The Screen on the Green

The Everyman’s Library was founded in 1906 by Joseph Malaby Dent, the tenth son of a Darlington housepainter who left school at 13 and set off for London with half a crown in his pocket. First he worked as an apprentice printer. Later he became a bookbinder. In time he turned his attention to publishing, and founded the Everyman’s Library following the example of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. The idea was to produce durable, well-bound editions of the world’s great books at a shilling a volume, so that they might be bought by “every kind of reader: the worker, the student, the cultured man, the child, the man and the woman.” Each edition bears the same inscription, printed on the title page: “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.”

The Everyman Cinemas are a chain of boutique independent theatres owned by the Everyman Media Group. They are based in the most exclusive suburbs of north and north-west London: Hampstead, Maida Vale, Islington, Belsize Park. Founded in 2000, the groups aims to provide “a truly unique and memorable cinema experience that exceeds expectations and reaches the highest standards possible in quality, comfort and entertainment.” Each theatre offers its patrons in-seat waiter service, a fully-licensed cocktail bar, coffee, cake, champagne and (where possible) freshly baked pizza. Très chic. By design it smacks of elitism: limiting the nuisance distractions associated with the provincial megaplex. It does not model itself upon the ennobling propositions of its eponymous forebear, the Everyman’s Library, whose books can still be found for 50p a pop in the nation’s charity shops. For this reason I wanted to dislike it, but I did not.

After an unfocused ramble through the Museum of London’s “Victorian Walk” and “World City” exhibits, I set off north along Aldersgate  up past the Barbican estate. The sky was overcast, but it was not cold. I read every single plate in the prehistoric, Roman and medieval rooms, so that by the when I reached the Black Death I had very little patience for it. Aldersgate Street became Goswell Road, and the City became Islington. I reached my destination, the Screen on the Green, around 4.30pm. I asked for a ticket to see Denzel Washington in Flight.

“We only have front row seats left.”

“That’s OK. How much will it be?”

“£12.50.”

“…”

“Please insert your card.”

“OK.”

“PLEASE ENTER YOUR PIN.”

“Oh God, I changed my mind. I need to go outside and have a think. Wait – how do I cancel this?”

I took my card and left. The box office assistant was not amused when I reappeared ten minutes later. I explained that while I still thought £12.50 was a little steep, the Vue down the road was only £1 cheaper, and seemed a lot less interesting as material for column-writing.

The Screen on the Green will be 100 years old this October. It began life when a group of Italian brothers started screening silent movies in the vacant unit at 83 Upper Street, Islington. Thomas Harold, the draper at number 82, saw how popular the screenings had become, and invested enough money to help the brothers take over the printer, confectioner and sign writers next door (numbers 84-86), all of which were demolished in order to make room for a purpose-built, 600-seat cinema.

The Empress Picture Theatre was refurbished in 1951 and renamed The Rex, during which time it was particularly popular with local Turkish and Greek expatriates. In 1970 it was renamed The Screen on the Green, and given a foyer which reduced the seating capacity to 300. In 2009, this number shrank again, under the direction of its new owner, Everyman Media, who constructed a stage at the front and a bar at the back. The seats were replaced with a circle of soft chairs and sofas (with foot rests). There are little table stands between each. It seats 125 people, and costs £12.50 to sit at the front.

Upon arrival, the auditorium seemed more like a café, or comedy club, than a cinema. As the trailers ran, a team of around ten bearded twentysomethings delivered cappuccinos, ice cream, beers and cokes to patrons already familiar with the run of things. The high number of staff is a good thing, and they were just as pleasant as the corporate patois had led me to believe. Unaware that Costa culture had infiltrated the art-house scene, I had already had my caffeine fix in the far more costly bakery next door. More fool me. When the trailers finished I feared the worst. The coffee machine kept on grinding at full pelt and the clink of cutlery and glasses carried on. But when the film finally started, the noise died down. The waiters let themselves out quietly, and I enjoyed the film in peace, with ample legroom, and nothing to complain about. Almost reason enough to make the journey to Islington. Everyman, I will go with thee.




