Cinema Under the Stars

This chapter takes as its focus an open-air, ‘pop-up’, site-specific cinema in the car park at Marshall’s Mill, Leeds, a Grade II* listed former flax spinning mill. In the shadow of the official heritage of the mill, this was a Do-It-Yourself event.

Introduction: Counter-mapping heritage, cinema and place

Neither of us has much experience in cinema or heritage projects. We started out, for different reasons, simply hoping to enjoy an open air screening of our own making. Brett had grown up during the 1970s with drive-in theatres in the USA; he lectures on youth arts and urban leisure. Simon was planning on showing films in his garden and, as an architect, his practice centres on urban design; he is based in offices at Marshall’s Mill. After weather postponed another small scale back garden attempt we sketched out our initial ideas in the most hallowed traditions on cocktail napkins over pints in pubs. Fuelled in this way our ideas escalated and Simon’s back ground as a practicing architect prompted, ‘Direct action’ not to talk and dream but to act! As our plans for the site-specific cinema grew, we had a series of fortunate windfalls, including a partnership with the UK Green Film Festival. After nine months of planning (and pints), in May 2012 we hosted a screening of the filmHappy(2011 Dir. Roko Belic) in the Marshall’s Mill car park. In sum, the event became something far more interesting than we had initially envisioned. Schofield and Szymanski (2011: 7) suggested that heritage might come alive when “artistic practice connects people to place in imaginative and often unforeseen ways.” This chapter celebrates the sometimes surprising possibilities for counter-mapping cultural heritage involving cinema under the stars and heritage from below.  In many respects we had created a, ‘Derive’, simply defined in 1958 as a ‘mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences.’ ‘’Debord, Guy, ‘’ theory of derive’’ in Andrettotti and Costa, theory of the derive, 1996


Rather than focus solely on the mill’s history or on the cinema event, we explore the relations between the two: a centuries-old building and a one-night event in its car park. Following a discussion of concepts including the Faro Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (Council of Europe 2005), counter-mapping (Harrison 2011) and heritage from below (Roberston 2012), we introduce the chapter’s dual contexts: Marshall’s Mill and our pop-up cinema event. We then make links from the cinema at the mill and the sensuous experience of place via Non-Representational Theory (Thrift 2008). Throughout the chapter we aim to highlight how cultural resources might be mobilised as a means of “place-shaping” (Fairclough 2009) through which heritage becomes “something vital and alive ... a moment of action” (Smith 2006: 83). Such moments might alert broader publics to the value of heritage landscapes in the spirit of the Faro Convention – that heritage communities have a right to local places of cultural significance.


The chapter resonates with many themes of the Faro Convention (Council of Europe 2005). De Vos (2011: para. 4) described the convention’s principles as “an invitation to think differently – more openly, more widely, more flexibly, more collaboratively – about heritage.” The Faro Convention offers to shift heritage consciousness away from reliance upon elite experts to actively include wider heritage communities, in more open and democratic processes of defining and realising ‘heritage.’ For Robertson heritage “is about people, collectivitity and individuals, and their sense of inheritance from the past and the uses to which this sense of inheritance is put” (2012: 1). Robertson (2012: 2) described such activity as the means through which a sense of place identity is made through a “landscape of activity ... Landscape made meaning full by the tasks performed in it.” That is, heritage is something that peopledo, often in everyday contexts. In these often overlooked contexts it is also important to consider “alternate, ‘hidden’, or non-mainstream social geographies” that provide “counter-mappings” of cultural heritage (Harrison 2011: 79).


Such a shift has been referred to as “heritage from below” (Robertson, 2012) through which active, participatory practices are counter-hegemonic or resist dominant expressions of heritage. For us, however, trajectories ‘from above’ or ‘from below’ follow complex, knotted, and at times simultaneous lines. Marshall’s Mill, the largest building in the Holbeck Urban Village in Leeds (site of over 30 listed buildings), is a post-industrial space converted into offices for creative industries. There is little that is new in this narrative. In brief, it is a beautiful, vast historic building not unlike hundreds of other mills that have been treated in similar fashion across the UK. Yet, the unofficial use of the mill’s car park for a site-specific pop-up cinema runs, in many directions, counter to dominant or top-down notions of cultural heritage, offering direct, open and engaging ways of experiencing both an historic and regenerating urban landscape.


Locating Marshall’s Mill: A Potted History

Although only a short walk from the city’s central train station via Water Lane, Marshall’s Mill is somewhat isolated, located south of Leeds’ city centre and across the River Aire. Situated on the edge of the Holbeck Urban Village regeneration area, it is removed from the more accessible and heavily trafficked areas of Leeds, such as its Victorian central market, Edwardian arcades, and high-profile shopping areas. The site is bordered, to the west, by existing and disused rail lines and viaducts, and from a bird’s eye view the mill sits at the south-western edge of the city centre. The dual sense of proximity and remoteness is evident as the area is marketed as being close to the heart of the city, yet is part of its own officially distinct ‘urban village’ (Holbeck Urban Village n.d.). As part of Leeds’ heritage landscape, Marshall’s Mill isn’t well-known or visited by many beyond those with direct links to the site. The area is notorious as one of the city’s red light districts; it is close to the city centre, yet set apart. Jones and Mean (2010) reported on an earlier Holbeck arts initiative during which artists created an art trail “to encourage people to explore the heritage city, poke into its nooks and crannies, and open spaces that had long fallen out of use or into disrepair” (31). As a consequence, “spaces that were previously no-go areas were brightened up and given life beyond the menace that they had previously held for many local people” (ibid). Our event at Marshall’s Mill shares similar aims to celebrate and make use of the character of the place.


