Cultural venues offer more than just entertainment
I started working at the Cameo cinema in 2015, not long after I moved to Edinburgh.
Although I hadn’t lived in the city for a very long time, the small, 106-year-old cinema in Tollcross, near the city centre, quickly captured my imagination.
The first film I can remember going to see there was 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was an interval in the middle so that the projectionist could swap over the reels of 35mm film. As the lights gently phased up and the curtains drew across the screen, I headed out to the adjoining bar, pausing along the way to check out some pictures and press-cuttings that hang on the wall: the time Orson Welles hosted an event during the 1953 film festival; Quentin Tarantino previewing Reservoir Dogs in 1992; scenes from the world premiere of Trainspotting.
When I first started working there, I thought I had landed a pretty cool student job. I wouldn’t have guessed it would become the defining experience of my time in Edinburgh.
And it was not long after I started putting in shifts that I began to realise what actually gives the place life, beyond the charming building, the screens, projectors and popcorn.
Several times a day, a wave of film-goers washes over the cinema. People of all ages mill about the foyer and the bar, queuing up for wine or ice cream. Others, just waiting for the bus, take shelter under the red canopy that reaches out over the street.
Eventually, the crowd recedes into the screens, and there’s a window of roughly 90 minutes when all is calm. It’s in these moments that I started meeting the regulars.
Who is that guy who comes in at 10:30 most days to have his coffee and read the papers, I would wonder. The guy who can’t stand it when someone else gets at the crossword first.
What does that group talk about every Thursday evening, over their heavily sugared hot drinks?
And who is that old guy, propping up the bar Saturday night at closing? The staff all seem to know him, and he’s offering them lifts home.
Some were difficult to get along with, with very particular expectations and dreadful habits. Others struck me as lonely, sometimes troubled people, in need of refuge.
And a few made the shifts pass breezily, inviting you to linger afterward for a drink.
My friend Geoff summed it up best, when I asked him what his favourite part of working at the Cameo is. His father had been the projectionist there for over 30 years, so it’s been a big part of his life. For him, it’s all about the people, especially the staff.
“I think that’s what’s best about the place,” he told me recently.
“Because for all the perks and stuff, a lot of people go to work, they dislike their colleagues and they leave as soon as possible.
“But for me, here, we had such camaraderie, outside the Cameo as well as in it. If you were having a bad day you could be reliant on someone being there for you.”
This is what stands out in my mind, long after that initial sense of cinema magic wore off. It’s special, and yet I doubt it’s unique to this one venue. I’m sure there are staff in pubs, clubs and venues across Scotland that feel this way about their favourite place.
The country has entered a new and uncertain phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases are rising, the winter is drawing in and ever tightening social and economic restrictions are becoming necessary.
The implications for businesses are stark, particularly pubs and art venues. Economists warn the UK is on the cusp of vast job losses.
On a Thursday night last week, my friends at the Cameo turned off the lights and rolled down the shutters, not knowing when they’d next reopen. Doubting if they’d be able to at all.
While it happened to coincide with the latest public health orders put out by the Scottish Government, the decision to close was taken separately, by the multinational chain Cineworld, which owns the Cameo and 128 other UK cinemas. They just aren’t profitable enough to open right now, its CEO claimed.
Staff were given the dubious options of taking indefinite unpaid leave, or, if they qualify, a small redundancy package. It’s unclear if the UK Government’s new, more targeted furlough scheme can help them.
In any case, my friends will have to go their separate ways and try, somehow, to find new work. And the people who make the place their haunt, well I suppose they’ll have to find somewhere else to go, too.
Across the nation, these closures will become more common. Some may reopen, others perhaps not. This one feels very personal to me, but in the carnage wreaked by COVID-19 I fear communities everywhere might be the worse off if something isn’t done to protect places like this one and the people who make them special.