Don McCullin in the Snow

It’s been a funny old fortnight in Vauxhall. Last week, a helicopter was forced to divert from its intended route due to heavy fog. It hit a crane on top of Vauxhall Tower and crashed onto Wandsworth Road. The crane jib landed on an empty stretch of Nine Elms Lane, while burning debris rained down on commuters. Two days later it started to snow.

By Sunday it had fully lain. We hatched a plan to walk over to Burgess Park, or maybe into town to visit a museum, but got no further than the Persian café on Kennington Road. I ate a veggie breakfast and went to buy groceries. Because I do not pay enough attention to my clothes, I am always freezing in winter. Nor do my shoes have grip. Back home in the relative warmth, I sipped coffee from a flask and made plans for a Rambo-style mission to Leicester Square. I slid pathetically up to Kennington station, dressed in jeans and jumper as I always am, carrying a little green umbrella like a pissed-up Mary Poppins. Twice I lost my footing entirely, but carried on as if it was all just part of the fun.

Outside Leicester Square tube station tourists were tramping down Charing Cross Road as usual, and all the snow turned instantly to mush. I slid down Little Newport Street, where polite British-Chinese grandchildren held out umbrellas for their Chinese-Chinese grandparents, and middle-aged chefs hung about smoking in the backdoors of Hong Kong-style restaurants. Without stepping foot near a multiplex, I bought a ticket (and membership) at the Prince Charles, and headed downstairs with five or six others to the cinema’s near-perfect 285-seat auditorium.

I tend not to talk about films in this column, focussing instead on the theatres that house them, but the small turnout for McCullin was a real shame. I only hope the weather was responsible. The film is a portrait of former Observer and Sunday Times Magazine photographer Don McCullin. It plays out like a biopic: the now 77-year-old reporter tells us of his youth taking pictures of gangs (many of whom were his friends) near home in east London, then moves on to his experiences abroad: Cyprus, Berlin, Lebanon, Congo, Biafra, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is a thrilling and harrowing ride through the late 20th century, where the spotlight remains on photography, and the questions it raises: is it morally justifiable to take pictures of people in agony, destitute, malnourished and on the verge of death?

The film’s arrangement is humble and unfussy, as is McCullin himself. He offers no definitive answers. He admits he became a “war junkie” and sought new challenges on every occasion. Sometimes he took the picture, sometimes he did not. Sometimes he stopped to help civilians, sometimes he did not. The film is a platform for a much older art form: black and white still images. A medium which has been associated with warfare since Roger Fenton went to the Crimean War in 1855.

The straw that almost broke the camel’s back was the Lebanese Civil War. McCullin was asked to photograph a hospital for mentally ill children, who had been tied to their beds by fleeing staff, and left without food, or water, or sanitation. When asked by locals to take the picture of a naked, starving 16-year-old girl, McCullin insisted they cover her up. The girl sat upright and placed her hands on her waist. “None of us will ever have that kind of dignity,” he said.

Not that McCullin’s bewildered account makes it any less uncomfortable to see such madness. I frequently had to turn away from the screen out of disgust, out of shame. “I thought it was just going to be soldiers,” McCullin told Parkinson after Vietnam. “But the real victims are the poor. Those who don’t have the Mercedes Benz to get away; those without the information or the money who stay behind.” The film draws to a close when Murdoch takes over the Times and Andrew Neil is appointed editor. Serious reportage is no longer required, as it tends to discourage advertisers. McCullin is out of a job.

