Tyneside Cinema is nothing short of a cultural beacon. Rooted firmly on a lean alleyway off Newcastle’s Pilgrim Street, it continues to stand tall even in its 80th year – draped in a satisfying mix of original art-deco furnishings and fresh, jagged modernity. For me, the Tyneside provided a formal introduction to the immersive world of North East culture: after flitting to and from the cinema for a number of years, a brief work placement there enabled me to kick-start my writing career, igniting a lifelong passion for independent arts.
Yet, this notion of the cinema as a transmitter of new ideas is far from a fresh one. Unveiled as Newcastle’s first news theatre in 1937 by Dixon Scott – great uncle to the now infamous filmmakers Tony and Ridley – it served a grand purpose. Through his creation, Scott brought striking visual information to the people of the North East long before each home would have access to a television set. Voluntary heritage guide and self-proclaimed Tyneside fanatic Margaret Dodds describes the cinema’s early days with vivid candour.
“The idea was that they would show 75-minute newsreels, on a continuous loop, and people could come and go and stay as long as they liked. Just look at where it’s situated – right in the centre of town, alongside two busy streets. So, If you were waiting for the bus or a friend or whatever, you could stay and watch the news – all at a cost of just sixpence downstairs and a shilling upstairs.”
Interestingly, the Tyneside continued to operate in this capacity from 1937 to 1968. Whilst vintage newsreels are still shown there (as the last surviving cinema in the UK to do so), Margaret goes on to explain that it was very different to the cinema of today.
“They would show the programme from half past nine in the morning until late at night. It showed audiences what was happening in the world – of course, I say this loosely, as it could take up to a fortnight to get news on the screen. They’d have to film it, process it, copy it, and then would be sent out to theatres.
All sorts of things would be covered – the royal family, sport, events, funny stories, and a great deal of the war during the 1940s. Originally, this was the way people got their information – whilst television had been invented, only around 20,000 people around Alexandra Palace could actually access it. For example, the very first film we showed after the re-opening in 2008 was of the Hindenburg disaster. That occurred in May 1937, just after the Tyneside was opened. You can almost imagine the audience in the classic theatre looking on in awe, amazement and horror at this awful tragedy, because they could actually see it on screen for the first time.”
As television news became more commonplace in the late 50s and 60s, the cinema entered a period of steady decline. However, thanks to the dedication of local film societies, it began to subtly flourish as an increasingly popular arthouse hotspot.
“Film societies would usually meet on a Sunday, because that was when it was quiet. They would hire out the small screen and show films of their choosing, as well as hire out the bar. The largest of these societies was the Tyneside filmgoers group – In the 50s, they were the biggest film society outside of London! That signalled the beginning of this place as the arthouse cinema we have nowadays.”
Today, artistic independence and the duty to inform both co-exist as the Tyneside’s two core objectives. After years of renovation that included a brief closure between 2006 and 2008, it now exists as not only a multi-screen cinema, but an immersive gallery, restaurant, theatre and arts space. The year ahead is set to be fraught with celebratory events that promote all aspects of the momentous institution. One has already been particularly significant, as the Tyneside’s own Chris Claytor-Scott explains.
“Last month, we had an event called ‘Gimme Shelter’ that focused on climate change, migration and the refugee crisis. It’s the way we want to direct our film programme in the future – focusing on current issues that are really affecting people right now, though they may not realise how much it affects them. When people hear about the refugee crisis, they think it’s something happening in a distant country, and it’s having no impact on their lives. But actually, it’s extremely relevant, and we want to reflect that in our programme.”
Of course, the Tyneside’s influence isn’t limited to raising awareness of pressing international issues. The cinema has also been seen to lend a helping hand to young local artists and filmmakers, looking to get their foot in the door of a tricky industry.
Katherine Hanratty, a film student at the university of Westminster, cites the Tyneside’s film school Northern Stars as an incredible influence on her artistic career.
“I attended the film school when I was 15 years old. It taught me so much and really helped boost my confidence, because I was so quiet and shy at the time – I never thought I’d be able to produce a film, never mind present it to an audience on the Classic screen!
Thanks to Northern Stars and the experience they gave me, I was successful in applying for a BFI course held at the National Film and Television School – one of my proudest achievements to date.”
It’s only natural to wonder what Dixon Scott would think of his beloved theatre as it stands today. From relatively humble beginnings as a small newsreel cinema, the Tyneside has since bloomed into a rich meadow of culture: thanks to the passionate dedication of its patrons, visitors and employees, the impressive evolution from news theatre to intimate cultural hub is one that it is sure to endure for a further 80 years.