Plaza sweet

The antidote to soulless multiplexes, Liverpool’s Plaza cinema not only offers low-cost film tickets but a community spirit that has brought generations of visitors through its neon-lit doors

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Merseyside’s Plaza cinema is both a throwback to that golden age of the silver screen and a very modern success story. Five miles north of Liverpool city centre in Waterloo, the stunning brick building – completed in 1939 – retains its original art deco-inspired charm yet nods to modernity with a smart digital marquee. Visitor numbers are up, its trio of screens mix art house films with the commercial and there is a genuine air of positivity surrounding everyone involved in the enterprise.

But it’s the way the project is operated that marks the Plaza as different. A community cinema, the building hosts charity events, speciality screenings pitched at groups such as dementia sufferers and those on the autism spectrum, and encourages visitors to contribute to a food bank. The majority of the staff are volunteers.

“Our volunteers range in age from 14 to 70 and they do an amazing job,” says cinema manager Martin Fol. “Some may just do the one four-hour shift a week but they’re the heart of this cinema. These people come here and give us something precious, their time, because they want to be part of this massive project and keep this facility here for their community.”

Fol himself began volunteering at the Plaza back in 1998, shortly after the building reopened as a cinema. “Both me and my wife Sally started here as a spur of the moment thing really, just giving us something constructive to do in the afternoons. I began with ushering, then that led to me becoming a shift manager, until I took over as general manager in 2010. I used to work for the Royal Mail and back then I could never have imagined ending up running a cinema.”

Schoolboy Paul Culshaw saw the planning notice and began a petition to retain the building as a cinema

The building opened as a Plaza but has also operated under the Odeon, Classic, Cannon and Apollo banners. It opened on 2 September 1939, only to be forced to shut its doors the same day because of the start of the Second World War. Two weeks later a second opening took place and a programme of film and variety acts began. By 1995, and with cinema attendances barely recovered from the lows of the 1980s, a planning application was posted outside the then unused premises offering the building for development. Remarkably, 12-year-old schoolboy Paul Culshaw saw the notice and began a petition to retain the building as a cinema. Through a groundswell of support from the local community the place reopened in summer 1997 and, just three years later, the charity in charge of the Plaza managed to purchase the building for £325,000.

“We’ve always been self-funded, much of the money we need coming from our charity shop in St John’s Road,” says Fol. “The council did step in to help us secure a mortgage package, which obviously helped, but I’ll admit it has been a rocky road at times. In 2010, for example, our heating system collapsed and that ended up costing us a lot of money, but since our extensive refurb in 2011 things have really turned around.”

Fol enthusiastically gives Big Issue North a tour of the building. The original 1,450 seat single auditorium was converted to a 570 seat main room with a pair of smaller 97 seaters either side back in 1976. The smaller screens are spacious and modern, with the main screen retaining numerous art deco features and an air of class. The balcony area has even preserved the original 80-year-old seats. The projection room – behind a heavily locked door and accessed via a dusty cast-iron spiral staircase – harbours both an archaic 35mm film projector and a modern digital equivalent, flanked by a pair of laptops. The exterior of the Plaza is very much as it was 80 years ago – complete with neon signage – and the lobby a characterful blend of polished brass, period panelling, stained glass and antique light fittings, combined with a modern front desk.

It’s here in the foyer we meet Gill Scragg, one of the Plaza’s volunteers, as she wields a vacuum cleaner with some enthusiasm. Scragg lives in nearby Walton and has been helping out at the cinema for six years.

“I just love it,” she says. “I used to come here as a kid – we used to bunk in – so I’ve got so many fond memories related to the cinema. It’s great to give something back. And there’s a real family atmosphere here among the staff: we laugh together and we fight together.”

Richard Warren, now office manager, began as an usher 15 years ago. Like Scragg, he too talks about the team here being “one big, happy family”. He says: “I hated not having a job so starting to do something productive with my time really helped me. I even met my partner while working here and we now have a 12 year old, so I’ve only got good things to say about the Plaza.”

It’s this overarching enthusiasm, the classy, spotlessly clean building and low ticket prices – adults pay just below £5, children £1 less – that help make the Plaza so distinctive from corporate multiplexes. Front of house staff obviously enjoy their work. A visit to this cinema is a genuine pleasure far removed from the bland atmosphere of some sterile multi-screen behemoth.

“Everyone appreciates our modern touches but it’s the original features and the history of the building that people really love,” says Fol, pointing out that visitor numbers have gone up from 57,000 in 2010 to 163,000 last year.

“We sometimes get three generations of a family coming here, with the older ones remembering the place from their childhood in the 1950s or 1960s. We like to emphasise how different we are from multiplexes, which, let’s face it, are just massive sheds with too few staff and too high prices.”

Later that day Hilary Wolstencroft, from nearby Crosby, is visiting with her three children for a screening of Pokémon Detective Pikachu. “We come here at least once a month and I genuinely feel the Plaza is part of our community,” she says. “It’s such great value for money. If there were only places like the Odeon around the kids wouldn’t get the chance to see films as often, as their tickets are so expensive.”

“It’s really fun to visit and the staff are really nice,” adds her son Dillon, 10. “I don’t really have a favourite film I’ve seen here as they’re all good.”

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