Wendy Cook is waxing lyrical, remembering her teenage years spent devouring films at cinemas across Leeds: The Lounge, The Cottage Road, and Hyde Park Picture House. The latter was the most important. ‘I think this place felt right; it felt like home,’ she says.
The Lounge and The Cottage Road were ‘fantastic formative film-going experiences,’ she says, but it was at the Picture House that she fell in love with film. ‘When I was 18 I started coming here and was just blown away – I remember seeing things like early Michael Moore films and Lars von Trier.’
Like a lot of film-lovers in Leeds, the Hyde Park Picture House was crucial to Wendy’s discovery of cinema. Unlike a lot of film-lovers in Leeds, she later became its General Manager. She took a job selling sweets in the foyer at 20, and set about gorging herself on films and getting recommendations of what to watch next from other staff and customers before being made Duty Manager and finally jumping to the top job 10 years ago. Now, she’s in charge at one of the most exciting points in the cinema’s history.
The Picture House is small, charming and full of original Edwardian features, like its nine gas-powered lamps which have lit the main auditorium since it showed its first film in 1914 – Their Only Son, starring Blanche Forsythe. It’s proudly esoteric too: last year, it was open for 364 days and showed more than 320 films on its single screen. If your local multiplex is The Avengers, Hyde Park Picture House is the 1954 version of Godzilla, in the original Japanese, with subtitles.
While independent cinemas have enjoyed a resurgence in the last decade – and rarely been more important for curating programmes of the obscure, the unlikely and the strange in an age of unadventurous multiplexes cleaving to sure-fire box office blockbusters in an attempt to stave off the threat of Netflix et al – it’s rare to find one with much spare cash knocking around. So, the fact that the Picture House has won £2.4 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund is a huge boost.
The money means that Wendy and the team can start planning all sorts of improvements, starting with a refurbishment of the whole building: ‘We have lots of fantastic period features including gas lighting and decorative moulding which we want to restore, and make sure it’s in the best possible condition for the next hundred years.’
Being in a 102-year-old building does have its drawbacks though. ‘We also want to do things like making the building accessible to people with any kind of mobility problems. Currently our toilets are all up and down stairs, they’re not very user-friendly for a lot of people,’ Wendy says. ‘We try and be accessible with our programme and then our building’s not very accessible; it’s a real challenge.’ The Edwardian building, glorious as it is, wasn’t built with modern standards of health and safety in mind either.
There are also plans to add a second screen in the basement, giving a lot more flexibility to their programming, as well as expanding the cinema’s role as a local cultural and social hub. The cinema takes its commitment to its locals and regulars seriously, and Wendy is sure that the area itself has helped the Picture House develop its particular character.
‘Hyde Park’s amazing,’ Wendy says. ‘It’s got a great history of musicians and artists who worked here and people who engaged in political dissent and social organisation. We work with the Hyde Park neighbourhood forum quite a bit to try and make sure we’re working with our local community rather than against it. We want to do more of that, basically.’
Wendy talks about ‘the next hundred years’ a lot. Seeing as the Picture House has nearly seen the credits roll on its own story a couple of times in the past, she’s keen to secure the future and maintain its place as a central part of Leeds life, just as it was when it first opened in 1914.
‘It seems like a crazy time to open with the war and everything, but despite that we were completely central to people’s average week; we were a fundamental way of people finding out what was happening at the front, being distracted from the war to propaganda films and patriotic dramas and escapism,’ Wendy says. ‘We were really key in people’s social calendar.’
Like many cinemas, the Picture House had to reinvent itself as an arthouse cinema with the advent of television and the VHS player, but still the decline continued. Two things saved it. Firstly, the Friends of Hyde Park Picture House mobilised, a group of fans who ‘became a really vocal force encouraging people to come and see films here and not take us for granted.’
‘They’re still going today and they are one of the things that has meant we can get this new funding, because they supported the application process and have been a really incredible voice within it,’ Wendy says. ‘It’s not just the people who run the cinema giving ideas for the future, it’s coming from our audience.’
Secondly, Leeds City Council bought the Picture House in 1989, putting it alongside the Grand Theatre and Opera House and the City Varieties Music Hall as heritage venues which needed council support to ensure their futures. With this grant the Picture House has up to two years to work out how best to secure its future and make sure the community which has built up around it keeps growing, and can do so without constantly worrying about its coffers.
‘We feel less precarious than we have for a number of years really, which is what’s so common with cinemas like us,’ says Wendy, who still talks with the passion of the cinema-obsessed 18-year-old she was when she first discovered the Picture House.
‘This place is a film lover’s dream,’ she says. ‘I’ve spent essentially the last 13 years of my life here, and it’s a place you just completely fall in love with. The building, the films, but also the customers and the staff are just wonderful people. It genuinely makes customer service a pleasure, because you’re dealing with really interesting, passionate people who are really kind and I’m really lucky to have that as my day job.’