The History of Leeds' Century-Old Hyde Park Picture House

The cinema has survived two world wars and the rise of the multiplex.

Oct 31 2014, 12:56pm

"Cities are about juxtaposition," says British architect Richard Rogers. "In Florence, classical buildings sit against medieval buildings. It's that contrast we like."

Such is, I'd assume, the success of the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, an unassuming slab of history that stands about halfway down the area's Brudenell Road. I quote Rogers on that, even though Hyde Park is an inner-city borough and anyone who does or has lived there knows it doesn't exactly have the same level of physical prowess as Florence. I mean, right opposite the Picture House is a Sainsbury's. And just a stone's throw away down the adjacent Queen's Road is an MOT centre.

Hyde Park is criticised, usually by people who've never lived there, as a scuzzy area. In 1995, about 150 "youths" armed with petrol bombs began riots in response to the house raids happening at the time, roasting innumerable cars and the Jolly Buffer pub to a crisp in the process. And in the mid-2000s - as if Chestnut Avenue being branded the most burgled street in Britain wasn't good enough - police sounded out a suspected "bomb factory" on nearby Alexandra Grove following the 7/7 attacks by blitzing it with their own explosives.

So it might strike people as odd when they first encounter the Picture House. The kebab houses, student house parties and hungover walks of shame shouldn't fit in around this nickelodeon, yet they do. It's because the building is such a bold statement, holding court on its corner. Unlike multiplexes, Hyde Park Picture House approaches its audience. It stands right there in the middle of student living, forever providing them a den of reverie, and punters respect that.

The main draws are arts students and the like. Film makers societies will have socials here, Northern Film School choose it for their end of year show and Leeds College of Art uses it to host inductions for those in their foundation year. Yet when I meet volunteer-cum-administrator Ollie Jenkins, he makes quick work of quashing the idea that the Picture House box office is propped up by students.

"Obviously students are a really big audience, but they're not our only one," he says. "We have a really diverse crowd. A lot of them are graduates or local residents who have been coming since they were really young - people who are interested in the arts scene."

Actors like Paddy Considine and Adam Buxton have interviewed here; Mark Kermode is a champion of the Picture House, having done a series of Q&As over the years, and because of the choice interior, productions of TV shows and films are regularly shot within the building.

"A lot of things in here have been pinched from other cinemas," we're told on our tour of the auditorium (which seats 280) and projection room. The chairs and Victoria 8 projectors are both from The Lounge cinema in Headingley (shut down in 2005) and the clock beside the screen is from the 50s from The Gaumount cinema, which is now the 02 Academy.

"I guess for a lot of people coming here for the first time it's slightly unusual," Ollie tells me. "You can tell when someone's here who hasn't been here before 'cause they're looking around very wide-eyed and get really excited when they see there's a balcony. There aren't many cinemas that have that; it's more of a theatre thing."

The balcony's a novelty to people these days, but when the Picture House debuted as a cinema almost 100 years ago on the 7th of November, 1914, it was just the custom. What they were doing wasn't revolutionary, it was practical and considerate: its purpose, like numerous other cinemas across the country, was to screen newsreels from the Great War. There were 6,000 men from Leeds who had enlisted and their families - not literate enough for newspapers and, like the majority, unable to access radio - would be itching to know of their welfare. By the 30s, these cinemas still stood all over Britain, a lot of them in the communities and residential areas at the end of terraced housing blocks; places for the working class to get their fix of the world, fiction or non-fiction.

Sadly for me, but luckily for my word count, documentation of HPPH's mid-20th century affairs is pretty thin, as it never occurred to anyone working there that records would be of interest. What is known are the primary facts and the modern ones; the middle is patchy. We're aware that the cinema was first brandished in an advert in the Yorkshire Evening Post, declaring itself as the "Cosiest in Leeds", and that the first film screened was Their Only Son

Ollie tells me a lot of people say that the cinema closed for a little bit. "We heard recently that it became a bingo hall, which was news to us 'cause we thought it had never closed. Some old guy came and said: 'I remember when this place shut down and became a bingo hall for two years and I used to come every weekend.' He showed us pictures. He wasn't crazy or mad - he was telling the truth. He was in a photo of the day the elephant was here."

HPPH may have donned countless wigs and dresses over those wilderness years. No one knows for sure. It's in the 1980s when the story picks up again with the rise of multiplexes or, in some extreme cases, megaplexes. Out of the blue, cinemas were expected to quadruple in size - to provide noisy spectacles. What was the use of a double-feature when you could see a blockbuster in half that time that'll leave you slack-jawed? It was the beginnings of brash, compressed entertainment that we now choose to get through iPhone apps, and whose legacy is millennials getting angry when a web page takes longer than three seconds to load.

From his experience at Hyde Park Picture House, Ollie could see the effects. "What's happened over generations and over decades is that, in Leeds and across the UK, the number of indie cinemas like ours has dropped drastically. Over the years they've just died out because of the commercialisation. They just can't compete with the business model of multiplexes. We're only still around because we've been able to adapt and had support from the council so we could stay open."

It's weird that after two world wars, the dawn of TV, VHS, super cinemas and the internet, the only real and direct trouble came in 1989 when the place was threatened with closure. Surprisingly, in the midst of all that Americanisation, it was the city council who realised its significance and saved its bacon by polymerising it with two other landmarks in Leeds, forming the Grand Theatre and Opera House Ltd, a company dedicated to preserving the city's other important buildings.

Ollie tells me, in between handling door-knockers and delivery men every five minutes, that all things considered, HPPH is better than it's ever been. There's a waiting list for volunteers and showings are selling out every week. "We're in a really good position. Our audience attendance is really good. We want to be open in another 100 years time, but who knows. We'll have to work harder to convince people to leave their houses and pay money to see films in this environment. I think there'll always be people wanting that experience of coming together and seeing something and sharing that moment. Hopefully we'll be around to deliver it."

Thankfully, things have come full-circle a century in. To reference Generation Yawn would be flippant and imprecise (it's your fault if you make something twee and dreary) but an old movie house definitely matches the criteria of the current zeitgeist. The re-introducing of trim barnets and tailored suits has been a cultural landslide; dressing up smartly has trumped the days of the deliberate ragamuffin we saw in punk and grunge, and dropping out of university is no longer as much a statement of bohemia as it is an indictment of your money management.

I don't think cinemas are waning at all. These death rattles have been reported for decades: photography was supposed to eradicate painting, TV with radio, films with novels. Yet each and every one has stayed at hand in our culture. The way we experience certain films may change, but home entertainment hasn't wiped out cinemas yet. Movies might be modified, the stuff we actually go to see might become more passé and garish, but ask yourself: wouldn't you sooner watch something like that in a place like this?


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