“Cinema is my happy place”: Francis Lee celebrates cinemas as community spaces

For #MyDreamPalace, the director of God’s Own Country and Ammonite honours Leeds’s Hyde Park Picture House and HOME in Manchester – and reveres the irreplaceable big-screen experience.

20 November 2020

By Francis Lee

Sight and Sound
Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds
© Photograph by Thomas Morris

Ammonite is in cinemas in the US and coming soon to the UK.

I don’t have a television so the only way I watch films is on the big screen. Before lockdown I would go to the cinema four, five, even six times a week. I’ll watch anything and everything. Cinema is my happy place. It’s somewhere I can hide. I can engage emotionally with the characters on screen. I can go on that journey. I can laugh. I can cry in those dark spaces. Without that, it’s been tough.

Hyde Park Picture House's Cinemeccanica 35mm projector
© Photograph by Thomas Morris

My favourite cinema is the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, West Yorkshire. It’s a single screen Edwardian Picture Palace. It’s the only cinema in the country that still has gas lighting. They were about to embark on a fantastic and very sympathetic restoration of their building this year but then Covid hit. They are currently doing screenings as a peripatetic space. 

Hyde Park Picture House is run by a fantastic programmer called Wendy Cook who brings independent cinema to Leeds. She plays classics too – the first film I ever saw there was It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas. As well as offering a wonderful cinematic experience, Hyde Park Picture House really engages with the community. They have screenings for people with special needs, they do outreach work and even a furniture exchange initiative for students who are leaving University. 

It’s played such an important role to me as a cinema-goer: it’s the first place I saw Working Girl on the big screen. That’s my favourite film. But it’s also been so important to my career. It was the cinema that first played my short films as part of the Leeds International Film Festival. I’ve edited both of my features in the village down the road from where I live (my poor editor has to move to Yorkshire). Hyde Park Picture House is the place we go to watch the film on the big screen while we’re in the editing process. 

Sitting in front of a massive screen, being immersed and surrounded by a story, characters, sounds, and with other people, is far too valuable a human experience to give up on.

My second favourite cinema is the Vue in Halifax. That’s my nearest multiplex. I really love blockbusters and big action movies. The Vue has incredible sound and nine screens. It’s £4.99 a ticket. So you can see two films a day. If you’re clever you can find cheap parking round the corner behind the Bingo hall. I have been during Covid and the staff have been incredible. They’ve really gone out of their way to be as safe as possible.

HOME, Manchester

Another favourite is Home in Manchester, run by Jason Wood. It’s one of the few places that will play small independent British films on the big screen. They have a gallery, theatre, cinema – it’s one of those places where you can spend a whole day out. It has a special place in my heart as they played God’s Own Country for a full six months. 

The first time I went back into a cinema after lockdown was to see Tenet at the Halifax Vue. I was pretty emotional. And very happy. I was also so impressed by how safe and easy to navigate it felt. I went to Home in Manchester where I saw Saint Maud. Again it felt really safe and the social distancing was really obvious. And I went to the HPP [Hyde Park Picture House] on Tour – to see Ammonite with my family at the London Film Festival screening at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds. 

I think that going to the cinema is one of those experiences that can’t be replicated. Of course we can watch movies at home. But the idea of going to a picture palace – sitting in front of a massive screen, being immersed and surrounded by a story, characters, sounds… and with other people – is far too valuable a human experience to give up on. We go to big concerts with a pop star because we all want to be singing and dancing and joyously celebrating. Cinema is part of that. It would be an utter tragedy if that was lost.

Francis Lee was talking to Isabel Stevens.

Further reading