Taken on the Isle of Mull.
After almost three years of refurbishing work, the Ultimate Picture Palace’s restoration project is close to completion. I talked to owner Becky Hallsmith about her time at UPP, their recent Oxford Preservation Trust award, and their current Kickstarter campaign to fund new seating.
How did you come to be the owner of the UPP, and what drew you to running an independent cinema in the first place?
It’s basically because I’m local. I didn’t have plans to run a cinema, but I live in East Oxford and absolutely adored the UPP, so when it came up for sale I slightly panicked about the thought of it turning into a cinema chain. On an impulse, I contacted the then-owners and said, ‘If you haven’t got a buyer I’m interested.’ It was a very sudden thing. I’m just someone who loves film and loved the UPP, and thought I had the skill needed. When I took over I knew nothing about running a cinema, and I knew nothing about booking or scheduling films, but I seem to have picked it up rather quickly. I was really lucky that I inherited a great cinema manager, James Howard, along with the business.
For you, what should the goal of running an independent cinema be?
Independent cinemas are not profit-making businesses so I think that you have to forget about being a profit-led businessperson. From my point of view, if the cinema breaks even and I don’t lose the shirt off my back when I come out of it at the other end, I will be happy. Without the volunteers I wouldn’t be able to keep this place going. I think the answer to your question is probably that you have to love film, and you have to care about people seeing the sorts of films that you love. That’s going to be where you get your satisfaction from; it’s not going to be from the money you’re going to be spending on your cruise holidays.
Do you aim to draw as many people to see new films as possible?
Well not necessarily new. Our programming is on the independent, ‘art house’ side of things, also with classic films. We’re not averse to showing the odd blockbuster if we think there’s a reason for showing it. Our goal is to encourage a love of film that makes people think a bit, not just those acting as a wash of entertainment. It’s the films you can get enthusiastic about that give you such pleasure to watch, and it’s one of those pleasures that one wants to share. Kid’s Club is on at the moment, and we have a lot of fun with that because we can programme classics for them. The pleasure I get from watching a five-year-old roaring with laughter at a Laurel and Hardy film is wonderful, because that’s getting young children to appreciate really good film.
Do you think that there should be funding made available for independent cinemas?
There is funding available for cinemas, and a lot of the independent cinemas do rely heavily on funding from Europe, from the British Film Institute, and from the lottery. The only other privately owned cinema that I’m aware of that doesn’t get any grant money is Prince Charles in London. My first priorities with the UPP have been fixing it up and building the audience. Nobody’s going to take you seriously and give you any grant money without a viable proposition, so I’m now beginning to stick my neck above the parapet and make our presence known on a national level. There are certain films, such as independent and documentary films, which I think really need to get an airing, but it is quite difficult to build an audience for them. I personally can’t subsidise that many screenings, so do plan to start to apply for funding.
What do you think the future is for independent cinema?
I think it’s pretty healthy at present, but as with anything you never know what is around the corner that might affect your business. At the moment, people are coming to the cinema and our kind of cinema seems to be thriving and there is a real appetite among a certain strata of cinemagoers for intelligent film. So long as there are great films being made, people will want to come and see them.
Recently the UPP were involved in OxDox Festival, and you mentioned that documentaries are sometimes confined to specialised screenings.
There has been a resurgence of documentary into the cinema since I’ve been at the UPP, which is almost three years. During my first year here, there were very few documentaries on the horizon, but there seem to be a lot now that are getting a wider release. The distribution model tends to be a small window of theatrical release, acting as publicity, then moving fairly quickly onto DVD, and then onto television. For example, Blackfish was on television this week, and we showed that at the beginning of October. We’re in Oxford, which is a very unique city, and I think in many ways the reason that both the UPP and the Phoenix thrive is because we have this cosmopolitan population here.
What limitations and liberations arise from being an independent cinema in terms of what films you schedule?
Absolute liberation, because we can choose what we like. We are an off-the-date cinema, so we’ll never get a film in its week of release. In many ways that gives us quite a strong position because it does mean that we can read the reviews and see the box-office figures before we book a film. The downside is that most people would have been to see a film before it gets to us, and the further away from release date a film gets, the smaller the audience size. Being independent, I’m not on an agenda and I’m programming locally, so I can be responsive to what I know will go down well here in Oxford. A lot of the independent cinemas in this country are programmed by City Screen, from head office, so the people booking the films don’t see who is walking through the door of the cinemas that they’re programming for.
How fair do you think the equating of ‘independent’ with ‘art house’ is?
Well, the two biggest grossing British independent films recently are The King’s Speech and The Inbetweeners Movie, so the idea that it has to be ‘art house’ to be ‘independent’ is often quite erroneous. I think that things have moved on, but nobody has come up with a better term than ‘art house’ to describe the sort of cinema that we are. As the audience has broadened the programming has done too.
The UPP recently received an award from the Oxford Preservation Trust – why did the UPP receive the award, and what benefits might this have for the UPP?
