Closing the Cinema will further divide St Andrews

Henry Roberts explains how wealthy investors are ridding St Andrews of its cultural spaces.

Justin Timberlake and Tiger Woods recently announced plans to open a high-end US-style sports bar in St Andrews, the golf capital of the world. What has angered both students and residents is that the bar’s proposed site is the beloved cinema and historic landmark, the New Picture House. A campaign has been set up to stop the project.

Tourists flock from all over the world to the home of golf, and much of the town is already dedicated to their tastes and wallets. The cinema is one of few community spaces left in a deeply divided place. There is an infamous ‘town and gown’ divide, a huge diversity crisis within the student body, and a constant swell of drunken tourists who annoy students and locals alike. A celebrity-backed sports bar taking over the only cinema would divide St Andrews even further.

I should know. For four years I lived in the seaside town as an undergraduate, an experience I would generously describe as ‘mixed’. It wasn’t all bad. The classes were stimulating and the beaches are as beautiful as everyone says. But on the whole, it wasn’t enjoyable. I felt lonely, isolated, and out of place. The cinema was one of the few places I felt welcome.

For all its success in the academic league tables, the university has a major diversity problem. It has one of the highest proportions of private-educated students and among the worst ratings for racial diversity. Sure, St Andrews has a very international student body, but, like with many universities, the extortionate tuition fees for overseas students means that only those from wealthy backgrounds are able to travel and study there. (For 2024 overseas applicants, a year of study will cost roughly £30,000.) It is the most expensive place to rent for students in Scotland, and the highest in the UK outside of London. This was before the 8% rent increase was announced for student accommodation earlier this year. In class terms, it is highly uniform.

The New Picture House in St Andrews

Does a single cinema have the potential to change all that? Of course not. As I’ve said, the town was already divided when I was a student and the cinema was fully running. But the cinema offered a place of solace and reflection. It was one of the few places in town where someone needn’t be rich in order to enjoy themselves. It felt like it was run for the benefit of the community, not to enrich its financial backers.

Without the cinema, things will almost certainly get worse. One gets the feeling that Tiger Woods and Justin Timberlake don’t have the interests of the alienated undergraduate at heart. The plans put forward to Fife council say that one screen will be retained to play the latest releases. Even if this promise is kept, one screen is not enough to play the range of films a university town deserves, and the atmosphere of a rowdy sports bar is hardly the ideal space in which to watch an international drama or the latest family film.

Cinema has always offered an escape for the lonely. It’s a place to go to with friends, with a partner or by yourself. It offers a window onto the wider world. Despite the international body of students, the three streets in Fife can seem very provincial and insular over the four years of an undergraduate degree. A diverse programme of films help connect students and locals to the rest of the world. Without frequent trips to the New Picture House, I’m not sure I would have made it to graduation.

The removal of the cinema would be part of a growing trend of ridding the public sphere of cultural spaces. Fewer and fewer spaces are dedicated to the pursuit of artistic and emotional enrichment. Each building in St Andrews is a prime piece of real estate, and spaces of artistic expression are slowly being eaten up, whether by wealthy investors or by the university. In 2021, the Barron Theatre, the student black-box theatre just a few doors down from the New Picture House, was closed after the space was re-appropriated by the university, despite protest from students.

There is a deeper matter here. A successful university needs a broad range of students with a varied range of interests. The cinema and spaces like it are necessary for the cultural sustainability of the town. Despite the privilege of the students, there was – and still is – a strong subculture of artists, poets, musicians and filmmakers. These students may be the minority but they are an essential component of a healthy student body, one that where alternative views can be expressed, ideas challenges and institutions resisted. With the cinema gone, St Andrews will lose another of the magnets that draws such people to study there. Nobody wins, other than the owners of sports bars and golf shops.

The replacement of the cinema with a sports bar will be one more brick in the wall between ordinary students and the moneyed interests that run most of the town. There are already plenty of spaces in St Andrews to drink and enjoy sports. Thirty pubs in a town of roughly 17,000 means St Andrews has one of the largest number of drinking holes per capita in the country. Those wishing to watch a new film, on the other hand, would have to travel to Dundee to see it without the distraction of dart-throwing and duckpin bowling.

The project should be resisted and I hope more people join the campaign to express their anger. These plans are symbolic of a wider trend of cultural spaces closing and the public and university sphere being eaten up by wealthy investors. With arts budgets being slashed by the Scottish Government, the survival of our artistic and cultural institutions is more important than ever. Films aren’t just distracting entertainments; they provide personal and social fulfilment. To rid St Andrews of its only cinema would be a crime against students and ordinary people with far-reaching consequences for the town and university. The only people who stand to benefit are the financial backers. This rich town will be culturally poorer.

Henry Roberts is a writer and photographer.

Twitter: @henry_roberts6. Instagram: henry_roberts_photographer.