As I type this the snow has all but melted outside. I can see the Vauxhall Tower from my bedroom window: ugly, obtrusive, resilient. A newly erected crane is busily taking down the ruined one. Vauxhall is always noisy first thing on a morning, and I slept through the crash. The rest of the day was unusually quiet. What happened in Vauxhall was not a political crisis, but an accident. For those involved, of course, the event will always take the form of a question. Namely: why me? But today the roads and stations are working as if nothing ever happened. It is McCullin’s photographs that I cannot seem to shake.




Other People

Of all the irritations of the cinema, other people are the worst. A modern cinema audience will chatter, eat, obscure the view, throw litter, snore and confidently make pronouncements on the plot to all and sundry. Friends will shush friends, then giggle. There are people who I know and love and have planned to murder for 90 painful minutes on a weekend, listening to them talk back to the characters on screen, self-censored by a half-whisper, which only goes to show they know that they are doing something forbidden. It’s true: you are.

And yet. On Monday evening I finished work at 6pm and walked along the streets between St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Smithfield Market. The City is a marvel for being both the oldest and the newest area of central London: steel and glass utility crammed improbably on top of medieval foundations, with plenty of alleys, ditches, old churches and guttural names to amplify the paradox. After reaching the old City walls, I climbed the stairs at Barbican tube station and skulked along the empty walkway which runs above Beech Street. The three mighty towers of the Barbican Estate, Le Corbusier’s bastard sons—Cromwell, Shakespeare and Lauderdale—loomed rigidly above me. I felt as though I was on a film set, about to get my head kicked in by a gang of thugs, or at least discover I was being followed by the Stasi.

On this occasion I met two friends at the Barbican’s swish new cinema. When we arrived the foyer was empty. There were two girls in black shirts and skirts wearing colourful sashes with the word INFO written across them. The impressive set-up for screens 2 and 3 of the Barbican arts complex boasts everything people have come to expect from a contemporary art-house cinema: cake and coffee, bold signage, suggestively Swedish plastic furniture, digital projectors and pop-cultural references dotted ironically on the walls and in the toilets. We ate bowls of pasta in a nearby Italian café, then headed back for the £6 Monday evening screening. More people had by now arrived, of all ages and stripes. Nobody seemed entirely comfortable in the building. Its newness left us feeling a little exposed. Where should we stand? What do we do?

We had taken to our red leather seats in the polished auditorium and were waiting for the screen to boot up when one of my companions took out a bag of crunchy popcorn. Horror of horrors. Relax, I thought. This is an indie comedy starring mumblecore sensation Mark Duplass and Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza: popcorn is OK. Popcorn is good.

And it was. A large part of what makes going to the cinema memorable is the added awareness that comes with sharing your experience with others. Being squashed into a room alongside ten, fifty, one-hundred strangers, is part of the process. There is no such thing as silence when you watch a film like that. In the absence of noise, there lingers the airborne buzz of expectation, the deep breaths of catharsis. With comedy, the pleasure of laughing is partly down to recognising that the lives of others must in some sense resemble your own. People choose their favourite characters, tense up to varying degrees and ooze compassion to the point that the air feels thick before the final credits. I took a handful of popcorn. Though I still relish the freedom to walk into the cinema alone whenever the instinct grabs me, I am glad that, chances are, I won’t be in there on my own.

When the film was over we agreed that it was dumb in parts but pretty decent. A pleasant way to start the week. We said our goodbyes (sad ones, my friends are moving to California this week), and I tried to find a path through the Square Mile in search of Moorgate Station, being constantly re-routed by construction fences which created little lanes and crannies, where the City of the past has been flattened by the demands of—what? Law firms? Accountants? I have no idea.

I took the Northern line south, got off at Oval, stopped to read the day’s mantra on the notice board at the top of the escalator, and headed home. I live in one of the seemingly endless series of early 20th-century tower blocks which spread all over south-east London: erected in a previous period of planned social housing, spurred on by poverty and industrialisation, fifty years before the modernist explosion following the bombs of the Second World War. I walked down a back road past the goods-in entrance of a Tesco supermarket. It was almost midnight. Two men on bikes rode around me like sharks. One lent towards me, forcing me off the pavement onto the road. But there were no cars. Unlike the dead silence of the City, here there is the restless silence of a residential area. I could no longer pretend that I was walking through a film set.




