Film fans celebrate reel life in Hebden Bridge
The Calder Valley community is rallying round to save a local picture house, as Penny Wainwright discovers Photographs by John Cocks
It was standing room only at the meeting to consider the future of Hebden Bridge’s Picture House. Even in this part of the Calder Valley, where community involvement is practically in the DNA, feelings ran high. So why are people so keen to save their local cinema?
When it first opened its doors in 1921, the Picture House, with its imposing stone classical frontage and astonishing 900-seat capacity, became the centre of entertainment for mill-workers and other locals.In the Sixties it narrowly escaped conversion to a carpet warehouse and, since then, has enjoyed rare success for a cinema under local authority control.
It shows up to 26 films a month, everything from Hollywood blockbusters to art-house movies, and enjoys the kind of friendly, typically Calder Valley atmosphere that marks it out as special. ‘Where else can you get a china mug of tea and a homemade cake while you watch the film?’ says one regular.
Former manager Jen Skinner, now film education officer at the National Media Museum in Bradford, says: ‘It has an old-fashioned, magical interior with red plush seats and curtains. There’s good leg-room because every other row of seats was taken out. Everyone comments on the tea and cake.
‘The staff have been there a long time and care about the Picture House; they’re part of the character of the place. They know everyone who comes in, and can spot new faces and make them feel welcome.
‘In my present job I get to meet people around the country and I only hear good things about the Picture House. It’s well regarded in the industry.’
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The Picture House hosts community events like the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival (see our separate feature).
‘There have been some fantastic bands,’ says former duty manager Kerry McQuade, ‘and comedians like Jeremy Hardy and Linda Smith have performed here. But every bit of the building has needed work for a long time. The roof leaks, the toilets are an embarrassment and the seats are old – the ones upstairs originally came from Sadler’s Wells.’
Though not short of bums on seats, the Picture House now needs the kind of investment that local authorities cannot justify to taxpayers – more than �400,000 to bring the building up to a decent standard and change the projection system to digital.
Concerned that Calderdale Council, though sympathetic, simply wouldn’t be able to fund such a level of investment, Hebden Royd Town Council and Hebden Bridge Community Association, with the support of other parish councils and community groups locally, came up with a proposal to transfer the asset to community ownership. Hebden Bridge’s Town Hall was transferred in similar fashion last year and has since gone on to attract more than �3 million towards development.
Some local people complained that the move was premature – ‘the funeral directors have turned up before the patient has died’ was how one put it. But only one hand went up against the proposal at the public meeting and now Calderdale Council has delegated two officers to negotiate how the cinema will be run if it’s transferred to community ownership before a final decision is made in December.
Jason Boom, clerk to Hebden Royd Town Council, says: ‘Issues of governance will need to be sorted out and there should be public engagement with this, so we intend to relaunch the Friends of the Picture House.’
Without council ownership, where will the money for essential upgrades come from?
‘There are various funding streams,’ says Jason. ‘We could apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund, for a performance reward grant from Calderdale Council or to the Public Works Loan Board which offers very low rates of interest.
‘But remember, this is a business and will make money. There’ll be a paid manager, and our first month’s worth of takings should fund staff wages and film rental.’
Up to now, the Picture House has generally broken even while paying a levy to the council.
‘When it made any profit the money went into a central pot,’ says Kerry. ‘It couldn’t be put back into the business, so there wasn’t much incentive.’
There will, however, be plenty of incentive if Hebden Bridge finds itself the proud new owner of the Picture House. And as Jason Boom stresses: ‘There are many active organisations involved.’
And you can’t get much more active than Hebden Bridge.
Getting there: by train, Hebden Bridge is 12 minutes from Halifax and 25 minutes from Bradford (northernrail.org). If you’re going by bus, it’s 30 minutes from Halifax (wymetro.com). Any by car, it’s 13 miles from the M62 and M65.
Where to park: there are seven car parks dotted around town, and Station Road is free on Saturdays (calderdale.gov.uk).
What to do: follow a town trail, �2 from the visitor centre, to learn about the story of textiles through the town’s buildings; explore the shops – antiques, crafts, books, fashion; stroll by the canal; walk up to Hardcastle Crags or further afield – the Pennine and Calderdale Ways pass close by.