James Luxford delves into a new book that chronicles the life and times of The Phoenix Cinema.

If you love movies and live in Oxford, chances are you are familiar with The Phoenix. The two-screen cinema at the heart of Jericho specialises in independent and what it calls ‘quality mainstream’ movies, as well as various specialised events.

Some observers were worried that the acquisition of the cinema’s owners, Picturehouse, by multiplex behemoth Cineworld, would eradicate some of the unique charm that has built up over the many years it has been in operation, and condemn The Phoenix to the homogenisation that has befallen so many other smaller cinemas in the past.

As the building celebrates its centenary year, however, one book shows that they have been through far more drastic changes in the past and still maintained a unique identity. Collating 100 never-before-seen images and archive material, the book charts the history of the cinema through the eyes of Oxford residents, former and current employees, and lovers of cinema dating back to the silent era.

Authors Deborah Allison, Hiu M. Chan and Daniela Treveri Gennari attempt to establish through the words and pictures from The Phoenix’s past why exactly the cinema is one of the few in the country to have been continually active for so long.

The tone is very much of the cinema’s place in local people’s hearts, of the venue having as much of an impact on the patrons as the films themselves. North Oxford ‘Kinema’, Scala, Studio 1 & 2... there have been many names, but since 1913 the cinema we now know as The Phoenix has been serving the community. Allison, Chan and Gennari start from the very beginning, exploring its years as a silent cinema with musical accompaniment, right up to present day in the age of digital projection, director Q&A’s and live opera.

Consistent throughout the book is the sense of the type of cinema the various owners (with one or two exceptions) wanted it to be – one that embraced independent and world cinema, with critic David Parkinson at one point describing the Phoenix as “a window on the world”. Equally as important was to engage with the surrounding area, particularly Oxford’s student community. Threaded through these memories are the accounts of various staff members and films that stood out to them. Spartacus, Frankenstein, Midnight Cowboy, the type of stories that make you remember when you saw them first – and where.

From the opening tribute by the Oxford Mail’s features editor Jeremy Smith, the tone of the book is very much one of affection, but that should not be taken to mean it is all fanfare.

The fate of the cinema is, of course, tied to the health of the British film industry at any particular time, and this small but significant satellite of that industry moved with the times, for both better and worse. This is no more apparent than in the book’s third chapter, chronicling its time under the Star cinema chain. In came modifications that stand to this day (such as the two-screen layout), and also a controversial business plan which embraced a more commercial programme along with a reputation for screening more controversial titles.

This ‘warts and all’ approach makes for a more textured and interesting read, if only for the occasional insights that illustrate how, had a certain path not been taken, the Phoenix might not be there for us to enjoy today. The book will be invaluable to anyone who still views going to the cinema as something magical, more than just a diversion on a lazy weekend.

Over the years the Phoenix has been a source of controversy, education, entertainment, and played host to international film stars, musicians, artists, and most importantly, people who love film – many of whom contributed to this book.

Like cinema, writing is at its best when motivated by passion and with all three writers having a personal connection to the cinema, it’s quite clear that 100 Years of Oxford Cinema Memories cherishes the grand old Picture House’s past as much as its present. Seeking not only to serve as a document for the history of a building, but also to look back at the changing tastes of British cinemagoers over the years, these 200 pages provide a fond look back as the Phoenix prepares to move forward.