Hidden Royston: Offscreen at the Royston Picture Palace

Behind doors – Offscreen at the Royston Picture Palace

When the Priory Cinema in Royston closed on 28 September 2000, after 67 years, there was a public campaign to keep it open.

Instead, nearly two years after the curtain had come down on Stuart Little (the film, not the mouse-like star) the building came down as well – demolished in August 2002. Out of the rubble came the Royston Picture Palace, opening its doors in the Town Hall building in June 2013 after a massive investment of time and money to make real a vision.

When the Oscars come to Royston, the awards should perhaps go to those working behind the scenes to bring the latest releases to film-goers, the most visible being the stewards – ever-present before, during, and after each show. But just as the show can’t go on without the stewards, that Royston has a ‘show’ at all is down to the hard work of other unsung local heroes whose names might justifiably be added to each long list of credits that roll at the end of the films we’ve enjoyed for the past five and a half years.

An afternoon with Geraint Burnell, manager of the Picture Palace confirms that the whole operation is so much more than a labour of love. My visit is well-timed to see the conversion of Hardwicke Hall into a cinema auditorium and a sneak peek inside the projection box (spoiler alert – no one sits in there when the film is running).

An alarm sounds and instinctively I look out for a reversing truck. Remembering I’m in the Town Hall, I realise it tells me the seating is emerging from under the balcony – like some sort of multi-storey bedding platform for 100 unexpected guests. The seats are raised and secured by hand and safety barriers are slotted in place to contain any dramas in the darkness to the big screen at the front.

As the projection box at the back of the balcony is unlocked, I half expect to see ‘the projectionist that time forgot’ (good title for a Christopher Lee epic, I think to myself). Instead I’m confronted by a mass of cables, flashing lights and screens that fill the space – not a human being in sight. The technology has, of course, moved on and an increasing number of films can be downloaded remotely by satellite. Not a film reel in sight but, in a wonderful throwback to the ‘good old days’, the films that are sent for physical download arrive inside a box, inside the old 35mm film reel cases. A small item – the size of an old video cartridge – inside a small box, inside a large case; I’m thinking of a major online retailer supplying a traditional Russian doll.

Once uploaded, the films are programmed in to the whole evening’s entertainment from the film trailers, refreshment and business ads, size adjustments for the screen area. I get the impression it would be possible to programme in audience coughs and sneezes and late arrivals if required!  My guide Geraint gives me a further glimpse of the future… “There’s always the potential for problems, so everything starts automatically at a set time.” Which is not to say a human can’t come to the rescue if the technology goes wrong! A CCTV camera on the Picture Palace cinema screen feeds back to Saffron Screen in Saffron Walden and, if need be, the Performance Manager can call on their technician to intervene to fix the problem remotely.

I’m starting to build a picture of the scale of investment into getting the building fit for 21st century film-showing from my guide’s running-costs commentary. There’s the retractable seating (over £40,000), floor strengthening to accommodate the seating system, the air conditioning, the technology and equipment (projector and sound system around £70,000, £22,000 for the screen), 4000 metres of power cabling. The list goes on and Geraint adds other set-up costs I’d never even thought about. “All the windows were replaced when we developed the cinema for sound-proofing – in both directions… to minimise traffic noise and disturbance to neighbours.”

I’m also interested in the broader economics of developing a community enterprise on this scale. Even writing-off the initial investment before the first tickets were sold, I learn that the cinema capacity and programming means the Picture Palace could never be sustained as a ‘commercial venture’. Geraint suggests that a profit-making cinema needs to have at least 200 seats and 7 screenings a week. With only 134 seats and an average 2-3 screenings a week throughout the year at the Picture Palace, the pressure is on to find films that can fill cinema seats at a price people can afford.

The art of selecting ‘popular’ films for Royston cinema-goers is, perhaps surprisingly, an inexact science, as Geraint explains: “We think we know what people will like and then they go and surprise us – in both good and bad ways. Even the film-makers can be surprised.” Reflecting on the most successful films of the past 12 month, Geraint hints at the ingredients for a Royston success, summarised as – feel good, British focus with home-grown, well-known acting talent. But even then, a well-reviewed film with those elements can play to a half empty house in Royston.

In the past 12 months, close to 10,000 ticket-buyers have shown their support for this community initiative enjoying the latest releases; the top five films for the past year being

  1. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
  2. Bohemian Rhapsody
  3. Darkest Hour
  4. Paddington 2
  5. Finding Your Feet

And as the credits roll and film fans leave the auditorium, uplifted or down-hearted, there’s always a friendly farewell from the volunteer stewards. Carl Filby is a new recruit to one of the six teams that fill the rotas for each of the weekend performances. As the recently elected Chair of Creative Royston, he obviously sees the artistic merit of bringing quality films to our cinema-going community, but Carl also values other aspects of the Picture Palace venture. “It provides the latest films at affordable prices for people who may find it difficult or too costly to travel further afield.” And if the sustained success of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is anything to go by, age has not dimmed the cinema-going enthusiasm of the town’s Freddie Mercury fans!

For the latest release on show at the Royston Picture Palace, go to http://roystonpicturepalace.org.uk