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The rebirth of the Palace Cinema in Longridge

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 December 2018 | UPDATED: 08:51 13 December 2018

The beautiful facade of the cinema, opened in 1912

The beautiful facade of the cinema, opened in 1912

Archant

One of the oldest cinemas in the country – The Palace in Longridge – has a new owner and a new lease of life.

Lara Hewitt who took over the Palace Cinema with her father, TonyLara Hewitt who took over the Palace Cinema with her father, Tony

If, like me, you’re not keen on the atmosphere – and prices – of a large, noisy cinemas on industrial estates, then the newly re-opened Palace Cinema in Longridge has to be for you.

It was purchased last year by Lara Hewitt and her father, Tony, founder of the highly successful Bamber Bridge based Parkwood Group, which manages almost anything from leisure centres to forestry.

The change came after the retirement of long-time cinema doyenne, Dorothy Wilkinson. Sadly, Tony passed away suddenly last New Year’s Eve, leaving 36-year old Lara with the twin tasks of refurbishing the building ready for re-opening and creating a modern and thriving arts enterprise.

Lara’s background has helped a great deal. ‘I’m bilingual and left my job teaching arts in Germany and Sri Lanka to come home to start my own arts centre, alongside writing and directing my own film productions,’ she says. ‘I’ve always loved this part of Lancashire – it’s where I was brought up – and London was way too expensive. When the opportunity came up, we jumped at the chance to buy The Palace. As well as enormous potential, it has the most fantastic heritage and a very loyal following.’

The renovations flect the owner's passion for cinemaThe renovations flect the owner's passion for cinema

The Palace first opened in 1912 as a music hall and picture palace in a former market building owned by Preston impresario and filmaker, Will Onda, and powered by a primitive gas engine. Its more recent history is strongly matriarchal. A Mrs Fletcher ran the Palace in the 50s.

One customer watched the Coronation here, recalling Mrs Fletcher going round with her torch and ticking him off for being a bit too close to his girlfriend for her liking. It is Dorothy Williamson, though, who most locals will remember for her stalwart dedication in keeping the cinema going for 41 years, even after her husband John died.

Says Lara: ‘She’s the most amazing lady and was resolute that she wanted the cinema to stay as a special place in Longridge. I hope we have achieved that.’ The refurbishment has been a longer, more difficult and more expensive process than Lara anticipated. ‘Don’t talk to me about dry rot. Or asbestos. Or the weather,’ she says, showing us a bulging wall in a back building that has still to be converted into her modern arts space.

With a red-carpet opening in September and a packed Christmas programme eagerly anticipated, though, the cinema itself has now fully re-opened with the original space also offering a stage for theatre productions and a cosy licensed café with delicious ice creams, local beers, refreshments and popcorn. The National Anthem is still played before the main feature film and china cups of tea and coffee are served for just £1 each.

Watching a film can be a family affairWatching a film can be a family affair

The films are curated to show an eclectic mix, reflecting the tastes of different audiences – Lara and her team listen to their customers. Whether it’s a weekend matinee (the cinema is open all day Saturday and Sunday), an early evening showing of the latest popular hit or something a bit art house, this little gem has it all.

There are morning shows for mothers and babies, evening ones for teens and the Palace is home to its own Book and Film Clubs, regular film-making workshops as well as a small art and photography gallery. Ticket and refreshment prices have stayed very affordable – weekday prices are £6 for adults, £5 for teens and OAPs and £4 for children. An unhefty 50p is added on at weekends and there are a range of deals and special offers.

Christmas plans include a performance of a Christmas Carol from December 19-25th featuring local actors and a young composer from the Northern College of Music as well as a showing of the classic ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on Christmas Eve with mince pies and other seasonal offerings.

Before leaving, we met bubbly Megan Kelsall who has been recruited as projectionist, bar staff, gallery curator and general manager in Lara’s absence (she was shortly due to travelling to Central America as one of her films – ‘Dacha’ – is to be shown at the Mexico Oxaca International Festival).

Megan Kelsall, right, selling tickets at a special showings for mothers and babiesMegan Kelsall, right, selling tickets at a special showings for mothers and babies

‘Well, I’m more of a general factotum really,’ Megan laughs as she and Lara heave a consignment of soft drinks and popcorn up the stairs to the storage room adjacent to an area where they have started weekly life-drawing classes.

While there is a very active support team of volunteers, this is clearly very much a hands-on modern centre run by enterprising women who are, like their predecessors, not afraid to get their hands dirty to keep this wonderful local landmark a thriving part of the community.

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