Reel life goes on as cinema celebrates 100 years of big screen entertainment

Owner of the Cottage Road Cinema in Headingley Charles Morris.
Owner of the Cottage Road Cinema in Headingley Charles Morris.
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At one time there was a cinema in every suburb, but few now survive. Sheena Hastings looks back at 100 years of a neighbourhood landmark.

Rosemarie Dovener grew up in Headingley, Leeds. As a small child she and her dad would go to the cinema at least once a week but usually twice. Most often they went to their local, The Lounge. For a treat, though, they spent a little more and walked up Otley Road, turning right to the Cottage Road Cinema, a former motor car garage that had been converted in 1912.

Rosemarie remembers how tired her little legs got on that walk, but says the trek was always worth it. Despite the fact that dad and daughter went to the pictures so often it was still exciting, says the 78-year-old.

“The manager would be there in his evening suit and dickie bow. For those who needed to park there was a commissionaire to direct them in the car park, and no charge – although people would give him threepence on their way out. We never noticed that the auditorium was thick with cigarette smoke. At the end of the film we always stood for the National Anthem.”

In time, film-mad Rosemarie grew up and married Martin Dovener, a funeral director, whom she met at a Young Conservatives meeting. Rosemarie moved out of “downtown Headingley”, to their house two minutes’ walk from the Cottage Road. For the last 48 years, the couple’s neighbour has been Dorothy Bedford, who came to live in the same street in Far Headingley with her late husband Wilfred.

Dorothy also has childhood memories of the little cinema with the wood-panelled lobby. “In the 40s people went to the cinema every week or twice a week because that was how often the programme changed. I remember going to the Cottage Road with boyfriends and snogging all the way through the film in the double ‘love seats’ at the back. I came out knowing nothing of the story.”

While their children were growing up the two couples still visited their local cinema weekly – albeit alone, if a babysitter wasn’t available.

“There’s such a close community here that you would always meet someone you knew and still do,” says Dorothy, who’s a very youthful 82. “The cinema was at the centre of things and brought people together. It’s like that today. I’d happily go on my own, but usually go to the Thursday afternoon senior citizens’ matinee, where you get coffee and biscuits, with my sister and friend. We get a bit annoyed if anyone else has beaten us to ‘our’ seats.”

The three friends fall to discussing some of their favourite films down the decades... Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson in Random Harvest, Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy in May Time, Gone With The Wind...the dashing Michael Wilding with Anna Neagle in Spring in Park Lane, Deanna Durbin’s angelic voice... Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers... and more recently the Harry Potter series, as well as six-weekly classic film nights, when vintage films are played alongside authentic ads and newsreel of the era.

In its 100-year-history, and through various periods of ownership, the Cottage Road has only closed once – for a week in 1931, when the sound equipment was installed that ended the era of silent movies and made many a musical trio redundant.

After the fascination with “talkies” in the 30s and 40s and the advent of colour film, British and US studios churned out hundreds of films a year (many of them utter tripe). Restrictive distribution arrangements often meant that a big name film might take months or even a year or two to make its way from London to Yorkshire.

Like many other neighbourhood cinemas, this one has weathered many storms, and is now among very few UK cinemas to have been in continuous use for a century. The event will be marked on July 29, with a special screening of The Smallest Show on Earth (1957, starring Margaret Rutherford, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna) the unveiling of a blue heritage plaque, and “a bit of a do” as one understated supporter described the planned celebration.

One man who hopes to be there is 75-year-old Derrick Todd, who was the picture house’s longest-serving manager, between 1971 and 1988. After working as a solicitor’s clerk then in a gentlemen’s outfitters, he escaped to become a trainee projectionist in Ripon at 16 years old. The Cottage Road was his first permanent manager post.

“I loved The Cottage Road so much. It was not the best and not the biggest cinema by any means, but there was something about it. I don’t believe in spirits, but it had a special atmosphere.”

The picture house came within hours of going dark in 2005, when its owners, Associated Tower Cinemas, decided to end their involvement with cinemas and concentrate on property. The Far Headingley Village Association and others swung into action with a publicity campaign and petition to save its cinema from a similar fate.

After the handful of staff had been issued with redundancy notices and at the 11th hour, Charles Morris, a diehard film fan stepped in to lease the picture house and incorporate it into his Northern Morris group of six local cinemas across Yorkshire and Cumbria.

“I couldn’t resist trying to rescue it,” he says. “It had survived when so many other cinemas had succumbed to bingo halls and supermarkets due to competition from television, video and other entertainment. I had rescued five others at that point, including cinemas in Elland and Skipton, and to me it’s a labour of love as much as anything.

“I was first captivated by Lady and the Tramp as a small child and have stayed besotted by movies ever since. When I was older I helped out at the local cinema, and continued work part-time in the projection room during university,” says Mr Morris, whose career was in engineering until he went into the cinema business full-time in 1992.

“When I took on the Cottage Road, I told its supporters that it was one thing to save it, but to keep it open they had to come regularly. It does have a very supportive group of fans. Small cinemas like this are important and held in great affection. Their atmosphere is so much better than the multiplex, and the community feels a part of it.”

Mr Morris has kept cinemas open in tough times. In his lifetime of following movies he’s seen prohibitive entertainment tax abolished, and the fortunes of picture houses waxing, waning and waxing anew.

There have been technological developments from glorious technicolour and 3-D to Dolby Stereo and the brief phenomenon that was Sensurround. The Cottage Road will join the latest technological revolution later this year, when Mr Morris will invest £50,000 in a digital projector.

The local Post Office has gone from Far Headingley, as have 
some much-loved shops that served generations. Still The Cottage Road survives – because, Morris believes, it knows its audience.

“The big successes are films such as The King’s Speech, The Best Marigold Hotel and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

“We get many 30 and 40-plus people and families with young children, who love our Saturday kids’ matinees and school holiday matinees all week.

“Nightmare on Elm Street isn’t for The Cottage Road. We’re lucky to have very loyal and appreciative audiences, and we try to give them what they want.”