Sean Connery’s looking down at us and he doesn’t look happy.
Well, we say Sean Connery. It’s a drip-style painting of Connery’s character in our favourite film, The Untouchables. Connery played incorruptible cop Jim Malone in the picture, but was widely panned for his Irish accent which was more Scottish than Susan Boyle eating a shortbread and tossing a caber atop the Loch Ness Monster.
Probably why he’s frowning, but there’s a lot to smile about here in New Brighton’s Light Cinema. We’re with Craig Barton who’s telling us about the cinema’s latest addition to its roster: film screenings designed especially for people suffering from one of the UK’s costliest diseases, dementia.
“35 per cent of people with dementia go out once a week, 28 per cent have stopped going out the house, 23 per cent have given up shopping, and nine per cent have given up everything. That last statistic in itself is truly frightening,” Craig tells us.
There are other statistics out there for one of life’s most unforgiving illnesses. In 2013 alone 1,340,000,000 hours were spent caring for people with dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Society. That’s an astonishing 150,000 years. Sadly, according to the same set of statistics, 850,000 people in the UK suffer from the disease.
To put a human face on dementia, Fiona Phillips’ tales of her parents’ fate to the disease are well publicised and heartbreaking in equal measure. Closer to home, though, Craig and the Light Cinema team are looking to brighten up sufferers’ lives with specialist screenings that have, so far, had people dancing and singing in the aisles.
Setting the scene
“I’ve grown up with an awareness of dementia. I’m a cinemagoer, and if I get it, I’d hate to think that I’d just have to sit in the house and not have anything like film, which is my first love. I’m a cinema guy and grew up going to watch movies. I was absorbed by it from a young age.”
We’re going in blind on this and had time to think on our drive up. What is a dementia-friendly viewing? Our minds wander to some new technology that’s been rolled out, tested and got a medical stamp of approval. We couldn’t be more off the mark.
“We clear the foyer completely, turn the music down, remove the barriers… It’s £5 a ticket and for carers it’s free. Anyone caring for someone with dementia can also get in free,” Craig explains.
“Once you’re in the auditorium the lights are raised a touch and the volume’s lowered very very slightly. There’s freedom to move around the screen and we have an amazing intermission where you pick a spot, stop it for 15 minutes, and an entertainer will come in to do a themed performance for the audience.
“Recently we played Calamity Jane and we had a brilliant singer come in – Lilli Moore who’s a local girl – and she did Doris-Day-themed entertainment for everyone. She had the crowd up and singing; I saw a lady get up and dance and hold hands with her, it’s an amazing thing. It’s good that something like a cinema’s able to give something back like that.
“Our first screening was the remake of Dad’s Army, and that had about 60 people in. That was huge, we were expecting 40. Calamity Jane; we had to open a second screen because we had approximately 140 people coming in which are incredible numbers. I think we’re doing well and continuing to learn from it.”
Theatre of dreams
If anything it’s less technology and a greater social awareness. A better understanding, too, with staff going as far as learning about common dementia symptoms and quirks. Not easy when there are more than 100 forms of the disease.
“We’re realising more and more that it’s not an age-related disease. I’m dementia-trained; I went to Clatterbridge and took a training course which has been passed onto the staff.
“A lot of people are diagnosed with dementia or have a family member with it and they’re not 100 per cent aware they have it. They’re really reluctant to go outside, so we wanted to do something healthy with it and grabbed the bull by the horns at this site, and we’re giving it everything we’ve got.”
Craig points toward the entrance. “The mat by the front door, for instance. We have to make sure that there’s someone there to greet people. As people are walking through, the big black mat on the floor can look like a big hole because your depth perception can go with dementia. Most of your perceptions change, it’s a huge concern.”
Craig’s passion for cinema is plain to see, but during our chat it’s clear that its only topped by his and the team’s desire to get the dementia-friendly project spot-on. He’s reluctant to have his picture taken, insistent that the cinema’s care in the community angle comes down to the hard work of everybody working in New Brighton.
