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The Phoenix, London

1 May 2014

Neha Kale meets the people running historic independent movie theatres

Perched on an unremarkable high street in northwest London, the Phoenix Cinema is a real-world testament to British film history. The elegant single-screen cinema, which also happens to be the United Kingdom’s oldest purpose-built movie theatre, has played host to everything from silent films set to live music and 1920s jazz movies to cult 1970s films such as Easy Rider, screened via a hulking two-reel projector. It’s 255-seat auditorium also doubled as a refuge for locals during the London Blitz. “The Phoenix was built in 1910, and in 2010 we completed a major centenary restoration project where everything was restored to its original beauty,” says Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, the cinema’s executive director. “The walls display incredible murals, and instead of wide seats with cup holders, we have old-fashioned seating in keeping with the style of the cinema. That’s what makes it unique.” However, that’s not the Phoenix’s only unusual feature. The cinema steers clear of the surly customer service that’s sometimes associated with multiplexes and prides itself on employing staff with a personal investment in the picturehouse’s future. “Our staff are all artists passionate about the part independent cinema plays in the community,” she explains. “If you’re standing in line to buy your ticket, they’re happy to talk to you about the film. It makes for a warm and intimate atmosphere.” The Phoenix also extends its focus beyond its regular attendees, working with local schools, holding special workshops and running a programme for people with autism. “We really believe that film is the most democratic of all the arts,” she says. “If you look at the history of cinema, it brought together people who didn’t speak the language, who were in a difficult economic situation or were trying to figure out what they were doing with their lives. It was a way reflecting the reality of the life they were living.” phoenixcinema.co.uk

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