couple really wanted their new home to be spacious and light, with one of the most important aspects being a bigger garden and a connection with the outdoors. Gwyn’s four-metre-high glazed hangar door was the focus of this; he claims that they have it open most days.

The total spend was £450,000. That’s £100,000 over the original budget, but Gwyn says that it wouldn’t be the house it is without the extra cost.

So would they do it again? ‘We might be tempted to build a holiday home in the south of France somewhere – perhaps a big concrete box. But not for a number of years yet.’

rear garden of cinema conversion grand design tv house in south yorkshire

‘The boys have spent more time outside here than they did in all the years at our old house,’ says Gwyn. Photo: Darren Chung

Watch the old cinema house episode of Grand Designs on All4