In the 108 years that have elapsed since Hyde Park Picture House opened, the world has changed around us in more ways than we can count. Television, video, multiplexes, the internet, the ‘demise’ of 35mm. So, why, one must ask, are we still here? And what of those 108 years? What is our story?
Written by Wendy Cook
Since opening in 1914 through to closing our doors in February 2020 for renovation work in the shadow of COVID-19, it’s fair to say that The Picture House has had a few wobbles.
When we showed our very first film to audiences on the night of 2 November 1914, moving image technology was still in its infancy – it was only 26 years after Louis Le Prince had set up his camera in a garden in Roundhay in Leeds to capture two revolutionary seconds of footage that had the potential to change the world.
The Picture House started out life as a private venture; a plot of land briefly housing a billiards club in the early 1900s at the end of a very average terraced street. Parts of that original structure – the basement and elements of the stonework façade – were re-worked in 1914 to form the building we now know and love. Something brand-new made from the old.
In the years that would follow, The Picture House would change hands many times between individuals and companies before eventually moving into the Leeds Heritage Theatres charity which has been our home since the 1990s.
Points of risk were averted along the way by individuals and groups who went above and beyond to save us when so many other cinemas closed. The list of helpers is too long to explore in detail now but is part of a bigger project we are undertaking to document our history in full thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
However, some names can’t help but spring to mind. Our former Manager, Len Thompson, built bridges in the community that led to important collaborations like the long-running series of Bollywood screenings organised at the Picture House through the 70s and 80s by the brilliant Mr Rocky Sagoo. Len’s nephew Geoff even re-mortgaged his home to save the cinema.
The Friends of Hyde Park Picture House, including Sue Buckle, Ian Sanderson and many others who put pressure on audiences and those in power to choose between appreciating the cinema’s true value or seeing it lost. Former Manager Liz Rymer and the late Cllr. Bernard Atha both played vital parts in getting our Grade II listed status, moving us from the precarious private world and into charitable hands, and building links with Leeds City Council that mean we are still viewed with civic pride today and seen as an asset in the cultural landscape of the city. This list only scratches the surface.
With each twist and turn the value of what the cinema can, and will, do becomes ever clearer. People need cinemas where they can come together to experience film in a space designed to best serve it, as part of a community made up of audiences, staff, volunteers and, of course, makers for whom that experience is important – varied, but always important.
This clarity of purpose is strange when you remember that we are currently experiencing our longest period of closure since we opened, and our third consecutive birthday away from home.
We planned to be back this year, back with our audiences (old and new) and finding our feet again in a space that will be both old and new again, much like how the cinema started back in 1914. But we are not, because the things which are important to do take time. So, as a team, we are practicing patience whilst also brimming with eager anticipation to get back, not only to our building, but also the daily practice of bringing a cinema to life; opening the doors, sweeping the steps, striking the lamps, saying hello to the familiar faces, and reeling off the welcoming speech to those who are crossing the threshold for the first time.
But just because we cannot be home this winter doesn’t mean we cannot keep doing what we love. We are excited to still have a range of wonderful ‘On the Road’ titles coming up over the next few months, including a duo of festive treats in the form of Elf and It’s a Wonderful Life at Left Bank. We also have another family-friendly favourite, The Secret of Kells, playing at the ever-wonderful HEART. And, we return to the Pyramid Theatre at the University of Leeds Students Union on a special screening of A Door To The Sky, in conjunction with Cinema Rediscovered and to be accompanied by a short discussion led by film scholars from the University of Leeds – Rachel Johnson, who studies film festivals and migration cinema, Priyanka Verma, who studies women’s authorship and Indian cinema, and Bengisu – Su – Kepsutlu, who studies migrant women’s filmmaking. Rachel, Priyanka and Su will reflect on A Door To The Sky’s multiple, female authorship, as well as its narratives of homecoming and spiritual awakening.
This time we have spent out on the road has been strange and, at times, hard. We continue to be grateful beyond words to the venues who have hosted us, the team members who have brought the screenings to life and the audiences who have continued to support our programming and make everything worth doing. All this labour means that, when we return to the newly renovated Picture House, we return, not only to a building more able to support us, but with a world of knowledge, experiences and appreciation for what is really important that will aid us in this new chapter.
For more information on the Picture House, our screenings and the renovation visit Hyde Park Picture House.
The Picture House Project is made possible thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund alongside additional support from Leeds City Council, the Garfield Weston Foundation and Film Hub North with National Lottery funding on behalf of the BFI Film Audience Network.