On its website the mill is heralded as “retaining the wealth of character and soul you would expect from one of Leeds’ most important historical buildings” (Marshall’s Mill, n.d.). While this is perhaps a bit of hype, Marshall’s Mill with its adjacent buildings was once one of the largest factories in the world. In December 1843The Penny Magazineof the Society for theDiffusion of Useful Knowledgereported:

Messrs. Marshall, of Leeds … have a flax mill in that town which is among the largest factories in the empire. … The buildings comprising it are scattered over an area of many acres, and exhibit to view an assemblage of structures of different sizes and ages, resembling a little town which has grown with the growth of its manufacturers, not on any very symmetrical plan, but as convenience from time to time suggested. The older portions of the factory [i.e., Marshall’s Mill] present the appearance which is so familiar in respect to factories generally, viz. a broad height and lofty front studded with rows of windows to a height of six or seven stories; and the interior, in like manner, presents the customary factory features of long galleries and rooms filled with machines attended by operatives of both sexes and various ages; with an accompanying noise and bustle...” (502-503)

The story of the mill epitomises conditions of the industrial revolution in Britain. The “various ages” attending to the flax-processing machinery included children, as the mill employed children as well as operated an on-site school for them: “all the children in a factory are bound to attend school for a certain period each day: those who work in the forenoon must attend school in the afternoon; those who work in the afternoon are at school in the forenoon” (ibid: 504). There were some small luxuries, as the school rooms were “comfortably warmed by hot water apparatus; and there is a large plot of ground outside the building which serves as a playground” (ibid: 504). While certainly no children were employed to help us organise the pop-up cinema on site, the regenerated landscape of the mill’s courtyard does include plans for a playground. The plans are intended to create a social landscape in which the workers from various offices within the mill can unexpectedly come together, connect.  There is intent to create a landscape of surprise, fun and opportunity.  The space is hidden, semi-private yet overlooked by all of the offices.  The activity of play; be that, basketball, table tennis or just relaxing on the lawn in the sunshine as a break from the routines of work establishes a sense of individual empowerment.  This is in contrast to the place described in the ‘Penny Magazine’. Now there is a sense of choice.  The ethos of the design approach is to move beyond function and towards a celebration of possibility, to engaging with the building users as you would residents who have a sense of ownership and pride. 


The mill’s heyday was in the early 19thCentury. As noted above, by 1843 the mill had been enlarged and extended several times (in 1817, 1827 and 1830) from its original buildings of 1791 until it formed a U-shaped plan with north, east and south ranges built around a central courtyard. Rising to six storeys, the steam-powered mill housed approximately 7,000 spindles, which replaced numerous hand-driven, cottage industries across rural Yorkshire (Fletcher 1918). With the adjacent Egyptian-style Temple Works, where flax was processed for use in the spinning mill, the complex employed over 2,000 factory workers and was considered one of the largest factories in the world (Fletcher 1918).


English Heritage has listed “Marshall Mills” as “the first successful water and steam powered flax spinning mill.” Such was its success during the mid-19thCentury that the mill “processed one-tenth of the country's total import of flax” and this “success inspired the establishment of 59 flax mills in Leeds by 1839, most centred on Water Lane and East Street” (ibid).  However, due to overseas competition by 1890 the flax industry had collapsed in Leeds and in 1886 Marshall’s production had moved to the USA (West Winds Yorkshire, 2008). The mill served a mail order company during the 1950s, and was then converted into offices. Marshall’s Mill was given Grade II* listed status with English Heritage in 1989.


Simon successfully promoted the opportunity and benefits that the cinema event could have at the Mill and aligned the activity with other stakeholders interests, notably, the opportunity to celebrate the completion of mill’s most recent regeneration phase. From 2011-2012, Simon oversaw the refurbishment (for igloo regeneration fund) of the mill, including 70,000 square feet of commercial space for new office suites, reception and entrance areas, and the forecourt landscape and courtyard (see Figure 1). The pop-up cinema event marked this completed renewal, as well as anniversaries of firms involved in the mill’s redevelopment – igloo regeneration fund (10 years), and Quarmby Construction (40 years); that is, we were celebrating not only the site but the people who had worked to bring it back to life.



Figure 1. Marshall's Mill, Marshall Street, Leeds. Photo courtesy of Rick Harrison.

Figure 2. Seating for the pop-up cinema in the mill's car park. Photo courtesy of Rick Harrison.

Figure 3. Pop-up cinema at Marshall's Mill. Photo courtesy of Rick Harrison.