Save our Independent Cinemas! This week: the Duke of York

When asked “Do you know the way to the Duke of York cinema?” many Brighton residents will sputter a heady concoction of fish, chips, seaside rock and sand into your face, before looking vaguely confused and emitting a little frightened whimper. Utter its name in a hushed whisper in a roomful of cinephiles, however, and the only noise that will break the adoring silence that follows will be the collective thump of everyone in the room passing out with joy (and, to be fair, if you end the previous question with “You know, the one with the legs coming out of the roof?” you’ll almost certainly get at least a nod of recognition).

It’s safe to say that The Duke of York has something of a reputation in certain circles. Brighton refugee and certified genius Nick Cave is a huge fan, calling it “one of Britain’s truly great independent cinemas. The jewel in the crown of Brighton.” Total Film recently included it in a list of the ten best cinemas in the world. It’s also a record breaker – it’s the oldest continuously operating purpose-built cinema in Britain that has retained both its original name and remains largely unaltered, proving that if you add enough words on, anything can be the first of something.

The Duke was built on the site of the old Amber Ale brewery, the walls of which still make up the back of the auditorium (the rumours that the euphoric feelings experienced when inside the building are the result of a century-old contact high remain unfounded). Back when it first opened, on 22nd September 1910, it was the cinema of choice for the classier Brighton patron; the original marketing tagline was ‘Bring her to the Duke’s, it is fit for a Duchess.’ For decades, it was not only recognised as Brighton’s finest ‘picture palace’, but as one of the best in the world. Even the Great Wars couldn’t stop them, with wounded soldiers getting free tickets and screenings moving into a candlelit basement whenever a zeppelin flew overhead.

It didn’t stay that way forever. By the 1980s The Duke, while still functioning as a cinema, had also gained itself a reputation as a secret venue for illegal underground punk gigs. Not the kind of behaviour that should be condoned perhaps, but the idea of Ghostbusters on the big screen by day and the adolescent, rage fuelled screech of Brighton’s punk scene by night just makes The Duke an even cooler and more interesting prospect. Seeing The Duke’s squandered potential, however, arthouse giants Picturehouse Cinemas swooped down in 1994 and bought the place up. A lick of paint and a general bucking up of ideas later, and we got The Duke as it is today. And boy, oh boy, is it a sight to behold.

The interior decor is a lush, deep red, and pretty much everything that isn’t red is gold; sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re in a cinema, or the boudoir of a prince who is unusually fascinated with tiered seating. From the outside, it looks like the collaboration between a French architect and a particularly flamboyant bottle of absinthe. Not only is there a balcony, from which you can gaze down at the riff raff with as much disdain as you please, but there’s even a fully licensed bar up there, so you can, if you so please, do a ‘Chunk from The Goonies’ into the crowd below without the need to bring fake vomit from home. And then, of course, there are the legs. As iconic a symbol of Brighton as The Pavilion or the moss-covered remains of the West Pier, the black-and-white hooped and Dorothy-shoe-adorned showgirl pins sum up The Duke nicely; a little sexy, a little seedy, but still classy.

Though it only boasts one screen, The Duke runs an excellent programme of films, ranging from arthouse flicks to world cinema greats, via critically adored studio joints. As a taster, right now you can see films as diverse as Werner Herzog’s 3D caving doc Cave of Forgotten Dreams, bonkers Vincent Gallo thriller Essential Killing and so-bonkers-it-goes-full-circle-and-becomes-genius murderous tyre flick Rubber.

The more observant amongst you may have worked out that The Duke is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. Luckily for us, cinemas are not people, and the lovely folk at The Duke were far from content with just a letter from the Queen. Throughout 2010 and 2011 they’ve been running a campaign to build a comprehensive centenary archive, and it’s beyond impressive. There’s hundreds of anecdotes, reminisces, documents and handwritten notes dating right back to the early years, from misty-eyed tales of pre-war screenings to lengthy, hilarious reports from some brilliantly amateur punk gigs.

The general impression from reading these testimonials, or indeed from talking to anyone who’s had even a vague association with The Duke, is that no-one ever has negative feelings towards the place. It’s the kind of place that you can’t help but love, whether it’s the luxurious surroundings, the charming staff (who are so friendly that you immediately assume they have an agenda, but they really are that nice) or the guarantee that the film you’re about to see will be a cut above the usual multiplex fare. Plus, it’s in Brighton, and if you can’t have fun in Brighton then you’re probably dead inside.

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