Small is beautiful in Yorkshire's cinema renaissance

For years a night out watching a film meant a trip to one of the big multiplexes. But now we're seeing a renaissance of small cinemas. Chris Bond reports.

The Hyde Park Picturehouse in Leeds is to receive 
£2.4m of Heritage Lottery Fund money.
The Hyde Park Picturehouse in Leeds is to receive £2.4m of Heritage Lottery Fund money.

ONE of my earliest memories is being taken with my best friend to our local cinema in Whitley Bay by my mum to watch the new Spiderman movie.

It was 1978 and a balmy afternoon during the school summer holidays. We queued for what felt like an eternity in the sunshine only to be turned away as we neared the entrance because the screening was full.

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My friend and I were consoled with an ice cream and had to make do with playing out in the street. I never did watch the film and the cinema has long gone, demolished to make way for a block of smart, if nondescript, flats.

For years it was a similar story up and down the country as the traditional local cinemas lost their lustre and found themselves up against the big all-singing, all-dancing multiplexes.

Some smaller, traditional cinemas did survive and in some cases prosper. In Leeds, the Cottage Road Cinema and the Hyde Park Picturehouse are both originals dating back to the early 20th century as are the entirely volunteer-run Ritz in Thirsk, the Rex in Elland (which also holds regular organ concerts), the Plaza in Skipton and the Picture House in Hebden Bridge. But these were the exceptions rather than the norm.

However, in the past decade or so there has been a revival. In Richmond you can see movies at the Station in what was a derelict Victorian station building until it reopened as an arts, small business and heritage centre – with two cinemas – in 2007.

Then last year, the Ilkley Cinema opened with high-definition visuals, a top-spec sound system, comfy sofas and a well-stocked bar. With seating for just 56, it’s the smallest 4K resolution cinema in Europe – the title was previously held by the 68-seater Cinema dei Piccoli in Rome.

John Tate, an Ilkley-based property consultant, was the driving force behind the project, which brought the movies back to the spa town for the first time in four decades.

The cinema is housed in the former Il Trovatore, affectionately known as the Trav’ by local residents of a certain age, a nightclub which operated for about 25 years on the upstairs floor of a rather splendid-looking Victorian stone building on Leeds Road.

This was closed and lay dormant for a decade before being transformed into a thriving arts cinema.

It’s part of a surge of interest in preserving small and historic cinemas across the country. The Hyde Park Picture House is the world’s only surviving gas-lit cinema and earlier this month it was announced that it is to receive £2.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help restore some of its original features.

Down the road in Pontefract, a campaign group is hoping to revive the old Crescent Cinema to its former glory.

John Tollick is one of the co-founders of the Crescent Project, which was set up 12 months ago. “At one time there were four cinemas in the town and this is now the last one standing,” he says.

The building is one of the most prominent in the town and is home to a dance hall and a snooker club, but John says the old cinema inside has fallen into disrepair.

Campaigners are in the process of setting up a community interest company and hope eventually to purchase the building and bring back the cinema while keeping the snooker club and dance and theatre group as tenants.

John believes there’s an appetite for this kind of thing. “You only have to look around to see the interest and it’s not just big cities either. Places like Hebden Bridge and Penistone have got a local cinema and they’re keeping them going.

“We’ve spoken to people in the town and there’s definitely a desire for this because they can see how it can be a real focal point for Pontefract.”