Memories of Manchester’s Cornerhouse
I moved to Manchester in January 2001 and got my first job two months later, as a box office assistant at Cornerhouse. I was a stranger to Manchester and even though I was only working one 3-hour shift every Thursday evening, I soon felt at home there. I subsequently worked as an usher, box office manager, and for more than ten years was the resident quiz-master. Staff came and went but there were/are a large number of folk who just stayed. It’s one of those places – it’s hard to leave.
When I found out that Cornerhouse (never The Cornerhouse – that’s in Nottingham) was merging with The Library Theatre to become HOME Manchester, I knew I had to mark it in some way. So I contacted a few members of staff, some who were there at the very beginning in 1985, some more recent alumni (only been there for a mere decade or so), and asked them all the same questions. Here’s what they told me.
Debbie Fielding, Publications Manager (started 1996)
Chris Payne: What are your favourite memories of Cornerhouse?
Meeting the League of Gentlemen in the bookshop and Malcolm Garret (who was in the Sublime exhibition) at The London Art Book Fair. Dressing up as Madonna for our 25th Birthday.
CP: What will you miss most about the old place?
The bar! Many a happy time has been spent there.
CP: What won’t you miss?
CP: What are you looking forward to most about HOME Manchester?
Being part of something at the very beginning.
Roger Quigley, Maintenance Assistant, Artist (started 1997-ish)
CP: When did you start working at Cornerhouse?
I think somewhere around 1997. I’m 46 you know – memory of a goldfish’s sieve.
CP: What are your favourite memories of Cornerhouse?
Just working with some great people to be honest. Exhibition highlights would be 23Envelope with Vaughan Oliver, with their artwork for 4AD records, and the wonderful Archigram – madcap 1960s walking cities.
CP: What won’t you miss?
The archaic heating and plumbing – remember Mrs Wilberforce’s boiler in The Ladykillers?
CP: What will you miss most about the old place?
The archaic heating and plumbing! Hehe…just its quirkiness, welcoming atmosphere and proximity to Java.
CP: What are you looking forward to most about HOME Manchester?
I hope that it develops a music programme. The new theatre space and certain cinemas would really lend themselves to the sort of music festivals that are common in other European countries and I think we’d be missing a trick if that wasn’t developed – but what do I know? I change bulbs and paint walls white.
Marisa Draper, Engagement Director (started 2004)
I started off in the position of exposures Student Film Festival Intern and have since worked as project assistant and young people’s programme producer – and spent 6 years doing that brilliant job. Our aim has always been to help young people from all walks of life to try their hand at various creative pursuits, develop their skills and go on to pursue careers in the creative industries. The young people achieved amazing things, winning national awards and gaining some really exciting jobs in the arts, TV and film. Since become Head of Engagement in 2013, I’ve been able to use all the fab experience I’ve gained over the years to put together a new Engagement Team and programme. I hope we can reach even more people at HOME and of all ages too!
Favourite memories? I loved working on Jeremy Deller’s Procession, all the LiveWire Film Camps, the Creative Stars talent development project. Too many to mention!
The 80s themed 25th Birthday Party was a real highlight. Everyone embraced the night, dressing up in the most ridiculous outfits. I made a cardboard Pacman out of some old bike boxes I sourced from the Harry Hall Cycle shop down the road. It was brilliant!
I’ll miss the quirkiness of the old place, but I’ll definitely not miss the sauna office. On a typical winter day, it’ll be –5 outside and 30+ inside. It’s not easy to dress for such extremes and the summer really requires stamina and very light-weight clothing. We’ve never been able to work out why it’s so hot. Maybe MMU will get to the bottom of it.
I can’t wait to share a venue with our theatre team. They’ve been theatre-less for so long now. It’ll be amazing to really bring everything together under one roof. Oh and being able to read subtitles in the tiered seated cinemas at HOME will be luxury!
Tom Summers, Cornerhouse Journeyman (started 2004)
After finding out I’d got the job of the Front of House manager, I think Mr Jeffers told me I could get free tickets so I went directly to watch The Cooler. At the time I was a film student so the job really helped me stay on top of new releases and classic/interesting stuff I should have seen. I took a year out of Cornerhouse in 2011 to work in Toronto at an old rep cinema named Bloor Cinema. They had the same independent feeling, but we would on occasion have Jurassic Park fancy dress parties and throw fake blood at each other.
