The Picture House, a staple of Leeds culture for over 100 years is about to hit the road and set up shop across the city, including right here at Leeds University Union.
Used as the set for an upcoming film starring Dame Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent just last week, the historic cinema will be undergoing extensive refurbishment over the course of a year starting at the end of February. Editor-In-Chief Ed Barnes takes us through the latest developments:
Hyde Park Picture House has long been one of the most famous cultural venues in the city. Having run for over 100 years since it opened in November 1914 shortly after the beginning of the First World War, it has a reputation of showcasing independent, arthouse and classic cinema that continue to differentiate it from the blockbuster cinemas of Vue and Odeon in Kirkstall and Leeds city centre.
However, due to issues with the building, from rotting window frames to crumbling brick and stone to a lack of accessibility, the decision was announced last year that the building was to undergo essential repair and restoration work as well as the creation of new facilities.
This new development was largely made possible through the securing of a snazzy £2.3 million from a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to deliver the project. There was significant backing from Leeds City Council, the Garfield Weston Foundation as well as funding support from Film Hub North, Leeds Inspired, the Pilgrim and Gwyneth Forrester trusts as well as the Co-op Community fund.
Wendy Cooke, the Head of Cinema, spoke at the event of the importance of ensuring independent cinemas continue to exist. Speaking to me afterwards, she said: “Hyde Park Picture House is the last remaining gas-lit cinema in the UK and only one of two independent cinemas left in Leeds when there was once over 100 so the importance of preserving it is incredibly vital”
At an event hosted at the Picture House on 14th January, investors and members of the local community were taken through the reasons why the project was being done, what the new plans would involve and how the heritage of the Grade-II listed building was to be preserved.
It was also announced that filmmaker Francis Lee, director of the film God’s Own Country, was to become the first patron of the Picture House. Lee is currently filming Ammonite, a film starring Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet. Discussing the importance of filmmakers supporting independent cinemas, Cook said “It’s very much of a two-way street. We as cinemas need to also support filmmakers like Francis… On the flipside, it’s really wonderful when filmmakers like Francis but also people like Bill Wheatley and Alice Lowe come out and tour cinemas.”
Mark Johnson, who was the chief Architect at Page/Park for the project, took the audience on a grand tour of the new features. The steps outside of the building will be replaced with a sloped ramp up to the entrance. Once inside, the foyer has been expanded to provide more room with a new accessible toilet. To the right of the current entrance, a new open space with glass windows will be created. This will sit in a new extension that will be built onto the north-west facing side of the building.
There are also plans for the creation of a second cinema that will sit below the current one, which will sit around 50 people. This new cinema will mean more films can be shown, meaning that if you’re an indie film fan it certainly will be the more the merrier.
Speaking to Cooke about the role of the second cinema, she said it was “very much an organic extension of our current programme, dominated by fantastic new independent releases, low budget pictures, documentaries, foreign language titles, classics.” She went on to say “that second space will allow us to do more of that and provide longer runs for some of the 333 films played annually at the Picture House that might only be shown once or twice”, and insisted “blockbusters won’t be upstairs.”
A new lift will also be introduced as the current cinema is very inaccessible with the first floor out of bounds for anyone who uses a wheelchair. This lift will cover all three floors of the new building and two wheelchair spaces will also be created in the new cinema. The current counter in the foyer will also be made more accessible.
Johnston emphasises the mantra for the project was to “protect and improve” with many steps taken to ensure the transition from old to new was seamless. Paint samples were taken from every corner of the building with cross-sections of all the layers over the last 106 years. The iconic lamppost outside of the building will be preserved as well as the gas lamps. Other items such as the film schedule board and an old fire hose that currently sit in the foyer will also be kept.
Part of what is currently the outside wall will be left exposed inside the new extension also. Inside the cinema itself, new carpets and seating will be installed and the entire room will be given a fresh coat of paint.
The cinema will continue to show films there until the end of February. With graphic designs and illustrations bound to make anyone jealous, Ollie Jenkins, Marketing Manager, showcased some of the venues that the Picture House will be moving to as it goes “On the Road.”
This will begin on 16th February with an exact closure date still to be confirmed. Speaking to Jenkins, he said he hoped the Picture House will re-open by early February/early March next year to “catch the tail end of the awards season”. While he said he was unsure of the exact day of closure as there were issues that still needed to be sorted with contractors, he said it would be “12 months from that date.”
Principally, it will be taking up residence right here at Leeds University Union with New Indies on Sundays and Mondays, with a new membership being offered to students while it is based there. Music on Film will set up shop at Brudenell Social Club and Creatures of the Night screenings will be shown at The Brunswick.
Speaking on how to keep an audience while on the road, Ollie said they plan to “keep membership updated” and they have “purposely chosen venues that are within 10-15 minute walk to the Picture House and venues even more accessible than the current building”.
He did concede “there is a bit of a challenge convincing our regulars, particularly local residents, that the Union is a place for them and not just for students”. However, he remains excited for the future, in particular “coming to the venue and seeing it being genuinely accessible” as “a cinema can be for everyone in the city, not just for certain groups of people,” with Ollie hoping to see their “membership grow as a result.”
Cook also remained excited for the future of independent cinema. She pointed to a recent increase in community cinemas with “screenings that reflect the community” and a shift back to places like the Picture House.
The cinema is very famous within the film industry with filmmaker Wash Westmoreland, actor Chris Pine and film critic Mark Kermode counted amongst fans. Just last week, shooting for their new film The Duke, Jim Broadbent and Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren visited the cinema, with Mirren praising the Picture House and its upcoming refurbishment on her Instagram.
Speaking to both Cook and Jenkins about their thoughts for this upcoming awards season, both were gunning for Bong Jun Ho’s foreign-language picture Parasite though had conflicted feelings given Little Women is also gunning for the top prize of “Best Picture”. Cook said “It’s a real test between two quite different films.”
For information about screenings for the remainder of the Picture House’s time at its historic venue, go to its website at https://www.hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk/