Interviewee: Matthew Pulzer
Interviewer: Christina Reading
Date: 14 April
Matthew Pulzer, an engineering student at the time, started work at the Duke of York’s as a general assistant in 1985, and after a string of events, was promoted to manager, working there for about a year.
He recalls the atmosphere, working practices, what the audiences were like and the films that were shown during that period.
The Oxford connection and the Legs
“The story starts in Oxford which is where I am from. There was a company in Oxford that had one and then two cinemas, possibly three I think. But it started with very small, I think it could only seat 100 – 150 people, called ‘The Penultimate Picture Palace‘. Pretty much catered for poor students. Poor anybody really, but Oxford, being Oxford, there were a lot of poor students.
Then they acquired another cinema called the Moulin Rouge and the reason I am mentioning this is that one of the owners of the company, Bill Heine, an American who had some flair of self promotion, certainly the love of it, was quite into sculpture.
He produced two notable structures in Oxford. One was an enormous shark going through his roof. The other for the Moulin Rouge was a huge pair of ‘can-can’ legs. Of course other ones are on top of the Duke of York’s now. There was some controversy about these legs because he was accused of putting up a great big piece of advertising. And to prove that this was not advertising for Moulin Rouge he changed the name of the cinema to not the Moulin Rouge. When his company officially closed down or the cinema actually closed down, he kept the legs and put them on top of the Duke of York’s.”
Becoming ‘top slave’ at a ‘cool place to work’
Matthew describes how he came to be manager and what it was like to work at the Duke of York’s.
“When my course came to the end, like all students, I was looking for part-time work and I knew that I could get some work with Sting. So I went there and worked there for a little while. It was just selling tickets or coffee or flapjacks. That was summer 85.
As I recall, some money went missing from the safe. I don’t think that anyone thought that Sting was responsible for theft. I think he was held to be responsible as somebody who was in charge, when on his watch it had gone missing. He unfortunately lost his job and for some reasons, completely forgotten, I ended up doing the job.
The job title was manager, but you were really top slave. The limits of the responsibility were really looking after the money and organising staff, basically the rota and ordering food and drink in, generally making sure the place worked.
The key jobs that I didn’t do, I didn’t do programming, although I did make quite a lot of suggestions and they did listen. And I had nothing to do with the projection, ordering and sending films off. That was done by the projectionists which was much more professional and responsible position than anything that was laughably called manager.
There was no skill in being manager. Being manager was quite a misname. It was more like organiser, money counter, rota organiser. That was really the extent of it.
You do a bit of everything. I was a ticket tearer. Which sounds like a position of enormous power because you decided who got in for nothing. So I would stand on the steps and take the tickets. And that was quite important because it was such a casual system and it also meant that you could let your friends in for nothing very easily.
Matthew describes the vibe at the time:
“It had a so bohemian, low rent, slightly arty slightly intellectual feel, but it was a nice place to be. It was quite a lot of fun and there was quite a lot of nice people there.
It was the time when smoking was allowed. People didn’t just smoke tobacco upstairs, they’d smoke all sorts of things. I think you were only allowed to smoke upstairs. I think we drew the line people at eating fish and chips because we didn’t want to deal with other peoples complaints. We didn’t really care.
After a while, most of the people who were working there stopped watching films there. It was like working in the chocolate factory – you don’t eat the chocolate. If there was something that you would really like to see -you would. But I couldn’t when I was the manager, because I had to keep my eye on the money which basically sat in a bowl. It wasn’t much more sophisticated than that. It was a nice wooden bowl.”
According to Matthew, audiences at the time varied according to films shown and their timing.
“It did serve a range, it wasn’t all students. It would depend on what time of the day. If it was the late night double bill on a Friday or Saturday night, then yes it would be students or recent students. If it was something a bit civilised on a Sunday afternoon, then you would have the locals, you would get quite a few pensioners as well because they go in for 50p.”
The cinema was different, there were movies screened that were hard to get a hold of at that time. However, it was a business and a lot of the mainstream movies were shown too.
“It was rarely very avant-garde or daring. It had to be a business. It was a sort of sprinkle of Merchant Ivory and Terminator, it was sort of a collective mix. The late night would always be very commercial. It would be the films like Terminator, Blues Brothers, Mad Max, because the pubs used to shut at 11 and the double bills used to start at 11. So it was very natural setting.
In terms of programming it was sort of film4-ish, they would show some of the more interesting end of the spectrum. It was pretty much the same as it is now. It could and did overlap with mainstream cinema but it would also show the more tricky art house foreign language kind of films.”
‘Nasty’ toilets and bending fire regulations
“The layout is a bit different than it used to be. The projection room hasn’t changed a lot, I think they got some new technology. The biggest change really is the position and the condition of the toilets and the fact that you go in sort of through the side, where as before you had to go straight through. It wasn’t that bad, it was a bit ‘pealy painty’ and the toilets were nasty but the rest of it was acceptable .
My friend Sting told me an amusing story that we were uniquely exempt from one or two fire regulations because we were literally built into a fire station. The story went that if we were on fire, that the fire station would be on fire as well, so there was no point of having these regulations apply. Whether this was true or not I don’t know, I think we didn’t have to have all the bells and whistles, because if the guys next door didn’t realise that there was a fire, there was no point calling.”
“I was there probably around a year, but what happened was I was full-time manager for about two months and I knew that this will never going to be a career for me. My degree was in Engineering and I knew that at some point I will have to go and do proper engineering. And I think that what happened I ended up being a weekend manager”.