I co-run a film night in various venues around town. We show trashy horror/sci-fi/weird stuff. On Halloween, a couple of times, Cornerhouse has been kind enough to let us do it in Cinema One. My favourite experience was screening Braindead to a sold-out cinema of horror fans. We had a ropey old 35mm print of the film, which made it look grungy as hell. The print also kept snapping, to which the audience were applauding and laughing every time it happened. Luckily we had a very skilled projectionist (Garry Watson) on at the time who seemed to have a sixth sense about film breaks and could foresee when they were going to come.
I’ll miss working somewhere that has historical value to Manchester. I know we’re still the same company and it’s the same people moving over to the new building but we’re going to have to build a new reputation with HOME as we’re a new, combined organisation. I’m sure we will. I will also miss the odd smell in the server room which I’m convinced is a 25-year-old dead rat.
I won’t miss, on occasion, having to wear a hard-hat and boots in the projection booth because the building is literally falling apart. That only happened once really and was actually pretty funny. I felt like a REAL man!
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with the cinema programme at HOME. With more screens it means we can do more with what we’ve got. I’m also pretty excited about the theatre side of things. It should be a new and interesting experience. Over the years at Cornerhouse I’ve worked as an usher, in the bookshop, projectionist, front of house manager, gallery invigilator and IT support. Maybe the new place will let me add a few more things to my CV. ‘King of HOME’?
Tim Sheehan, Bookshop Manager (started 1990)
I started working at Cornerhouse five years after it opened but I used to come in from the very beginning to watch offbeat films like Wings of Desire and Koyaanisqatsi, or drink in the bar before going to the Hacienda just down Whitworth Street. The bar was actually the first place in Manchester in which drinkers could be seen through the windows (before this, all licensed premises had frosted glass windows – a throwback to some kind of ‘Victorian values’ that alcohol drinkers should not be seen by minors). This goldfish bowl effect caused quite a stir at the time (‘it’s full of posers’ was the common accusation), but is now, of course, commonplace.
I have loads of great memories, and famous encounters in the shop – Ralf from Kraftwerk, Lenny Henry, Tilda Swinton, Adam Faith – but the most unforgettable was Eric Cantona strutting into the building. It was the same week that his photo had been on every front page all over the world following the notorious ‘kung-fu kick’ incident. He looked imperious and exuded charisma (and I say this as a Liverpool fan). Staff and customers were swooning. Also I must say I have been privileged to see some absolutely mind-blowing films here – images that will stay with me forever.
I’ll miss all the regular customers (hopefully they will follow us down to HOME). It’s the people that make a place, and I’ve known some of our customers for 25 years – an interesting and diverse bunch they are too. Also I will miss the building itself – and Cinema One – both iconic landmarks.
I’ll not miss the lifts breaking down, the toilets flooding, and having to deal with the flotsam and jetsam of Oxford Road – shop-lifters, bag thieves, aggressive drunks…
I’m looking forward to more great films, theatre and art, and hopefully more great memories.
Isabelle Croissant, Programme Manager (started 2000)
I remember feeling quite relieved, during a Peaches Christ performance, that I was sat in the middle of a row when the person near the aisle got a full lap dance by a scantily clad, vest-wearing, sweaty, hairy librarian in loose Y-fronts.
At this point it’s hard to say what I’ll miss most about the old place. I think not knowing every nook and cranny of the place is going to be real weird. Oh and chuckling when I stumble upon a Neil Hughes artwork my colleague Roger put all over the place. Sorry, bit of a Cornerhouse in-joke there. (CP: I’ve included an example here – below a small shelf in the office back stairs – entitled ‘Cup Holder’)
I won’t miss frantically trying to clean and dry a cinema after a pipe burst on the morning of the opening of a big festival, armed with buckets, mops, hoovers, dryers and whatever else we could find. Hopefully a thing of the past!
The future? Making new memories to rival the old ones.
Tom Jeffers, Front of House Manager (started 1985)
Cornerhouse gave me a film education through classical European art house cinema from directors like Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Bergman, Eisenstein, Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder, Leona, Tarkovsky – plus all the great American directors like Welles, Cassevettes, Sayles, Coppola, Fuller, Scorsese and Lynch. I’ve watched them all in the three cinemas at Cornerhouse.
