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Cinematic Exit?

The Show Isn't Over Until the Fife Council Sings

In seven years time, the New Picture House, St Andrews’ beloved and only cinema, is set to celebrate its 100th birthday. But two American megastars have other ideas.

Tiger Woods and Justin Timberlake have floated replacing the nationally recognised landmark with a swanky sports bar and gastropub in a move that would trade the theatre and two of its screens for golf simulators and a duckpin bowling alley.

But the cinema has some hope yet. Woods’ and Timberlake’s plan for the renovation hasn’t — thus far — been submitted to the Fife Council. When it is, residents will get a say. If we raise enough of a storm, the Council will have to open the plans to a committee vote.

If it goes to such a vote, the Council will then have the opportunity to amend or veto the plans. Put simply — if we make ourselves heard and complain with a loud of enough voice, we have a fighting chance of saving our cinema.

There is no doubt that would be welcome. The town is overwhelmingly opposed to what it rightly sees as a heavy-handed intrusion.

Over 7,500 have signed a student-led petition protesting the plans. Meanwhile, residents have gawked at the pair’s arrogance and gall, and the Community Council has lamented that Tiger Woods has a funny way of repaying a town rife with his keenest fans.

The damage Woods and Timberlake would inflict extends beyond just St Andrews itself. From Cupar, to Guardbridge, to Leuchars, to the many small villages that populate the East Neuk, the New Picture House fills an important niche — as its the only cinema for miles. Not only residents in St Andrews, but those in Fife more generally, will miss it if it goes.

Unfortunately, the threat to the cinema is symptomatic of an ongoing trend. The insatiable hunger of the golfing and tourism industries are dislodging the real needs of the people that live and work in our town. High-end restaurants and tacky tourist shops litter the three streets — and more community-orientated, long-standing commercial enterprises often struggle.

We live in a small town with a proud identity and culture. It is a self-contained, fragile community. But its social fabric is being stretched, and threatens to be torn apart by those who want to treat the town like a commodity.

This is an attitude problem, and one that needs to change. St Andrews should not be treated like its constituent parts can be bought and sold like spare parts of a broken car. Our town is not like London, or Oxford, or even Edinburgh: large cities that have enough wealth and resources to ensure they can easily absorb changes that huge flows of tourists threaten.

Too often it’s students and locals that suffer. Rents in St Andrews have risen significantly in recent years, in part, because of the need to keep pace with the high-end AirBnB market, which offers renters in the town a lucrative alternative market.

The cinema symbolises what that gentrifying tide is washing away: our community and history’s character. The cinema, which is protected as a B-list building by the Scottish government’s historic environmental protection body, is among one of the few independent cinemas in Fife. It exists in, and for, our community alone. That distinctness bleeds into the theatre’s design. Protruding into North Street with an almost temple-like might, its exterior boasts a blend of interwar styles that set it apart with a force fit only for a town unique as our own.

Our history stretches from Queen Mary of Scots and the Reformation to the opening scenes of Chariots of Fire. It’s a shame that some think the nation’s longtime ecclesiastical capital — the birthplace of golf and the third oldest English speaking university in our world —— can be built up and torn down like a strip mall.

For many of us, the theatre is also a trove of memories. Between its three screens and hundreds of seats, students, families, and couples have found respite in the chin means bright lights. When one of your correspondents broke up with his girlfriend in the first few weeks of university, it is where his academic parents took him to stave off tears with 007. For others, it’s been the backdrop to a first kiss, a sanctuary in exam season, and a space to reunite family and friends.

“It’s not just a cinema,” as Ash Johann, programme curator of the St Andrews Film Festival, told The Scotsman. “It’s where friendships are forged, where families bond, and where we find solace in the embrace of art and entertainment.”

It’s our job to protect our memories and the iconic space that holds them. There is a way to do that. The cinema’s owners don’t have to indulge in what they call a “unique investment opportunity” in the first place. Even then, perhaps it is unfair to keep the owners from selling off what might be an unprofitable business. But if we have a duty to respect the owners’ personal liberty, we also have a duty to protect the public’s liberty when individuality infringes on it. That is, after all, why we have community guardrails in place.

Woods and Timberlake will need permission from the council to gentrify the cinema. We shouldn’t let them have it. We elected the council, and it is our duty to tell them our priorities. Making our dissatisfaction clear to them will, at the very least, stymie the plans of these mega-rich superstars by putting the vote to a committee. If that happens, we might even convince them to veto it.

When the public comment period opens, townspeople cannot relent the pressure they have already begun to shore up to save the theatre. Already, national and international publications have flocked to tell the story of how our town is resisting the celebrities’ encroachment on our three streets. It’s our job to translate that publicity and attention into a public feeling that the council cannot help but act on.

“St Andrews yields nothing to power unless it be used with wisdom,” a golfer quoted in an article compiling observations about the Old Course, said. Tiger Woods, who has played the course many times before, and who has secured perhaps the most iconic win in The Open’s history, must know that our greens do not bend to a hard swing. We should teach him that our community doesn’t buckle to a strong hand either.

We have a record of protecting some of our town’s most cherished relics for thousands of years. It would be a shame to let one of them go before it turns 100.

Illustration by: Jordan Anderson

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