Cottage Road Cinema – exterior

The Cottage Road Cinema opened on 29th July 1912. It is situated in the Leeds suburb of Headingley and when it opened there were about twenty-two film theatres in the city. By the height of the sound era the city had sixty-eight cinemas. Now the Cottage remains one of only two traditional cinemas in Leeds. Its 100th birthday was celebrated on the last Sunday in July with the erection of a ‘Blue Plaque’ and a special ‘classic’ screening. The event was assisted and supported by the Far Headingley Village Society who also produced an illustrated history of the cinema by Eveleigh Bradford.  The event was opened by the current proprietor Charles Morris, who owns and runs a chain of six independent cinemas in Yorkshire and Cumbria, Northern Morris Associated Cinemas. It is a sort of antique cinema ‘Roadshow’: The Plaza, Skipton and The Rex, Elland both also opened in 1912, [though only the Cottage and the Plaza have been exhibiting continuously]. And then the Picture House in Keighley has its own anniversary during 1913. The celebration also included short speeches from the staff and the Society, ending with a celebratory poem for the Centenary.

The actual screening commenced with a selection of Cinema advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s – including familiar names like Omo and Persil, but with a variety of other firms, including local businesses and holiday resorts. There were also Ministry of Information shorts from the 1940s, featuring the Crazy Gang and Charlie Chester. And some more recent adverts parodying film s like High Noon and Zulu. The patina of time gave these shorts clips an attraction and humour that contemporary clips lack.

The main feature was the 1967 black and white comedy The Smallest Show on Earth. The film was produced by Michael Relph and Basil Dearden. Early in their careers both had worked at the famous Ealing Studio, and the touch of that Production Company was replicated, with the small independent Bijou Kinema taking on the large and posh Grand Cinema. The two stars Bill Travers [Matt] and Virginia McKenna [Jean] played a middle class couple who inherits the Bijou from eccentric Uncle Spencer.

The film really takes off in the second reel when they [and we] see The Bijou and meet the Kinema staff – projectionist Quill played by Peter Sellars, the cashier Mrs Thazackalee played by Margaret Rutherford, and doorman/janitor Old Tom played by Bernard Miles. These three character actors are in their element and wring much humour from the state of the building, the equipment and the archaic management. When Matt queries complimentary tickets in exchange for a donation of a chicken, Mrs Thazackalee responds ‘well you can hardly send a third of a chicken to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.”  [A reference to the then contemporary Entertainment Tax].

The Bijou Kinema – interior

The Kinema itself is a beautiful piece of design and construction: with a baroque interior, dust and cobwebs everywhere, delightfully old-fashioned projectors and the exterior topped by a constantly askew sign. For the filming a façade was erected in Kilburn alongside an actual Railway Bridge. The interiors mixed studio sets with an actual contemporary cinema. And the rival Grand used the exterior of a Gaumont Theatre, then one of the major film circuits. All this was the work of Art Director Alan Harris and his team and the film was photographed by Douglas Slocombe.

The eccentric ways of the staff are beautifully counterpoint by the cinema audiences who suffer the travails of the screenings. They are realistic enough to be believable as a mainly working class audience in the late 1950s: but just enough over-the-top to be delightfully funny. The best sequences are when Matt and Jean attempts to improve the finances by ‘encouraging’ refreshment sales’. The screenings within the film appear to be from some actual B movies, westerns, but there is also a desert adventure which looks like it was specially shot for this feature. I thought I remembered an arctic adventure scene, but that did not appear in this print. The finest sequence is a private screenings by the staff of Cecil Hepworth’s Coming thru’ the Rye (1923) with Mrs Thazackalee accompanying on the piano. A lovely touch of nostalgia. Another fine moment is the end of a screening when the audience rushes for the exits in order to escape the National Anthem: only a lonely Quill stands to attention.

Inevitably the Grand stoop to skullduggery, but we know that the small guys’ will surely win through.

Sunday’s screening had an intermission halfway through the film, a traditional device in cinemas to bump up sales of soft drinks and ice creams. However, given the plot line of the feature this seemed quite appropriate. The screening of a worn but fairly good 35mm print was fine.

A great evening. The whole event was enjoyed by an almost capacity house (it seats 468), who applauded the introduction, applauded the advertisements, and finally applauded the feature. Hopefully the Cottage Road Cinema will survive to add to its long career.

There is more on the Cottage Road Cinema WebPages including a download for the illustrated history: other events are promised to follow:see