I’ll remember having a drink, talking the talk and walking the walk with Quentin Tarantino after the preview screening of Reservoir Dogs, smooching with Julie Christie (CP: I need more details on this, Tom) – and literally bumping into Lauren Bacall on the stairs to the café.
What I will miss most about the old place, apart from the iconic building itself, are the friendships and relationships built up over 30 years with colleagues and customers alike.
What I won’t miss is the toilets blocking and leaking into the cinemas, junkies shooting up in the toilets, and football fans marauding through the foyer whilst being pursued by police with batons.
Our challenge now is to turn HOME into everything that people fondly remember Cornerhouse for – onwards and upwards!
Suzanne Davies, Publications Officer (started 1999)
Before I worked here, way back in 1989, when I was still a teenager (honest!), I was working over the road stuffing leaflets for Manchester Theatres, while Bob Scott (one of the Cornerhouse founders, I believe) and his team were in the adjacent office working on a Manchester Commonwealth Games bid. Cornerhouse was the favourite place for my best friend (a fellow leaflet stuffer) and I to have lunch, and we took a whole hour every day to sit in the Cornerhouse café window and just watch people go by. They did a mean potato, salad and hummus back then, and you could help yourself to as much home-made real mayonnaise as you wanted. I’d just left home and thought this was the height of sophistication (little did I know that ten years later I would be working here).
I remember coming to see the film Audition at Cornerhouse with my then boyfriend (now husband). It was the first time I experienced people walking out of a film in disgust. It did make me a little queasy, I have to be honest.
One year, while on the Cornerhouse Publications book stand at London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel Gallery, Nick Rhodes (of Duran Duran fame) bought a copy of a popular punk book from us. I am embarrassed to say that I was a little starstruck. So too did interior designer Linda Barker (but I cannot remember which book it was). We once received a signed cheque in the Publications office from Yoko Ono – she was buying some of her own books from us, which we were distributing on behalf of Modern Art Oxford.
I think I’ll miss everything about Cornerhouse. I’ll especially miss the friendly and interesting faces, and the welcoming atmosphere. Weirdly, since being a teenager, I have always worked and/or studied from a place on Oxford Road in Manchester, so a move of just 500 metres down Whitworth Street to a non-Oxford Road address is rather strange to me. But I am sure I will cope. Somehow. I shall just have to re-train my feet to go that bit further down the road.
I’ll not miss all the split offices – or the smelly drains and temperamental staff toilet. Oh, and the smell of wee in the fire escape. Can I say that? (CP: Yes.)
The new place signals a new beginning. I’m looking forward to the spanking new office space and feeling more like ‘part of the whole’. There’s an exciting new programme, and I’m looking forward to having not one, but two theatres on site too.
Gemma Parker, Galleries, Bookshop (started early 2000s)
Favourite memories include taking part as an artist in The People You’re Not exhibition and Sketch-o-Matic booth. Both were really fun experiences.
I met Viggo Mortensen in the bookshop and remember taking extra care when giving him his change so that our hands lingered for more than what was an appropriate amount of time.
I’ll miss the cosiness of the building and the views of Oxford Road but I won’t miss going down into the basement to switch the lifts on or off – I always feel like I’m on a set from The Walking Dead.
Garry Watson, Chief Projectionist (started in 1985)
I started in October 1985 – day one. So that’s almost 30 years, man and boy. I’d worked at a cinema in Newcastle for 10 years previously and thought that was pushing it.
I’ve had quite a few memorable moments – meeting Arthur Miller, sharing a Chinese meal with Guy Maddin, chatting with Richard Attenborough in the projection room a couple of months after we opened. (CP: Hold up! Dickie? More information please, Garry!)
I met Dickie on two occasions. Each time was a BAFTA event, as he was chairman at the time. Whenever he had a film out he would screen it for members and give a little talk afterwards. In 1985 he presented A Chorus Line, then in 1987 Cry Freedom. I was in projection room 2/3 and he came in and chatted a bit.
I can’t remember exactly what we said, but he was interested in the projectors and everything. He also came in during the interval for Cry Freedom. Perhaps we should have left out the intermission. As everybody got up to leave he said something like ‘Oh dear, I do hope they’ll come back.’ We waited a while and gradually they filed back in. I remember he had his arm around my shoulders in true ‘luvvie‘ fashion. The sad thing is that the first Chief Projectionist, Ray Goodman, was looking forward to Dickie’s first visit but died a couple of days before. We had a drink in the bar after work then he went home and had a major stroke. Ray is a true forgotten man of Cornerhouse.
