Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A hospital gown, open up the back

There are many studies of ex-cinemas, the grand old picture houses of the 30s and 40s of cinema’s heyday, the time of talkies and newsreels before TV came along. While some were converted into more conventional theatres or bingo halls, many of these buildings were lost and the legacy of local cinema with them.

But I don’t intend to talk so broadly about cinemas, rather I’m focusing on the changes that are happening to this very day.

I first started going to see films regularly when I was around 16 or so. It coincided with a newfound independence and the ability to legally back up my desire to see ‘15’s.
I had taken a year out of school after a bad start at my sixth form, and in the interim before I started my A-levels at a college, I took the opportunity to drink in as much cinema as terrestrial TV could offer.
All day long I would watch films on TV or from videos recorded when I couldn’t catch them, and I took in everything from 40s screwball classics and 50s B pictures to 70s thrillers and 80s blockbusters.

When I started college, I found myself with quite a bit of free time as we only needed to be in college for our lessons, so I made many trips to the Harrow Warner plex to see the latest Hollywood jobs and got the tube central for anything more unusual.
I carried on in this way at University, except unlike college, which I enjoyed, I grew to hate Uni and so would spend an increasing amount of time going to the pictures or collecting videos with my new part-time job’s discount.

Rather than just the films, visiting the cinema itself was part of the experience, and I came to know the differences between cinemas and between screens within the cinemas themselves, making a little mission to visit as many different cinemas as possible, at least in central London.
This aim was a lot more interesting back then, as there were simply more cinemas around. Since the early 90’s I have seen the demise of many a cinema in the West End, some of which I never got the chance to visit.

At some point early in the millennium, Odeon gained ownership of the ABC cinema chain, and began a process of assimilation or destruction.
A number of cinemas, such as Panton Street and Covent Garden survive those times as new Odeon cinemas, but many fell by the wayside.
One most recent loss is the Odeon Wardour Street and ex-ABC Swiss Centre, cunningly located in the building with the tourist-trap clock on the Piccadilly corner of Leicester Square.
Whilst many wouldn’t feel such emotion at the loss of this cinema, owing to the Mezzanine-rivalling ‘front room’ screens, it provided the opportunity to see world cinema and arthouse fare that sometimes weren’t covered elsewhere in London, even with the likes of the ICA, Panton Street and Curzon Soho catering for such tastes.
Despite the relatively small sizes, the screens were still larger than the current monster HD sets and so did at least provide something you couldn’t get at home.
I had managed to see something in each of its four screens before it went, and I have to say I had an affection for the smallest, with the bizarre metal rail between the front row and the screen.

An earlier ABC loss that never made it to Odeon status was the ABC Piccadilly.
Situated on Piccadilly itself, it was opposite the Tower Records/Virgin store and was basically just a small box office at ground level before the descent into the depths were the screens lurked.
The ABC Piccadilly was once a venue for adult movies and in spirit can be seen in the film “An American Werewolf in London”, though that scene was actually based on the Eros cinema that used to be at the site where you’ll now find the Gap shop. It never seemed to lose that seediness, which not only grew from the two screens being literally bisected into four (making for a less than immersive experience) but mainly from the flea bitten state of the place. It has been the only screening that I’ve had to walk out from before the film began because of an unidentifiable but nevertheless rancid odour.
Last time I checked it was still boarded up with the obligatory tourist tat stalls parked outside its doors, long may it rest.

Just down the road from there was the Plaza cinema, a wonderful building with a large lobby and a high ceiling leading to each of the four screens. The Plaza specialised in showing Blockbusters that hadn’t quite completed their run, but had been on release for some weeks, and offered them at budget prices. A sort of grand scale and more expensive Prince Charles cinema, the Plaza provided the opportunity to catch things you may otherwise may have missed, but without the unforgiving scheduling of the PC. Whilst most of the screens were of an average to good quality, the main screen upstairs was beautifully tiered and huge, well worth the asking price.
One day there were flooding problems in the basement and the cinema was closed for refurbishment. It never re-opened, part opening years later as a Tesco Metro and the rest opening later still as the Apollo cinema, a decent cinema itself but amusingly almost the opposite of the Plaza, a luxury cinema for top-dollar prices.

Another recent loss to arthouse venues wasn’t that far from Odeon Wardour Street. The Metro Cinema, which changed names to the Other Cinema a couple of years before its demise, was a lovely little two screen venue which specialised in foreign and indie releases.
Found down the side of the Trocadero on Rupert Street, it had an old-time ‘Ed’s Diner’ feeling to it and it seemed like the only reason it hadn’t been multiplexed to death is due to it being hidden out of sight.
Today it has become a front for yet another theatre ticket box office catering to our theatre-greedy tourist community.

Still more losses are even more obscure – the Odeon Haymarket was a few minutes from the now Cineworld Haymarket but closed not long after I was regularly cinemagoing so I never visited it; likewise an indie cinema of which I have forgotten the name on St. Martin’s Lane, toward Trafalgar Square and opposite from the Duke of York’s Theatre.
I could swear that there used to be a cinema called “The Phoenix” down the side of the Phoenix theatre, off Charing Cross Road, and my memory of a picture house that once stood on Oxford St. at the Tottenham Court Road end is hazier still.

Despite the increasing success of box offices in recent years, I can’t help fear for my cinemas, and I’ve never taken for granted that I have so much choice – I can’t comprehend of what it would be like to live somewhere where you maybe have a choice of a two-screen indie and a multiplex at most, three screens of which are taken up showing the latest blockbuster on rotation.
Whilst I do appreciate some of the positives of the multiplex chains – the usually large screens and generously terraced seating - it has to be said that sometimes the audience just doesn’t actually give as much of a fuck about seeing a film as they do in the West End. Even as you venture out of the centre, to the Odeon Tottenham Court Road or Marble Arch cinemas, the audience become that bit more irritating that much more frequently, where the act of film-going is seen as a social event instead of what it is – sitting in a dark room with strangers and watching a fucking film.

I would go on to discuss the cinemas that remain today, but that is for another time.

Here’s a picture found at this link Golders Green cinema. It closed after screening Eyes Wide Shut, the only cinema within walking distance. Bastards.

Follow these links to find information on London’s lost cinemas, and some pictures here


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  1. The ABC Piccadilly is some sort of bar/club/lounge now, is it not?

    I only moved to London in 2001 so Odeon and Warner already owned everything. But I am old enough to remember the days before Multiplexes. When there were local fleapits in various areas of Dublin. With one screen each. I saw ET, superman 3 etc in those cinemas.

    When the first (UCI)Multiplex opened in Dublin, it was a major deal. Then they were spreading all over the place, and the fleapits were closing. A little antfarm version of Globalisation.

  2. It probably is, but it should just be gutted and burnt to purge it.
    I haven't really looked in months but I will next time I pass.

  3. You know what I like? The tube on Oxford Circus has had all these posters peeled off one of the levels and you can see the bottom layer. And they're old adverts for Twin Peaks, Virgin Megastores and Cyrano de Bergerac, amongst others. I'd like somewhere to routinely put up old posters, but all from a specific year together. Just the tube circa 84, or 87 or 91, it can change each fortnight. That sort of thing. Posters up for Basil the Great Mouse Detective or Baron Munchausen, VO5 and The Thompson Directory. Make me feel like I was on a trip to The Natural History Museum, or my mum is taking me into town to see Labyrinth.