Politicians have not had an easy run of it all recently. Those in the House of Commons have filled our airwaves and regardless of which side of the arguments you support, I was grateful to switch the TV and Radio off and put the Newspapers aside for a week away by the Sea recently.
On my return, I went through the pile of Newspapers on the doormat and found an Obituary of former Councillor Bernard Atha. Some of you may have heard of or known Bernard but he was a Leeds City Councillor from 1957 and he served for 57 years until 2014.
I met Cllr. Atha when I was running cinemas. He was looking for a solution to the future of the Hyde Park Cinema and the company I was working with wanted it as a start of a new “Art Cinema” offer. We agreed to take over the management of one of the oldest cinemas in England and it still had gas lighting! It was a joy and loved by students and cinema buffs alike. The staff we inherited certainly can be called characters and I often felt I was taking part in a remake of the black and white film the “Smallest Show of Earth” with a present-day Margeret Rutherford playing the role of the Box Office manager!
Soon we realised that as a commercial business we couldn’t raise the capital to refurbish the Cinema and build on the land to the side of the cinema to provide modern customer experiences. The toilets were from the Victorian era. It was decided we couldn’t continue to run the cinema and I was charged with negotiating a withdrawal. My first step was to make contact with Cllr Atha and we agreed to have lunch at the Queens Hotel and discuss the problems we were facing.
That lunch led to what was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of my life, you see Bernard Atha was not just an amazing councillor, he was one of the most influential forces in the arts in the North. I loved his stories from his acting in the Ken Loach film Kes and his walk-on roles in Coronation Street. If my memory serves me correctly, he had been part of a quartet of Councillors who took on the leadership of the City Council and they together set about what has been a remarkable and often unsung achievement. The City thrived under their leadership and Bernard’s mission was to make Leeds the cultural centre of the north.
He was a key figure in the creation of the Northern Ballet and the Leeds Playhouse Theatre. The West Yorkshire Playhouse was built because Bernard made it happen. For me, it’s the National Theatre of the North. He was a very canny man and we spoke of his decision to persuade the board of the playhouse to hire the talented Judy Kelly as its Artistic Director. I remember him smiling, “We needed someone who would challenge us” and she did with great success.
As our lunch came to an end, Bernard looked at me and said he accepted our offer to hand the cinema back and that he would explore other options, such as our suggestion that the management of the Leed Film Festival should take it over and he thanked me and my colleagues for trying our best with it. We walked out of the hotel together and shook hands. He was, as I now recognise, someone who put his community first and he was the very best example of a local politician who made things happen.
In researching this blog I looked up the Hyde Park Cinema and was delighted to see it’s soon re-opening after an extensive refurbishment with a new extension onto the side and will now boast all those creature comforts we expect from Arts Cinemas. It’s now owned and operated by Leeds Heritage Theatres which includes the Grand Theatre and the legendary City Varieties Music Hall – both I have been privileged to work in, and it’s to Bernard Atha’s vision and legacy that all three with the West Yorkshire Playhouse continue to entertain and thrive and will do so long after his death.
Bernard was awarded a CBE in 2007. There will be many who remember Bernard Atha and will have known him far better than me from my brief interactions. I am sure some people question his motivations and his record of achievement, but all good civic leaders have their fans and critics. If they haven’t, I often question if they have done all they could for their communities as that’s impossible without collecting a few detractors, often jealous of their work but for me, Cllr Bernard Atha was a Local Hero.