“Local Heroes” is a free-to-read Vague Visages column dedicated to movie theater memories and the theatrical experience.
Growing up in Leeds, a city with the third highest population in the UK, has meant that there isn’t one specific cinema tied to my formative memories of moviegoing. My earliest memories of going to the movies are trips to the Cottage Road Cinema and the (now defunct) Lounge cinema in Headingley to see such cinematic masterworks as Pokémon: The First Movie, Inspector Gadget and Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas — films that have faded from the memory, even if hearing their titles still triggers a Proustian response, placing me right back in those auditoriums, watching them for the first time.
But this piece is about a more complicated relationship with my earliest memories of going to the pictures; the experience of getting a retail job in the same multiplex I visited most as a child, and how this slowly but surely killed the Proustian rush of recollecting all the happy experiences I had in that very building. The cinema in question is the Odeon Leeds-Bradford. It’s the type of generic multiplex that every cinephile has a version of in their life; a place where, when thinking back to all the films you loved as a child, you realise that you saw almost all of those films for the first time in that very building.
Initially, this proved to be something that quietly floored me when I started working there. I took on the job in the midst of the 2014 summer blockbuster season, where I’d often be tasked with cleaning up after busy screenings entirely by myself — and it was being in those cavernous auditoriums all alone where I’d suddenly flashback to my earliest cinema going memories. I remembered my first ever visit there, when my gran took me to see Chicken Run just after my sixth birthday, while I was cleaning up after an early morning screening of a children’s film, wondering if the kids who left behind half eaten bags of pick’n’mix and Fruit Shoot bottles would one day have a similar memory triggered as they frantically swept up popcorn crumbs from the floor.
In fact, so many of my childhood memories of spending time with my family originate back to Odeon Leeds-Bradford. I remember my dad taking me to see The Lord of the Rings films each Christmas, my mum dragging eight-year-old me to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding as penance for having to sit through Lilo & Stitch (which, for the record, she slept through anyway), and having my gran take me to see whatever was showing during every school holiday as both my parents were at work, the movies acting as far better childcare than she could have ever hoped for. The more I thought about it, as I was aimlessly sent from screen to screen every shift to make sure people weren’t talking or on their phones, the more it became apparent just how much I spent time at Odeon Leeds-Bradford. At one point in my childhood, I was there nearly every Saturday morning for the children’s matinee screenings; these were films that had already ended their theatrical runs long before, and my stingy parents insisted on waiting to see them so they could get the bargain tickets a few months after they were released. Maybe my most distinctive Odeon Leeds-Bradford memory is seeing the 2002 Rupert Grint fart comedy Thunderpants, my dad laughing louder at every fart joke than every child in attendance.
But once those memories came rushing back, it was hard to reconcile them alongside what Odeon Leeds-Bradford quickly came to represent to me. If the cinema was responsible for so many happy childhood memories, how could I continue to embrace reminiscing when it was equally responsible for the soul-crushing tedium of a public-facing retail job? Over the course of two years, what seemed like a dream job for any movie lover instead complicated my relationship with the theatrical experience. As an awkward, outcast kid growing up, the cinema was something of a safe haven, an escape into any number of different worlds and stories. It didn’t take long working at Odeon Leeds-Bradford for it to eventually became something I wanted to escape from.
Peering behind the curtain to the inner workings of any profession dispels any of the allure it might have, but nowhere was that more true than at Odeon Leeds-Bradford. As with any retail job, dealing with hostile customers isn’t particularly novel. But when you’re dealing with (to name one example) an angry parent threatening to beat you up in front of the whole cinema, simply because they turned up late and the only seats left were on the front row, you’re not dealing with a regular irritation so much as constant bad memories that overshadow any of the happy ones had in the same building. I’d often try to look past this, to all the good times spent there, from seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the first time on a 20th anniversary re-release when I was eight to a private advance screening of Taken 3 with colleagues where we went insane laughing at a plot twist about bagels. But work is still work, and there remained a ceiling on just how much escapism I could have when the tedious responsibilities and rude customers I’d have to regularly face were all waiting outside the doors to each screen. For any cinephile, a job working at a multiplex cinema is more of a curse than a blessing.
I last visited Odeon Leeds-Bradford when I went back home over Christmas. It had been entirely refurbished, looking nothing like the worn down multiplex I grew up visiting, or spent two years resenting later on. After so many years, even that immediate Proustian response became nothing more than a memory. The movies were back.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.