A packed cinema making their way outHannah Mawardi with permission for Varsity

My grandparents moved to Cambridge as newlyweds in 1970. My time living here as a student and their time here in their twenties bear a few striking similarities. My grandad was in a band that played gigs at the Anchor and college bars – places I find myself spending a bit too much time; my nan used to walk up and down the Grafton to get to work on Fitzroy Street – now I make the pilgrimage there to raid Greggs and the British Heart Foundation. I recently mentioned that I had been to the Arts Picturehouse this week to watch the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and I was met with memories from 1971 of going to the same cinema to watch Straw Dogs. My nan laughed as she recalled that the double seats in the back row were popular with young couples who wanted to ‘canoodle’ (her words not mine). The cinema they frequented was then called the Regal, which opened in 1937, but it is now best known and beloved by students as the Cambridge Wetherspoons, a conversion made in 1999. The Arts Picturehouse took over the remaining space and has been the home of art-house cinema in the city ever since.

“At its core, Arts Picturehouse is there to bring a variety of movies to Cambridge, to restore films that may be lost and, most importantly, to foster a community of film-lovers”

When I sit down with Vicky in the Picturehouse bar she admits that she hears stories like the ones my grandparents told me all the time. She tells me about how, for many of the regulars of the Arts Picturehouse “this has been their cinema since they were children,” and many of them take a lot of pride in the amount of time they’ve been members. Vicky started working at Arts Picturehouse as a member of the front of house staff in 2018 straight out of university, and now she takes a lead as Deputy General Manager. “I fell in love with the building and the place and just stayed”, she tells me. Her time here has given her a host of interesting anecdotes to call upon; she once served Ben Affleck popcorn (after he had mistakenly walked into Wetherspoons while looking for the cinema), and met Joanna Lumley, and made her a black filter coffee.

The more Vicky and I chat, the more I realise that the significance of the Arts Picturehouse is rooted in more than its heritage and the host of famous people that have come in the door. There’s an innate cosiness and close-knit feel to a smaller cinema: “people feel at home here,” Vicky says. She describes their quiz nights, which see returning teams of local film buffs pack out the bar; it’s apparent that this is an important place for much of the Cambridge community.

Cinema goers waiting for their showings to startHannah Mawardi with permission for Varsity

Community really seems to lie at the heart of the Arts Picturehouse. The cinema is owned by Cineworld, which entered administration in 2022. This came after a difficult couple of years for all cinemas across the country when they closed during lockdown. I ask Vicky how it feels to be navigating this precarious climate and she reinforces that making it through the “murky waters” of the last couple of years has been a test of mettle for the Arts Picturehouse. Covid is not the first challenge they have faced; in 2013 the Government’s Competition Commission grew concerned by the number of cinemas in Cambridge. When locals got wind of the Commission’s suggestions that the Arts Picturehouse was more of an economic hindrance than a help, they responded with passion – one person wrote to describe the cinema as a “loved and treasured resource in Cambridge”. It leaves me optimistic that with such a core of community support the Arts Picturehouse will be able to navigate the uncertain economy of today.

“There’s an innate cosiness and close-knit feel to a smaller cinema – ‘people feel at home here,’ Vicky says”

Far from just being a community space, the appeal of Arts Picturehouse is also rooted in its role of preserving and promoting arthouse and classic film in Cambridge. Alongside new releases the Picturehouse prides itself on knowing its audience when it comes to programming and curating their selection, offering re-runs from decades old films that still entirely book out. Last week they put on Friday the 13th, and packed out the screen with a hundred people – Vicky explains that “people have seen the film before but they wanted to see it on that day, in that crowd”. The cinema is well-known for its Studio Ghibli season, which draws in audiences of all ages, and for the next week it is also home to the Cambridge Film Festival (19th-26th October). It’s exciting when I learn from Vicky that they are now starting to bring back 35mm film screenings; she explains that “showing that here shows off who we are” as a cinema “dedicated to preserving film” – the Arts Picturehouse still has a distinctive identity and purpose in the Cambridge film scene. As I discuss my closing thoughts with Vicky she recognizes that “each cinema has its demographic, its type. I can go for an Ice Blast and a horror film at the Vue. I love doing that, but I think there’s something so special about this place. That’s why I’m drawn to it.”


Mountain View

Behind the scenes of the Cambridge Film Festival

Arts Picturehouse has been an integral part of Cambridge life for generations; from my own visits to those of my grandparents, it has maintained the love of its audiences. This feeling, echoed in the excited group of friends heading into the cinema I saw as I walked back out onto St Andrew’s Street, is by design. At its core, Arts Picturehouse is there to bring a variety of movies to Cambridge, to restore films that may be lost, and, most importantly, to foster a community of film-lovers.