The Showcase Cinema, Teesside.

Last weekend I went “home” to visit my mother. On Saturday evening, I ate dinner with friends. I arrived late, having falsely assumed I knew the way to the restaurant—The Waiting Room, a veggie haven in Eaglescliffe, near Stockton-on-Tees, named for its proximity to the train station into which I had arrived from London King’s Cross the previous day. After a quick detour through Yarm, I ate my bodyweight in mushroom paté and curry. We stayed and chatted until half past nine.

By this time it was very dark and very cold outside. I bade farewell to my dinner companions, who were off to watch someone from Saltburn perform in the X Factor final. I drove through the frosty night in search of the Showcase cinema. A135 out of Eaglescliffe, A66 eastbound. No problem. The cinema is neon lit, and fronted by a bright white tower, which lists the films being shown each week. I parked my mother’s little black car in the near-empty car park and ran inside. I learned some days later that the singer from Saltburn won the competition in the end.

The last time I went to the Showcase, a 14-screen multiplex alongside a dual carriageway just outside Middlesbrough, I was two feet shorter and a lot more interested in dinosaurs. The set-up is a relic of the early ‘90s: a sprawling strip mall, bookended by a casino and a bowling alley, close to a commercial horseshoe and a cluster of chain restaurants. It was American devised, and remains to this day American owned. There are twenty-one other Showcase Cinemas on the peripheries of smaller towns and cities across the UK: Dudley, Newham, Paisley. Because they are geared towards drivers, they are often frighteningly quiet at night. When I was old enough to start going to the cinema alone (or I should say with friends, alone came later), I went to one in the centre of town, which was busier and could be reached by rail.

“Just coffee?” asked the assistant at the Ben and Jerry’s stand.

“Yes, no ice cream for me,” I replied, misunderstanding the question.

“No, I mean… you only want the coffee? No water, no milk?”

“Yes.”

He looked a little unnerved, and handed me a brown takeaway cup with an inch of bitter liquid in the bottom.

“No one’s ever asked for that.”

The proof that I had really travelled back in time twenty years came when I discovered I had been the first person to order an espresso at the snack stand. Not my usual tipple, I admit, but after all that food and with bed a long way off it seemed the right thing to do. The idea of a heavy latte made me wretch. The rest of the cinematic fare didn’t appeal much either: rubbery hot dogs, fizzy drink buckets, ice-cream, popcorn from only £4.95. Dotted about the room were tall shielded billboards, of which only two were advertising movies. Once upon a time these gilded placards were the only way to find out what was coming out over the next few months. Now there is an app.

The theatre itself was, frankly, rank. As you walked in the soles of your shoes stuck to the floor, ripping as you walked, like velcro. The seats wobbled uncontrollably when you adjusted your position. The back rests were horribly low. There were fifteen people in the room with me, not one of whom gave more than a grunt at what was ostensibly a comedy. They all carried huge boxes of popcorn and drink, as if they knew in advance that they’d be needing some distraction.

The film finished around midnight, and in the Showcase’s defence, I was rather impressed that they continued to start films as late as 1am. Good news for insomniacs. I left the cinema by the big glass doors. The car park was nearly empty and the tarmac glistened under the street lamps. I thought back to my first visit here, in 1993, to see a man get eaten on the toilet by a T-Rex. I had sat next to my father, who instructed me that the best thing to do in the event of a scary moment would be to cover my eyes. Then, everything about the place seemed new, and to somehow represent a changing and improving world. Gone was the dusty old Odeon in town with its poor heating, hard-backed wooden seats and dim screens (now itself a car park, in which pretty much nobody parks). Here to stay was this drive-thru world, which, despite being frozen in time, continues to do business. It is a useful reminder of a time when things in the north east didn’t just close, but were built, and stayed open all night.




