A new face for the Phoenix

Phoenix Picture House in 1998
Image: David Fisher

After months shrouded in scaffolding, the Phoenix has finally re-emerged.

Posted - November 01, 1998

The blue-neon frontage may seem more like Soho than Jericho – but it’s a welcome face-lift for one of our key amenities. Why did it take so long? Just the usual building delays, it seems, including, for xample, having a high-tech engineering firm make the brackets to support the smart new glass canopy.

The first sign that something was afoot at the Phoenix was the disappearance of the letters advertising the films. By that time many were missing or broken, and when one fell on a customer’s head they were abandoned altogether. ‘We investigated a new set of Perspex letters, but discovered this would cost about £3,000’, says Assistant Manager Katrina Stokes, ‘so at that point we removed them completely’. This also caused the management to think about a more complete overhaul.

The Phoenix is run by a small privately owned company, City Screen, which started its life at the Phoenix in 1990 when the lease was bought by cinema enthusiast Lyn Goleby. Since then she and three partners have built up a group of seven ‘Picture House’ cinemas which they own or operate, and others for which they organize programming. St. John’s owns the building.

The Phoenix has a surprisingly large staff, 25 in total, full-time or casual. That’s three managers or assistants, two projectionists and numerous support staff from ushers to cleaners. It also provides a popular holiday job for students, including those who live in Oxford but study elsewhere.

North Oxford KinoNorth Oxford Kino in 1913

The new blue frontage is just the latest make-over for a building with a long and colourful history. In 1913 it opened as the ‘North Oxford Kinema’, since when it has passed through many hands and names, including the Scala, the New Scala, the Studios 1 and 2, Studio X (a club showing soft porn) and finally in 1977 the Phoenix.

The cinema has always been popular with students. According to cinema historian Paul Marriott, in the 1920s they were much more boisterous, frequently unscrewing the seats and running round the auditorium. When the commissionaire intervened the cry would go up: ‘Rescue Balliol!’ or ‘Rescue St John’s!’ and the commissionaire might finish up in the gutter.

Jericho people have always enjoyed the cinema too. At one point there was an early form of karaoke – a singsong, with the words flashed up on the screen. The nearest equivalent today is the Saturday afternoon kids show, before which children take turns at a Sony Playstation with their game dramatically projected onto the screen. At the other end of the age scale is the Silver Screen show on Wednesday afternoons showing classic films at reduced prices – plus tea and biscuits. On the final Wednesday of the month this will take the form of a City Council-subsidized Classic Cinema Club for senior citizens (£2 per ticket).

Other events include the art shows in the bar and the annual kids Christmas party, with presents from film distributors and a projectionist playing Santa Claus. But the main business is showing good quality first-run films, as well as some more popular ones that have already been shown at the ABC. Apart from catering to local people and students, the Phoenix is also popular with the ‘North Oxford’ types who go for the period dramas, and staff from OUP checking out the latest literary adaptations.

After a dip in attendance a couple of years ago, business is now brisk. In case you were wondering, yes they did have planning permission for the bright new neon frontage, and no, the neighbours across the road do not really mind being bathed in blue light, providing the illuminations are switched off at a reasonable hour – usually 9 p.m. on weekdays.

Did you know?

The history of the Phoenix?

There has been a cinema here since 1913. Orginally it the 'North Oxford Kinema', since when it has passed through many hands and names, including the Scala, the New Scala, the Studios 1 and 2, Studio X (a club showing soft porn) and finally in 1977 the Phoenix.

Cranham Street used to be a blot on the city

Before Grantham House was built, the site became notoriously derelict, making Cranham Street according to the local press a ‘blot on the city’ – wrecked by local children, and a refuge for rats and for ‘layabouts sleeping off the drink’ who were repeatedly evicted by the police.