When I took over the cinema it was really dilapidated, and in my first few months I was getting sick of people coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, what a surprise, you are open!’, so I knew that one of the first things that we had to do was to fix up the outside. The biggest advertising for any retail business is the shop front, so we needed to get that right to try and boost the business. The UPP is a listed building so what we could do was of fairly limited scope, but I got some good advice from the council. The planning officer, Sarah Billam, came to see me and told me about the lighting scheme down at The Plain on the fountain, which was done by a company called DPA Lighting. One of their designers lives locally and was very keen to do the UPP project. I think they really found it an attractive job to do because it was a small project, it was creative, and I was very open to suggestions in a way that a large firm might not have been. The timing of the award is great because we are trying to finish the renovation of the cinema, and of course there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The last big thing we have to fix is the seats, and it’s nice to have this fillip that something we’ve done along the way has been recognised, and it gives me that extra confidence to say, ‘Okay, let’s finish this job off.’
The UPP are launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund the seating.
Kickstarter is a crowd-source funding website, and it’s probably the best known one. There has been a lot of talk about Kickstarter in the press, about whether Zach Braff and Spike Lee should be going to Kickstarter to finance their movies, which I think is missing the point slightly. It’s nice to involve people who want to be involved in projects. For us the Kickstarter campaign is about giving people in the local community a stake in the future of the cinema. The community support for the UPP has always been really strong, and it’s been lovely for me that people are coming forward and responding to the campaign. And when the campaign is over and the seats installed, we can all relax into the fun part of running a cinema: the programming, watching the films, and having time to chat with our audience.
The UPP’s Kickstarter campaign ‘Some Like it Soft’ can be found here. The UPP are offering ‘treats’ for pledges of £15 (a ticket to a film screening marking the ‘premiere’ of the new seats), £25 (a custom-made UPP T-shirt), £60 (an engraved seat plaque), £150 (be a projectionist for an evening), £275 (a year’s worth of free tickets), and £400 (the chance to programme a season of classic films), but any sized pledges are welcome. The project will only be funded if at least £6,000 is pledged by Wednesday December 18th.
For up-to-date cinema listings and to book tickets for any other films currently showing please follow these links: Phoenix Picturehouse; Ultimate Picture Palace; Odeon George St; Odeon Magdalen St. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at email@example.com
Posted in Film, J. Wadsworth | Tagged British Film Institute, cinema, film, independent cinema, Kickstarter, OxDox, Oxford, The Inbetweeners Movie, The King's Speech, Ultimate Picture Palace | Leave a Comment »
Handel’s opera Hercules, composed in 1744, promises an evening of extreme catharsis. The drama focuses upon Hercules’s wife, Dejanira, as we follow her despair at his absence, joy at his homecoming, jealousy of the beautiful Iole, and guilt and self-loathing as she realises that through this misplaced jealousy she has unintentionally murdered her husband. Oxford Opera’s rendition, fully staged at St John the Evangelist church, managed this emotional rollercoaster with subtlety and flair whilst managing to bring a certain humour to the lighter moments.
All of the five soloists handled their parts sensitively, maintaining not only vocal but emotional balance throughout. David Le Provost’s appearance as Hercules was spectacular, bringing all the airs of arrogance and self-content needed to the role. His aria ‘Now farewell, arms!’ was a particular highlight, managing to appear inebriated whilst maintaining technical control of the semiquaver passages. His acting and vocal prowess was complemented by Tara Mansfield as Iole, the princess taken captive by Hercules. Unfortunately however there were some tuning issues in the orchestra, and moments where the interaction between soloist and orchestra could have been tighter despite excellent musical direction from James Potter.
The modern staging worked well overall, and allowed for some interesting effects such as staging a nightclub-style party behind Iole during her opening aria. Having her sing of her sorrow and isolation whilst distanced from the flashing lights and jollity of Hercules’ homecoming was particularly effective, as were the majority of the lighting decisions in general. St John’s church provided an atmospheric setting for the drama, the lights bouncing off the cavernous roof to create spectacular shadows that loomed over the drama. Somewhat more dubious directorial decisions involved having Dejanira (Johanna Harrison) tear up a newspaper during one of her arias. Number operas such as Hercules, with vast amounts of time to fill while one soloist’s vocal prowess is showcased, present the contemporary director with numerous challenges that in this case were not always fully met. While the symbolism of her shredding the bad news that the papers brought her was appropriate, as a dramatic device it somewhat lost its impact when repeated for the full duration of the aria.
This rendition of Hercules boasts strong soloists, inventive staging, and superb acting. Despite some moments that were less convincing and coherent than they might have been, it remains an exciting student production.
