“It’s not a life saver, but it is a brain saver”: in praise of parent & baby cinema screenings

It’s oh so quiet: the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley. Image: Basil Jradeh/Wikimedia Commons.

A problem faced by new parents, particularly stay-at-home primary carers, is that it’s not merely possible, but actually highly likely, that you’ll go for up to a week at a time without leaving the house. This is particularly true in the winter months, and especially so if you have a partner who can pick up shopping on their way home from work, or use a grocery delivery service, or both.

Hi.

A reasonably recent innovation to combat this is parent and baby cinema screenings. These tend to be in the late morning of a week day, often before the cinema in question would ordinarily open, and are specifically flagged as “Baby Club” or similar in listings. The speakers are quieter, and house lights brighter, than at a normal screening, and  parents tend to be permitted to bring their prams and pushchairs into the auditorium, or allow their child to sit next to them, depending on their own preferences.

These aren’t screenings of children’s films, but of something that happens to be on general release anyway. This is great, because another problem faced by stay at home parents is the complete collapse of any time available to consume any art or media aimed at adults.

Hi.

Such screenings are more common in large cities than elsewhere in the country, at least partially because travelling with a baby is not easy. It’s inadvisable, and in plenty of circumstances actually illegal, for a lone adult to drive a car where the only passenger is a newborn. That means such screenings are more likely to thrive in places with extensive public transport networks or cinemas you can go to on foot. Yup, it’s another advantage of city livin’.

As such it’s probably unsurprising that of the few online aggregators of such screenings, none of which are pretty or comprehensive, Londonnet’s is probably the best. It also attempts, despite the title, to cover all such screenings across the UK and Ireland in any given week. By doing so it offers anyone not in Edinburgh the opportunity to envy the dazzling depth and diversity of films the city’s Filmhouse cinema includes in its Parent & Baby programme. There are some mornings I’ve been tempted to head to King’s Cross station rather than the King’s Cross Everyman, and I’m only just not serious.

Not long ago there was a small scandal about a cinema that would not let

someone take a baby into a standard screening of a film, and which quoted the film’s certificate as a reason to bar the child entry. Technically, legally, for PG and 12A rated films, a child of any age can attend with the consent of an accompanying adult. Some parent and baby screenings therefore limit their repertoire to films with such certificates and are relatively lax about the upper age limit for “baby” attendees.


Others, such as those at the Everyman chain allow children up to 12 months in any film, whereas from 12 to 24 months children are welcome in parent and baby screenings only for U and PG rated films. Most cinemas will also not allow customers who aren’t accompanied by an infant into parent and baby screenings, which not only guarantees a safe atmosphere, but also that no one is going to complain when, as inevitably happens, children cry or need changing, or the older ones try climbing towards the screen in order to better see what’s going on. (This prohibition isn’t merely theoretical; my brother in law was once turned away from a parent & baby screening for arriving without a child, not having realised what he’d booked for.)

It would be an exaggeration to call parent and baby cinemas a life saver, but it is a kind of brain saver. It’s a kind of virtuous circle. The prospect of seeing a film you’re not otherwise going to see in the cinema, if ever, pushes you out the door on certain days of the week when you might otherwise resign yourself to not. It adds routine to a period of life which, initially, knows little routine, being dictated by someone too young to have any concept of time. And it means a rush of stimuli into your brain that are wholly unrelated to looking after a baby. Even if you receive those stimuli while looking after a baby.

It also gives you a strange sense of your child’s progression. The first few times I took my son to a screening, he mostly slept through them. At six months he would sit in his pram looking towards the screen, and would object if he faced the other way. He understood that the screen was the point of being there, even if as far as he was concerned it was – at least according to my doctor – just some random lights, shapes, colours and sounds coming from other there. At a year old he insisted on sitting in his own chair next to me, before inevitably falling asleep.

It also gives you some good anecdotes about the unsuitable material your child is exposed to before they have any idea what’s going on. Recently I saw Armando Iannucci in a cafe and almost went up to him to tell him that he’d directed the first film my baby son had ever seen. It was The Death of Stalin. Although he didn’t like it as much as he liked The Shape of Water. Or try to walk out of it, like he did with Aquaman.

Incidentally, the most attended parent and baby screening I have ever been to, and there is no close second, was Ridley Scott’s All The Money In World, a film about the traumatic kidnap of a child. Whether that represents a failure of most parents attending it to properly check what they were going to see, or something deeply freudian, is a question probably best left unanswered.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.