Happy 100th Birthday, UPP! Feb 24, 2011
Celebrate with free screenings of The Smallest Show On Earth and The Ultimate Survivor (new documentary story of the UPP)
It hasn't been a cinema all through (unlike the North Oxford Kinema, est 1913 - now The Phoenix) but this significant anniversary is about more than just one building. It really marks a century of cinema-going, which has lasted a turbulent time, surviving wars and competition as technology moves on.
After the First World War more and larger cinemas were built, and competition was too much for most of the first wave. The Oxford Picture Palace was no exception, and was closed by 1920. It then spent a long period empty, or acting as a furniture store, surprising given its proximity to Cowley Rd which bustled even then. It seems to have been abandoned pretty much intact.
During one of its empty periods it was briefly the site of a historic battle between some protesting squatters and the police. The squatters took over a house on East Avenue, and also the OPP, as a distraction. While they were there they showed some films, and even charged entry, so the council promptly responded by sending a bill for business rates. In Isolarion (a literary journey along the Cowley Rd) James Attlee describes this snippet of history beautifully.
Films and body parts
1976 - 1994Bill Heine was running a cinema in Headington, the Moulin Rouge, and added the OPP to his empire in the mid 70s, changing its name to the PPP, or Penultimate Picture Palace. The Moulin Rouge had cancan legs, and the PPP Al Jolson hands. The legs got complaints and had to be exported to Brighton, where Heine had a third cinema. The various body parts were made by John Buckley, whose most famous collaboration with Heine is The Shark, Headington's infamous landmark.
Eventually Heine closed the PPP and it stood empty for two years in the mid 90s. These were dark days for Cowley Rd generally but the abandoned cinema seemed a step too far. Squatters moved in, highlighting its sad plight, and a public outcry moved things on a bit, helping it to become listed and to add a clause to the lease saying it must be a cinema. In 1996 Saied Marham took up the reins, and the PPP became the UPP, the Ultimate Picture Palace.
4th June 1996 - 14th July 2009In the late 90s when I came to Oxford as a student the UPP showed a season of Monty Python films on Sunday nights. People were known to come from miles away to watch such beloved films on the big screen, and for Saied it was not just about what someone might want to see but about what needed to be shown. He juggled mainstream cinema, arthouse, and forgotten masterpieces such as the Maxim Gorky trilogy (a series of films based on the Russian socialist's autobiography and released between 1938-1940). This series was not so well attended as Monty Python, but one grateful patron told Saied he had waited 40 years to see them all.
In subsequent years I saw Citizen Kane, Hitchcock's Notorious, The Devil Wears Prada and the Star Trek prequel. All were enhanced by the UPP's conviviality, occasional clangs from the projector, extraordinarily good value Membership deals and Saied's habit of starting late (once even waiting for us to finish a takeaway on the bench outside before he set the reels rolling).
In July 2009 Saied passed the baton to Jane and Philippa. There was a long and friendly handover, while old hand Saied inducted the new owners, new not only to the UPP but to cinema management and even to the Cowley Road. Saied remembers his UPP days fondly, but has now moved on to new challenges. He doesn't want to be remembered as a one-hit wonder, but I'm afraid for many of us he'll always be associated with more than a decade of cinematic experiences.
Jane and Philippa
2009 - 2011Jane and Philippa really fell for the UPP, both as a cinema and as a building. They've continued in the same vein enough to please the old guard, while introducing more comfort and sprucing the place up a bit. More recent advances include G&D's icecream and haribo, as well a beautiful bar with drinks on sale and glasses on loan. I'm a bit sad they got rid of the old seats where every other one was numbered 13, but the new ones are comfy and have more legroom. They were bought on ebay, and made it up from Cornwall on a mad dash 24-hour trip. With help from the garage next door they were installed ready for the day's 5.30 showing.
This sense of camaraderie is something Jane really appreciates. At first the fridge worked on an honesty system, and the money always added up. And once they had to ask if there was a projectionist in the house, when Bob (regular projectionist since 1981) was ill.
It's not just the clients who rally round - for the distributors the UPP is a quirky anomale: the only cinema on their books with just one screen, with no digital projector, independently run... the list goes on. And yet Momentum still waited for their box office returns, hoping it would help them reach their target of £30 million cumulative takings for The King's Speech. When The Guardian ran a nice article on the UPP congratulations came in from some of the largest distributors. So, small, but not forgotten.
Fan groups of the UPP include party-goers who want a film screening as part of the festivities - they can specify that they want to watch the first half, stop to eat cake, turn down the volume on Pierce Brosnan's singing, and so on. School groups come from local primaries, to see film versions of the books they're studying. They enjoy the history of the UPP, especially the history of the toilets, and all the thank you letters include this as a highlight!
And then there are the projectionists. While the technology may be being phased out in most places the enthusiasm is not, and there is now a small but growing fraternity who visit not for the film but the projection room. They're trained up by Bob (and by main projectionist and manager James) keeping the skills alive.
And the future?Jane and Philippa are still deciding how long to stay. But even if they're going somewhere, the UPP isn't. It's still got a lot of life in for a (very near) centenarian. It is still well-known, and well-loved by generations of students glad to live nearby, East Oxford locals, and lovers of idiosyncrasy everywhere. Its schedule still includes mainstream films just after they've closed elsewhere which is helpful, combined with old classics and occasional documentary festivals.
It still has no digital projector and no plans for one. So if the Valentine's screening of Brief Encounter is a little hazy it's because they've borrowed the original 35mm film from the British Film Institute. Just think of it as added atmosphere, fogging from the tears of everyone else who's ever watched it.
There's no cinema like it. It's not just its quirks, but the vivid impression that it exists not to line anyone's pocket, but because people love films. Long may its loving and patient owners continue dashing up and down the ladder, hoisting the cinematic flag high above the Cowley Road.