The first ten years were great. There seemed to be a genuine maverick spirit about the place. We weren’t afraid of controversy – and we didn’t show adverts!
I won’t miss the rank, dank confines of Cinema 2/3 projection room. A number of years ago a projectionist went mad with the black paint. It’s felt like a tomb ever since. I was convinced I’d end my days there. I’ll probably miss it too of course, but nostalgia will come with time.
The future? Well, if Jason Wood, the new director of film, has his way then HOME could be rather exciting.
Rob Hamilton, Barfly (started in 1988)
I first started drinking in Cornerhouse in 1988. It was the first bar of its kind in Manchester. My fond memories include seeing Eric Cantona the day after he was banned from football for a year, meeting cinematographer Christopher Doyle (CP: Chunking Express, Rabbit-proof Fence, Hero, In The Mood For Love – Doyle is a ‘ledge’ as they say in Australia) and seeing the back of David Byrne as he walked up the stairs to the café . I’ll miss the atmosphere in the bar, my friends who sit awhile and pass the time there and the fabulously friendly bar staff. I won’t miss the many cappuccino drinkers! At HOME I’m looking forward to a new adventure and a new chapter in my dotage.
Andy Murray, Box Office, Front of House, Bookshop (1995-2009)
I started in October 1995, left in September 2009. Fourteen years, man and boy.
Favourite memories? Oh, there are just so many. Many are unrepeatable or incriminating. But for one, the time I first spoke to an attractive young colleague by telling her a really terrible joke (the punch-line was ‘Yes – I was a Vietnam vet’), it has ultimately resulted in us being parents to two children.
For another, the time I was acting as Front of House Manager during a sing-along screening of The Sound of Music. One member of the audience parked his powder-blue vintage car just outside the cinema. During the first half the car began to leak petrol right down a drain. The Fire Service was called out to check it was OK. It was fine – but the audience were particularly fascinated by the arrival of a bunch of fireman. The firemen eventually set off – and I swear this is true – hanging from the fire engine serenading their new friends with a boisterous rendition of Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer as they went. One of those moments when you think, ‘I genuinely love this place’. Then there was the time Barry Chuckle introduced himself to me, but that’s another story.
Some of my favourite people in the world still work there, but they’ll be off to HOME, so that’s alright. The building itself might be very tatty around the edges, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time hanging around in those edges and I’m enormously fond of it. It’s a genuinely iconic place with a welcoming, lively atmosphere, and I will miss not being able to just wander in.
Let’s face it, HOME has got an awful lot to live up to. But a fresh start does at least mean a big helping of new potential. I only hope if fulfils that. If it’s half as good as Cornerhouse, it’ll still be quite something. Fingers crossed.
Chris Payne, Box Office Manager, Quiz-master (2001 – 2013)
One of the great things about working on box office was that you saw pretty much everyone who came through the doors. One Saturday morning there was a private screening of a documentary about Shaun Ryder, and the cinema foyer turned into a veritable Madame Tussauds of Manchester music survivors – packed with Roses, Mondays, New Order and Tony Wilson. I also remember Anthony H coming for a meeting in mid-winter with flip-flops on. There was three inches of snow outside.
I’ll long remember performing Get Carter in the café with a crack(ed) Cornerhouse jazz band in 2009 (with the above-mentioned Roger Quigley on drums), as part of a jazz season I’d programmed. And I’ll never forget a film quiz I co-hosted with Barry Norman in 2007. A sweet guy who liked a glass of white wine, he wasn’t short of a tale or two – I remember him describing Schwarzenegger as ‘a walking special effect’. That was a good evening.
But mostly, and I think almost everyone here has mentioned this, mostly I’ll miss the people – whether staff or the customers. Yes, it’ll be tough saying goodbye to Cornerhouse the building, with its temperamental boilers, malfunctioning toilets and odd smells – but it’s the people who made Cornerhouse what it was, who created the atmosphere and allowed it to continue to thrive as part of Manchester’s cultural fabric. And it’s the people – the staff and the customers – who will ensure that the ‘house becomes a HOME.
By Chris Payne
Images by Chris Payne except for the profile shots of Robert Hamilton and Andy Murray
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