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An Ode to the New Picture House

One of the unexpected joys of my first year in St Andrews was our town cinema, the New Picture House. I have never been a great cinema-goer; we could never afford movie tickets, and our cinema was an out-of-town multiplex isolated on a grim commercial estate. The NPH made me fall in love with cinema, and now, like countless students, their films are the highlight of my weeks. So, this is my tribute to the NPH, undeniably the best cinema in St Andrews…

Film in St Andrews has a long history. The first cinema, La Scala, was an old tin church moved across town (by traction engine) to serve as a skating hall. When the first film showed on 30th December 1910, entrance was a mere thruppence. La Scala was a great success but quickly supplanted by the purpose-built Cinema House in December 1913. When University Provost Herkless opened The Cinema House, he admitted ashamedly that he had never before set foot in a ‘picture house’ – soon the whole town would be coming in.

Western Electric brought sound to The Cinema House in 1929 and a year later St Andrews got its own small town picture palace in the form of the NPH, which opened its doors on the 22nd December 1930 for musical No! No! Nanette. Much was made of the NPH’s luxurious interior and grandiose architecture by local firm Gillespie and Scott. The design (category B listed since 2008) still holds up impressively. The St Andrews Citizen reported that an illuminated electric fountain gave the cinema an “almost oriental air of luxury”; although some much-touted features, such as a vacuum cleaner, seem rather less exciting than they must have at the time. Much emphasis was placed on safety following the 1929 Paisley cinema disaster when 71 children were trampled to death. Marketed as “St Andrews’s Super Sound Cinema” the NPH was immediately popular for its half-price kids’ tickets and glamorous interior. However, competition between the two cinemas on North Street was fierce. There was a technological arms race between the cinemas. For example, when the NPH installed CinemaScope (widescreen projector) in December 1954, the Cinema House followed suit within a month. Such competition continued until the Cinema House suddenly closed in 1979 when long-time manager Jack Humphries retired, leaving the NPH as St Andrews’ only cinema.

It’s the small scale, independent character that makes the NPH so wonderful to this day. The decoration may be less grand than in its heyday but it’s still vastly more charming than the ascetic black-ness of a Cineworld multiplex. What’s more, the small scale of the cinema makes it reactive to the town’s demands; niche screenings of live events supplement the big blockbusters. Best of all are the midnight premieres. Films start at 00:01 and are therefore on release day… technically. This loophole lets St Andrews students watch the latest Bond or Marvel movie the day before the rest of the world. The atmosphere at these events is always electric and the NPH is at its best when it’s full to brimming – as it is a surprising amount of the time.

That’s what made me realise I was in love with the NPH: going to see Spiderman: No Way Home with all my mates and the whole cinema laughing, cheering, and whooping in sync. This kind of community is only possible in a big cinema. And it’s easy to forget how big the NPH is, the main screen is awe-inspiringly massive (twice the size of many multiplexes), and it seats nearly 500 people. Although the student discount usually stops us, watching films from the balcony remains the best experience, and the NPH is now one of only two cinemas in Scotland to have one.

I’m not going to pretend it’s perfect. The Pearl and Dean advertising earworm wavers perilously between endearing and infuriating. The two small screens are incredibly small (I’ve seen larger televisions) and while appropriate to small-scale films and documentaries, paying full price for them seems a tad unreasonable. Oh, and they could do with using that vacuum cleaner they were so proud of a bit more frequently.

The Cinema House was demolished in the 80s after the university failed to raise funds to buy it out (as they later did to save the Byre theatre), La Scala survived until 2003 as a warehouse – now it’s a block of flats. Post-pandemic, it’s harder than ever for independent cinemas, already struggling with the rise of home media and streaming. Now the cost-of-living crisis threatens already limited revenues. It may be rough for us to stomach the recent price rises but it is imperative we protect the NPH for the next generation of students. There are only 50 independent cinemas left in Scotland, let’s do our darndest to keep ours.

Those interested should check out the University’s ‘St Andrews Cinema’ research project, without which this article would not have been possible.

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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