L. C. Broad
Benjamin Britten’s centenary week may have come and gone, but this anniversary is still proving to be the impetus behind many of the more exciting events that are happening in Oxford. This is reflected in my concert of the week: Matthew Barley – Around Britten (Fri Nov 29th, 7:30pm, Holywell Music Room). The core of the programme is Britten’s Third Cello Suite, a reflection on death and mortality that ends with the deeply moving simplicity of the Kontakion (the Russian funeral rite). Drawing on Bach’s Cello Suite no. 5 and contemporary music by James MacMillan and others, Barley has created a programme with a suggestive narrative shape; this Cycle of the Soul consists of Pre-existence, Life, Death, Afterlife, Reincarnation. Characteristically reflective and spiritual music by John Tavener, who sadly passed away this month, has also featured in the tour.
Although he performs alone as a solo cellist, Barley enhances this medium through technology in two ways. Firstly, works by Dai Fujikura and Jan Bang create an electronic soundscape, from which emerges the free, improvisatory solo cello line, evoking the timeless worlds of Pre-existence and Afterlife. Secondly, Britten’s suite is accompanied by a newly commissioned set of beautifully suggestive visuals by production company Yeast Culture, controlled with a foot pedal by Barley himself as he plays.
The cellist has taken this exciting programme to over fifty venues all over the country this year, in honour of the Britten centenary. One of his goals in this project is to place this music in new and unusual settings, from schools to cathedrals to the South Foreland Lighthouse that overlooks the white cliffs of Dover. This concert at the Holywell Music Room is the penultimate date on this tour, before Barley’s final performance at the Red House in Aldeburgh, where Britten lived and worked, to mark the anniversary of the death of the composer whose music for the cello inspired the project. I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of this programme at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham in September. The concepts behind this tour are bold and striking, but not nearly so much as Barley’s engrossing playing. Not to be missed.
For more information about Matthew Barley and ‘Around Britten’, please visit his website.
Colour photographs: Canon a1, 28mm, AGFA Vista Plus. Black and white: Hasselblad 500c/m, 80mm, Ilford hp5+
More of Alex’s photographs are available on his website
Every Rough-Hewn production that I’ve seen has opened by throwing you straight into the drama. Rather than face the stage curtain upon entering the theatre, at least one of the actors is present on stage. The intimacy of the Pilch studio particularly lends itself to this style of presentation, the erosion of the performance/audience barrier suiting Rough-Hewn’s stated aim to present ‘visceral’ and ‘inescapable’ performances. The sensation that you have in some way intruded, as an audience member, upon a private moment or even another world is particularly appropriate for the latest production in their Wasted Earth season, Shells, by Howard Coase. A disorienting kaleidoscope of scenes and suggestions, the close of the play leaves you still trying to piece together the missing elements.
Lewis (James Kitchin) sits, shaking, in an armchair surrounded by sand. The world is slowly being submerged and he and his companion, Ben (Harley Viveash), are trying to survive. They are in the employ of an elusive character who, as we eventually learn with the arrival of Helen, needs them to look after the rare and precious remaining fertile women. Lewis and Ben’s opening scene was brilliantly executed, bringing out the sharp and darkly comic humour of the script as the two characters play off each other’s weaknesses. Kitchin’s performance as Lewis was spectacular, his final descent into madness thoroughly believable in the context of his neurotic fragility throughout the play. While he was equally matched by Viveash, unfortunately Rebecca Banatvala as Helen and Anirudh Mathur as Adam did not seem to have the same fluidity and seemed a little uncomfortable in their characters. While there were moments of tenderness in their brief scene, Mathur lacked the menace of someone supposedly in control of so many lives. This is perhaps in part due to the script; the manner in which Adam is referred to by Lewis and Ben suggests an absent puppet-master, that they are being manipulated by a higher power whose reality (and motives) the audience is left in doubt of. Therefore his appearance as a remarkably present and human force seemed a little incongruous, despite the fact that the play is focused upon humanity’s potential for manipulation and complete lack of compassion.
The dystopian landscape envisioned by Coase was effectively evoked by the sparse set and lighting design. The script was particularly thought-provoking, raising many uncomfortable questions: does it take destruction for humans to recognise beauty in nature? can we sustain our current way of living without destroying our environment? how does humanity change its values when threatened? at what point does love become a destructive obsession? However, the gaps left in providing the context for these questions left the dramatic climax a little undermined. Whilst the dialogue throughout was sharp, witty, and unsettling, the picture of this dystopia gained by the end of the play, and thus the full impact of its consequences, was a little too incomplete to be as fully convincing as the previous installment of the Wasted Earth season, Foxfinder. At only 90 minutes long, Shells could perhaps have benefitted from an extra 30 minutes of writing to give some weight to the numerous themes that it attempted to address.
With echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Shells is an intriguing addition to a vast repertoire of dystopian plays; the writing remains compelling despite the numerous ambiguities and strands left floating at the close. With some truly fantastic performances and artistic direction, this production will certainly leave you asking: what would you do if there was not enough earth for the people on it?
L. C. Broad
Posted in Drama & Literature, L. C. Broad | Tagged Anirudh Mathur, Drama, dystopia, Harley Viveash, Howard Coase, James Kitchin, Oxford, play, Rebecca Banatvala, Rough-Hewn, Shells | Leave a Comment »