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Graham Denison on working at Thirsk’s historic Ritz cinema

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 October 2018

Volunteer projectionist Graham Denison in his workspace  at The Ritz, Thirsk

Volunteer projectionist Graham Denison in his workspace at The Ritz, Thirsk

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Graham Denison is a projectionist at the Ritz cinema in Thirsk, one of the oldest cinemas in the country, staffed by a team of volunteers

Volunteer projectionist Graham Denison at workVolunteer projectionist Graham Denison at work

I’ve lived in Thirsk since 1994 and started volunteering at The Ritz in 1996. That came about because my wife worked as a volunteer on the kiosk and was asked if she knew anyone who was good with projection equipment. I’d dabbled a million years ago with 16mm projectors at school, so I thought: ‘Go on. I’ll give it a go.’ I met Peter Barr, who started at the cinema as a trainee projectionist back in 1951, learned the ropes with him and then joined the team. There are around six projectionists at The Ritz currently — including Peter, who’s still working.

It’s a nice old building which is quite famous in the Hambleton and North Yorkshire area. It has a bit of history to it and still meets a public need. People appreciate it: cinema is entertainment for the masses, after all. I like old cinemas because they have character, whereas multiplexes are just boxes which show films. There’s no ‘showmanship’ to them. For instance, multiplex cinemas don’t even have curtains these days — but at The Ritz we have nice big curtains which are festooned with colours. When those curtains open, it’s an event... just like it used to be when I was a kid.

Our projection suite at The Ritz is made up of two rooms. Downstairs is a little office with a cinema seat and a couple of desks, so you can sit and relax and watch TV if you want. The projection booth itself is raised up above the ground, measures about 8ft by 12ft and has four windows. It’s a historical space so things are all over the place. There’s sound equipment, power, controls for the curtains, controls for the tabs, and a CD player for what we call ‘non-synced’ music — which is the background music we play in the auditorium before the film starts. As a projectionist, you have a routine. You come in and flick various switches and press buttons to wake the cinema up, and then turn on the projector to get it warmed up.

When I first started here we had two old-school film projectors. The films would arrive on maybe three reels and we’d have to run the first reel on one projector then ‘change over’ to the second reel on the other projector without the audience noticing the join. Back then, you always had to be in the projection booth looking through the viewing window in case the projector went wrong or the film broke. We went fully digital in 2012 and don’t have to do any of that now. To start the movie I just press ‘play’ and can even control the projector sitting in the auditorium with my iPad. I miss those reel change overs. Mind you, there’s still the same sense of drama and jeopardy: is the projector going to work? Will the lamp come on?

Other cinemas took the opportunity to go fully automated — curtains, lights, footlights, etc — but we decided to keep the artistry. So the projectionist is still the one who brings the lights up and takes the lights down and opens the curtains and opens the tabs (which make the screen wider and narrower to change the aspect ratio). Every projectionist has their own way of doing things, too. I like to create a sense of drama and start the film with a ‘Ta-dah!’

The Ritz has less than 200 seats, and if we’re showing something like Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, we’ll have full houses every night. We’re showing Christopher Robin right now and that hasn’t been doing amazingly well. If no-one turns up, we don’t screen the film; but if just one person buys a ticket, then we do. It’s happened with esoteric movies on a Sunday night like The Big Lebowksi, which are really good but don’t always seem to click with people. My all-time favourite movie? That has to be 2001: A Space Odyssey which you have to see at the cinema. We try to give people a bygone experience, the way films were meant to be seen.

Graham Denison was talking to Tony Greenway

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