International Museum Day, 18 May - A history of cinema in Kronological order
Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema brings its art-house past to life by challenging pupils to save the world. Adi Bloom reports
The children stand under a sepia-tinted portrait of a middle-aged man. He is dressed in trilby and cravat; behind round glasses, his eyes gaze dreamily into the distance. The children look slightly bored.
Year 5 pupils from Hotspur Primary School in Newcastle- upon-Tyne are touring Tyneside Cinema, a 75-year-old architectural confection of mock- Mughal and Art Deco. They have seen a display cabinet housing a collection of early movie cameras, with nearby screens displaying black-and-white footage. The man under whose portrait they now stand is Dixon Scott, ardent Orientalist, founder of the cinema and great-uncle of film director Sir Ridley Scott.
They traipse into the main auditorium to watch some newsreels from the cinema’s archive, fidgeting as they see footage of a young Queen Elizabeth II smiling determinedly as she is driven through the newly opened Tyne tunnel.
Then, suddenly, the picture goes fuzzy. A young woman, bound and gagged, appears on screen, looking out at the audience in terror. Behind her is a man in a top hat and frock coat. His face is unusually pale; when he speaks, it is with a Transylvanian accent. The children perk up noticeably: this is not what they were expecting.
The Transylvanian man, it transpires, is called Kronos. Through the power of time-travel and general evilness, he has taken over the Tyneside Cinema. In order to save the world and, more specifically, the moving- picture medium, the Newcastle pupils must track down and photograph all evidence that the cinema is being transformed into a Kronoplex. The act of photographing Kronos’s takeover, they are told, will help to reverse it.
This time, as the children pound the cinema’s passageways, it is with new enthusiasm.
“So often, primary-school kids get dragged along for a school trip and learn about a curriculum topic,” says Holli McGuire, cinema projects manager at the venue. “I wanted something that made our heritage engaging for this age group.”
Time Machine, the tale of Kronos and his efforts at cinematic domination, provides “a compelling narrative that brings an emotional hook for children to buy into,” she says.
“There! There! There!” a Hotspur pupil says, jumping up and down. “Is that a hat?” And, indeed, alongside the old cinema cameras in the display case, rests Kronos’s top hat. Opposite, an art-house film poster has been replaced with one for The Sound of Kronos. “Hear him sing! See him dance! Watch him juggle nuns!” it reads.
In the snack bar, an attendant leans nonchalantly in the entrance to the kitchen. His T-shirt is emblazoned with the logo “Kronoplex”. By the sink behind him is a bottle of Kronoclean washing-up liquid. “How did he do it so fast?” a boy asks breathlessly.
And where once the children stood beneath the portrait of Dixon Scott, there is now a sepia print of Kronos, dressed in trilby and cravat. “We spent ages getting the right tone of sepia,” says Ian Fenton, a television scriptwriter whose writing credits include Byker Grove and Emmerdale, and who conceived the Time Machine project. “There’s a lot of detail in there.”
It is, he says, “the single most satisfying creative work I’ve done. It’s because of the uniqueness of it. I’m a storyteller and the story here is spread out in all these different places, with the children as part of the story.
“The level of emotional buy-in is something I’ve never experienced before. And it’s incredibly rewarding. In TV, a lot of people say ‘no’ to you. Here, they said ‘OK’.”
Eventually, Fenton says, he would like to expand the project to other arts venues and heritage sites around the country. The central Kronos story, he insists, is eminently transferable. The day at the cinema is the culmination of a five-part programme, the earlier parts of which take place in the classroom.
After gathering their evidence, the children return to the stairs outside the main auditorium. Here, a member of cinema staff is holding a letter he says has just arrived in the time machine. “Thanks to your efforts,” it reads, “we’ve stopped Kronos from taking over most of the building. Now we need to save the auditorium, which has been turned into a Kronoplex.”
As the doors to the cinema reopen, the children gasp with the thrill of anticipated terror. Their mission is to find six hidden envelopes, containing key questions about the cinema’s history, which they must answer correctly in order to overthrow Kronos.
But this time the screen is barely visible behind swirling dry ice and lurid green light. Melodramatic music plays; Kronos laughs out loud. “Check the chairs!” children call. “Go! Go!” “Check the sides!” Someone wriggles along the floor between the seats as they all look for envelopes. There is a piercing shriek from the front of the room.
Once the children have found all six envelopes and answered the questions contained in each, the words “KRONOS CAPTURED” flash up on the screen.
Ten-year-old Betty Warnock is bouncing up and down on the spot. “I’m really happy we’ve defeated Kronos,” she says. Then she lowers her voice. “My friend felt a bit upset, because she thought it was real. So I was very happy he didn’t win, so that she wasn’t scared.”
“They’re buzzing,” says Simon McLoughlin, a teacher at Hotspur. “At this time of day, their body clock is saying that it’s four minutes to the end of school. But they’re really buzzing and enthusiastic.”
Catching one of Betty’s classmates in a rare stationary moment, a member of the cinema staff asks her to name her favourite part of the day. “Saving the world!” she says, without hesitation.
“Yes,” the staff member responds thoughtfully. “Saving the world is always good, isn’t it?”
For more on Time Machine visit www.imutt.co.uk/info
Key stage 1: School detectives
As well as studying their local cinema’s past, get pupils to investigate their school with NuffieldHistory’s resource.
Key stage 2: London, then and now
See how the landscape of the capital has changed with an interactive game from Exploring20thCenturyLondon.
Key stage 3: Time travel agent
Encourage pupils to travel back to a chosen historical era with Miss R’s English activity.
Key stage 4: Cinema and you
Help pupils to understand their relationship with the films they see on screen in a starter from aussieguy1977.
Key stage 5: From the beginning of screens
Journey through the history of British film with LLeach87’s PowerPoint presentation.
Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.uk/resources033
Original print headline: International Museum Day, 18 May - A history of cinema in Kronological order