Craig points to Emily behind the coffee bar, a student at Wirral Met, and reserves special praise for his manager Jane. “A Life More Ordinary (ALMO) is the driving force behind the scheme and I’m more project manager and coordinate the screenings for our New Brighton site.
“It feels as we go further and further and we see the same carers, it does become more of a personal thing for all of us.
“What sold me [on dementia screenings] more than anything is Jane went to The Dukes Theatre – she’s part of a steering group within the BFI Film Hub – and brought the ALMO pilot scheme to The Light. We’re one of six cinemas within the UK being brought into this pilot scheme to see if it works.
“The numbers are amazing. People are coming back for return visits, and I think we’ll go beyond the set six-screen budget which is there until Christmas, I believe we can surpass it.
“We see a lot of regular faces. As well as it being good for people who have or may have dementia, it’s an amazing respite for carers and family members. We have Age UK and Iceland Foods supporting us. Family members are welcome to come down and speak to Age UK’s reps here to maybe get things off their chest and shoot ideas back and forth with them.
“People can sit down for an hour and a half and see their family member enjoy themselves.”
A reel-y good idea
The Light Cinema has also been lauded for its work providing autism-friendly screenings, and Craig feels like its social aspect is helping carve itself a niche against its competitors, and helps people realise they don’t have to travel far for something different.
“I feel like we are inbetween the arthouse and mainstream. We cover mainstream blockbusters and independent films, documentaries, event cinema and accessible cinema.
“We strongly believe in providing accessible cinema. We do weekly subtitled screenings; we have a lot of subtitled films showing for the young, young at heart, and more mature audiences. Recently there was World Autism Day and we have Autism-friendly screenings as they’re requested and programme with the National Autism Society.
“We acclimatise the environment to suit their needs and programming is key. You’ve got to pick a film that people will absolutely adore. No Batman Vs. Superman for the dementia-friendly crowd, none of that! Marylin Monroe’s Some Like it Hot is our next one; we’re giving people what they want.”
Craig feels that they couldn’t have done it themselves, though. We ask if projects like these are something big business is becoming more aware of, especially with ASDA promising to roll out an autism-friendly hour with little-to-no noise and a calmer shopping experience. They apparently aren’t the only supermarket chain raising disability awareness.
“We’re in partnership with Iceland who supply refreshments and have been amazing for us. They give us what we need and we put on a coffee and cake spread for everyone. Having Iceland involved is a no-brainer; they support dementia projects and we’re both helping each other out for a positive end goal.”
The cinema’s dementia-friendly screenings, though, are as much about the carers and families as it is for the sufferers. “We bring in extra staff and make sure everyone’s looked after as much as possible.
“I think first of all the carers are that good at their job that they’re always looking for new things. I don’t believe that carers just sit around and wait for things to happen; they actively email me and ask how many tickets we have left and bring many dementia sufferers out there. They’re always out there engaging with things because they care so much about the people they’re looking after.”
“You can lose a day here and get swept up in it. People arrive really early, we open at 12:30 and provide refreshments with films starting at 13:15. There’s a good 45 minutes for people to mingle and just be out of the house and care home, and see different faces, or be with the faces they want to see in a different environment.
At its core though the Light Cinema is still exactly that; a cinema. We recently read about the possibility of a set-top box called Screening Room being released which is set to offer movies streamed to the home the day they’re released. It’s costly, but not as costly as Prima Cinema which does the same now for a cool £25,000.
Craig has high hopes for the future of cinema as a medium, and believes the social approach taken by Light Cinema is the way forward for an industry that’s constantly having its future questioned.
“For £5 a ticket, free refreshment and carers getting free access, it’s more about us giving back to the community. We have a chalkboard in the foyer where artists come in and make the place a bit more personal, it’s different from chain cinemas.
“Our child prices go up to 18. We do family tickets and senior prices as well as prices for forces and the NHS; the Infinity Card we offer is £16.95 a month and you get unlimited films as well as 25 per cent off food and drink.
“If you gave me the choice of watching Civil War at home or on a big screen, the big screen wins every time.”