By Weekend Editor Graham Chalmers
It’s not even noon but already four people have knocked on the door of the Curzon in Ripon.
This trendy arthouse cinema doesn’t open for half an hour but general manager Penny Hartley breaks off talking to me to open the door to talk to customers who’re a little too keen to see the first screening of the day.
As I’ll soon see when she kindly takes me on a personal tour round the building, this stylish new venue is the very definition of hi-tech and state-of-the-art.
Yet there’s something decidedly ‘Cinema Paradiso’ about what is only the second cinema London-based firm Curzon has opened outside the capital.
Based on North Street just along from Lockwoods restaurant, this 12,000 square foot venue looks ultra modern but feels like an old-fashioned community cinema.
“We’re not a multiplex and we’re not part of a large chain” says thirtysomething Penny, “we listen to ideas from the public and staff about what to show and how to improve things. Out staff are proud of the place.”
Run in a hands-on way by Penny, her deputy manager James Hare and duty manager Beverley Isherwood, things are going well enough at this new Curzon to start thinking about completing work on the ground-floor restaurant, private VIP area and cellar bar in this spacious property.
With seats for a total of only 100 in its two screens, it’s doubtful whether this sort of venue could have been cost-effective in the staff-intensive days of print reels and trained projectionists.
Digital has made all the difference and the cinema is thriving already in this close-knit community.
A film fan, herself, she worked at Cineworld in Stevenage before moving to the area 10 years ago, Penny seems like the right person in the right place at the right time.
It must also help that this busy beaver of a general manager built up many friends and contacts during her six years as manager of the city’s three museums.
Penny was one of the first volunteers for the Discover Ripon scheme to offer directions and information to tourists who are so vital to the city’s lifeblood.
And she was never shy of donning various historical costumes and throwing herself into acting roles whenever duty called at the Prison and Police Museum or The Workhouse. As she shows me round parts of the cinema which aren’t quite complete she unveils her vision of how what will be going on in each room of the Curzon Cinema.
It’s a venue packed with potential and it feels as if Ripon is ready to make the most of it.
“One or two people have said we look a bit posh but in general the reaction has been hugely positive since we opened.”
As people pop in and out, it’s possible to detect a genuine buzz about the arrival of new films and the programme of live satellite broadcasts by the RSC and National Theatre, in particular.
But the story of Curzon Ripon came about is far from straight-forward, almost as if the city was being asked to decided whether it really wanted the first such facility since the Palladium closed on Kirkgate more than 30 years ago.
And it’s not been without its problems, as Penny herself is happy to acknowledge.
“We’ve only been open just over two months and there have been teething troubles, which we’ve worked hard to put right. We want the Curzon to be perfect and we’re all very appreciative of people’s patience.”
Since Curzon Ripon opened on October 31 with a screening of National Theatre Live’s Frankenstein followed by a successful run of Philomena starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the talk hasn’t just been about the quality of the films.
There have been vague grumbles and moans from naysayers in certain quarters of Ripon.
Bearing in mind this ancient city’s proud role in English history for the past 1,300 years, it’s no surprise that a few should be cautious of change - even when it’s for the better.
Besides, the figures fly in the face of the doubters. In the short time since it opened, Curzon Ripon has built a membership of 1,000 people – though contrary to some rumours, movie fans do not have to sign up to be able simply to buy a ticket.
It’s a phenomenal number for a place of Ripon’s size. At one point, however, it seemed like it might never open.
The original idea was to create a community arts facility from scratch, converting the site of the former Abbott’s furniture store into a cinema on the ground floor with apartments on the floor above.
Local developers Sterne Properties threw themselves into the project but were hit with delays and problems with contractors.
Worked stalled and the dream seemed to be over. But Penny has nothing but praise for developers Simon and Martin Sterne and the £2 million transformation.
“It was their idea in the first place. If it wasn’t for them, Ripon wouldn’t have a cinema now. When Curzon got involved the building was pretty much what you see now. We were just at the right point of development to attract their interest.”
In a way Ripon is lucky to have the Curzon. This small, independent group could have picked anywhere in the UK.
It turns out Ripon has a similar demographic, to use the terminology, as somewhere else with its own Curzon – Richmond upon Thames.
Another possible piece of the jigsaw in the question of why Curzon chose Ripon of all other potential sites is the matter of local connections.
It seems the CEO of Curzon, Philip Knatchbull is the godson of Lord Crathorne who is the Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire.
But none of this really matters. It’s how Ripon utilises this great multi-purpose venue in the future which counts.
Already some local groups have started using of Curzon Ripon’s spare rooms for classes and rehearsals.
Ripon Film Society, too, decided recently to move its operations to the Curzon after 15 years at Ripon Leisure Centre.
Sitting in a comfy seat in the spacious Screen One while Penny gives me a preview of their next film. What a great picture. It’s not hard to be impressed.
It’s all a million miles away from Giuseppe Tornatore’s heart-warming Italian movie Cinema Paradiso, the 1989 Oscar-winner in which a young Sicilian boy falls in love with fims in his village’s ricketety picturehouse.
It may be a stylishly 21st century cinema but Curzon Ripon feels like the perfect place to fall in love with films, too.
Penyn said: “We’re all friendly people here and our first aim is to create a cosy atmosphere where everyone feels welcome. I still here some of our customers talking about how good Philomena was.”