Saturday cinema matinees are back – with ballet for children

Northern Ballet's production of The Tortoise and the Hare
Northern Ballet's production of The Tortoise and the Hare
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From Buck Rogers to Hopalong Cassidy, they were Saturday morning staples for generations of children. But the characters that are about to revive the tradition of morning matinees herald from an even earlier era.

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the Elves and the Shoemaker, and Aesop’s fable about the Tortoise and the Hare, set to music and dance by the Leeds-based company Northern Ballet, will compete for audiences at some 200 cinemas nationwide, alongside new year blockbusters like Captain Marvel and Sonic the Hedgehog.

The company has become the first in the country to film its young people’s productions for the big screen. The first two hour-long movies, which will be released this month and next, will be followed later in the year by the English fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs.

The broadcaster Anita Rani, who is from Bradford and among Northern Ballet’s board members, narrates the stories in the best Jackanory tradition.

The productions were created for the stage and continue to be performed at around 30 live venues each year. A combined audience of more than 212,000 people are estimated to have seen them.

“But you can obviously never reach the numbers you can with something in the cinema or on TV,” said Mark Skipper, the company’s chief executive.

“These productions get the same love and attention that we give to our full-length ballets. They still have live music, proper sets and costumes. They’re not dumbed down because they are for children.”

Northern Ballet began creating short productions specifically for toddlers and young children in 2013, and now has a repertoire of six shows based on fairy tales.

There have been TV adaptations for the BBC’s Cbeebies channel, but cinema releases are a UK first. Tickets are already on sale for the screenings, most at mainstream multiplexes, on joint bills with a short cartoon.

“It was originally a small project funded by Leeds City Council, just to do some performances at community venues, but it took off when we got some additional funding from the Arts Council,” Mr Skipper said. “By reusing them and making sure they reach as many people as possible we are maximize the investment in creating them.”

The films were shot on their original sets, and include demonstrations of some of the dance moves, in which Ms Rani – who performed on Strictly Come Dancing – takes part.

“It is quite unique,” Mr Skipper said. “Other companies do cut-down versions of Swan Lake or Cinderella or whatever they’re doing, but ours have been created at this length. They tell a complete story.

“And while the Royal Ballet stream their live performances a few times a year, we’re actually packaging something specifically for the cinema.”

The company’s ambitions for the screen may not end with Saturday mornings, he said. Its forthcoming production, Victoria, based on the diaries of the late Queen, will be filmed for BBC Four and released to cinemas in June. The show, whose world premiere is at the Grand Theatre in Leeds on March 9, followed by a week in Sheffield, will open as the nation marks Victoria’s bicentenary.

Cinemas have readily embraced ballet for their Saturday matinees, the company handling the distribution of the films said.

“One of the reasons they have been so keen is that there isn’t a huge amount of content out there,” said Joe Evea, a partner in CinEvents.

“They are reliant on Hollywood for their children’s films. Ballet is not on their radar but it’s perfect for mothers and young children.”

He said the adoption of digital projection by cinemas had made such projects cost-effective for the first time.

“Even six years ago we would have had to make a film and deliver it to each individual cinema. Now, it has become an attractive proposition for everyone.”