The Hackney Picturehouse

My blinds are old and crooked, so when the light slipped under them at six or seven a.m. on Sunday morning, I wanted nothing more to do with southeast London. My head hurt. I was tired. I felt sick.

I rose, showered and left the flat as quickly as possible (I’d say this took around two hours), discarding my previous intentions of walking down the Camberwell New Road in search of the heavily feted Peckham Plex. Instead, I took the tube in the opposite direction, switched onto the Overground at Highbury and Islington, and took the train to Hackney Central. I stumbled down Mare Street and was taken aback.

Now I am thinking about modern cinemas.

The Hackney Picturehouse is a marvel. Particularly on a Sunday morning, when the weather is cold and bright in the way that one imagines Sweden must be. The buildings seem more real than usual, because the sky is so pale. Skips and kebab shops look vivid and wonderful. I half expected a bear to lumber from an alley, coddled in a sheep’s wool ski hat and tight black jeans. The Town Hall Square looks like a film set. There is a library, museum, theatre, municipal offices and an arthouse cinema, making a strong (if a little superficial) claim for Hackney’s independence from the city around it: an idealistic vision, like a miniature Brasilia or Milton Keynes. I entered through the glass doors, took a picture of the façade from behind, queued for a ticket to whatever was showing and paid a reasonable £5 to see Jake Gyllenhaal play an LAPD cop with a webcam fetish.

I bought a small coffee and fought the urge to take painkillers, half-remembering some cock-eyed story about building up a tolerance, or damaging the lining of your stomach, or the risk of developing cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. I read the “brunch” menu, sitting for ten minutes by three howling Irish women, ecstatic and joyous in each other’s company as only Irish women can be, drinking creamy coffees and imbibing plates of cake. Eggs benedict/florentine/royale, kedgeree, smoked salmon with cream cheese and cucumber on sour dough, the obligatory arthouse burger with artisanal fries and hot dogs “voted by Time Out as one of the top 5 hot dogs in town”. I swallowed two paracetamol. Even with the Pepsi bucket full of tap water provided by the staggeringly pleasant and polite bar staff, a chalky sediment lingered in my mouth.

One reason I enjoy going to the cinema is the feeling you emerge with on the other side. Sitting alone in the dark, wrapped up in a story disconnected from the world outside, you pass through a wall, and then arrive at somewhere new. It is the most instant way I know how to do this, though there are other ways. Even pretty awful films can do the job. It happened on Sunday, and after it did, I felt pleased to have made the effort. I left my cup and saucer on the bar, handed my ticket to the usher, and made my way to the top floor of the building.

Screen One

The Picturehouse reopened just over a year ago, having failed as a music venue. It is a smooth-operating collocation of breeze-block silver, chunky branding and wide, long panes of glass. The light gets in, and gets around. There are sofas and tables dotted about. It is spacious and impressive. As it was barely past midday, the corridors were nearly empty, and I felt I had the run of the place. A group of young people in cardigans were setting up for a feminist film festival later in the day. Struck by the rigorous efficiency of the place, I showed my ticket a second time, and made my way along the corridor to screen number one: the holy of holies, a huge dark auditorium with neon blue stair lights and reclining seats, like the sanctuary of the enigmatic spaceship from Close Encounters. The chairs are fixed on a surprisingly steep incline, which ensures that the screen is never too far from your eyeballs. There were fifteen people in the room, which allowed me to spread out, shuffle and sit up straight without the tall man’s paranoia: the fear that people in the rows behind me are taking glass bottles, and aiming at my head.

The room is black, with speakers and lights secreted in the walls. In the silence between the trailers and the film, I cup my bucket of water and curse the aggressive air conditioning. There is no fanfare to announce the start of the film, no ritual or curtain-up, only a mechanised dimming of lights, an automated play button and the instant emanation on an overwhelming screen.




Projections: Going to the Cinema Alone

An Introduction

I am a man of many rituals. One is that I like to go for a jog, or at least a walk, before I write anything. Another is that I try to eat a fancy lunch on Fridays. I think it is perfectly normal to do things regularly, in a manner that appeals to you, and to be petty and particular about it. I do not think this makes a person superstitious, or untrue to their nature, or out of touch with the world. This morning I ran around Kennington Park, so that I could write this.

Since moving to London in September, I have reserved Sunday afternoons for going to the cinema alone. It is my favourite day of the week. At present I have two jobs: a sit-down day job and a stand-up night job, both of which conspire to fill the one hundred and forty-four hours between Monday and Saturday. When I wake up with a headache at the end of the week, I check the film listings online, shower, pack fruit, books and paracetamol into a bag, then close the latch on my still-sleeping flat. I slowly make my way through town in the direction of my cinema of choice (I go to a new one each week), stopping on the way to read, drink coffee and make notes. Present yet barely awake.

For some, going to see a film alone is taboo. Like throwing your own birthday party, or waiting for a friend at a busy junction staring into space, rather than fiddling with your phone. Loners in the aisles are viewed as a perversion, indicative of a deep social malaise, soaking up the company they could not earn without a £9 entry fee. After a series of solo screenings, I find this view increasingly difficult to comprehend. The cinema, after all, is not a sociable activity: you should not talk, or eat (despite what you might think), or do anything that might disturb the people sitting next to you. No social markers survive the journey through the box office into the theatre. There is nothing to discuss: only darkness, anonymous bodies and a sense of time having stopped – how many times have you asked, “When did it get dark?” after emerging from a film. It is the best way to be in a crowd in the city.

When I was growing up, the conventional wisdom was that art was meant to “take you out of yourself”. But the paraphernalia that comes with the experience of going to the movies ensures that despite the constellation of moving images and sound, you never truly disconnect from your thoughts. The auditorium is a long classical-style hall with plaster panels and columns, I thought, last Sunday. It is old. Perhaps it used to be a theatre. I could not be sure, so I made a note to Google it that night.

When everyone had left, I put on my things and sauntered through the cold in search of a bus. I had no thoughts about the film at that point, just a moody “stickiness”, which I enjoyed. I did not want to go home, so I stopped to drink a Coke and eat some food, putting off the double-grind, the traffic, lack of sleep (I was, even then, half-asleep), the tedious necessities and everything else that waits for me outside the cinema.


The Electric Pavilion

When the Pavilion opened on Saturday, 11 March 1911, it was considered fitting that the largest of cinema developers Israel Davis’s new projects should be situated on Electric Avenue. It was, after all, the first street in London to be lit from end to end by electricity. The auditorium held seats for seven hundred and fifty spectators, and housed an organ, proscenium arch, gilded cherubim and parallel pilasters, sending ornate plaster beams in arcs across the dark red roof. Ushers served ice cream and peanuts and champagne.

The area was modernising. Older attendees recalled a time when this part of Surrey was nothing but a series of lanes, the dank River Effra and Ashby’s flour mill rising in the distance. Now the old houses were being broken down into flats, and there were terraced houses stuffed with growing families from Vauxhall—and even further afield, Cornwall, Ireland, Lancashire—all in need of entertainment; if they could afford it.

Everyone stood for the national anthem. The organ pipes let out a hollow gasp. There was a loud applause and nervous chatter, then quiet, as the Electric Pavilion—later Pullman (’54), later Classic (’64), later Little Bit Ritzy (’78), today the Ritzy Picturehouse, or Cinema—began its life in monochrome. They came as couples, families, assemblies of notable dignitaries and elected officials, minor royals and businessmen. Meanwhile some enthusiasts, who had made arrangements and thrown off other responsibilities, came to mingle in among the heaving crowd alone.