The magic of cinema isn’t just about film

Going to the movies was a religious experience

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

Cinema is fading. Borat went straight to Amazon Prime, where he is smaller, and Bond 25 — no time to die eh? — is delayed until next year. In response Cineworld has ‘temporarily’ closed its cinemas and the smaller film houses are struggling. Millennials and Generation Z don’t mind, but I am no such creature: I was an usherette at Options in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1990. Do they know that cinema remains, despite its best efforts, the most inspiring kind of mass culture?

Dreams mean nothing to the gilded and interesting: they do not need them. But I, an ordinary suburban child, did need cinema, specifically Options, which is now an Odeon, showing Ooops! The Adventure Continues…

With product such as this, you could argue cinema deserves to fail. That, in some dark basement in its soul, it wants to fail.

Options was once a golden-age cinema: a Grenada that opened in 1939, the year that 990 million cinema tickets were sold in Britain and The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind played. The high point of British addiction to the cinema was seven years in the future, 1946, when 1.635 billion cinema tickets were sold and It’s a Wonderful Life was playing. The vast gallery of the original screen, which had seated 1,400 people and a Wurlitzer, was a nightclub, also called Options, and three new screens were squashed into the rest. I was only in the club in daytime — there was no daylight, ever — and, with sticky floor and smoky walls, this film-house gallery was still the most atmospheric thing I have ever seen. Perhaps Options is my Rosebud: never to be forgotten or recovered.

I wore a candy-striped waistcoat with gold buttons and learnt to serve popcorn: you must heave the sugar up from the bottom. I don’t remember the customers: they were a many-headed blank, too often in love. But we, the ushers, were a small and naughty group — we adored cinema, and we weren’t paid much — and we treated Options as a playground, filled with darkened staircases and weird carpeted voids.

We all had favourite screens: mine was Screen 3, at the top of a ludicrous double–height golden staircase. Screen 3 was, with renovation, amazing: a huge screen, perhaps 50 feet high, but only a few lines of seats, so if I was there alone it felt like being open to an oracle, or god. When I was there it played The Little Mermaid, a Disney cartoon about a mermaid princess who longs to walk on the shore. That is how I spent the lower sixth: dancing around Screen 3, which was almost always empty, singing: ‘Look at this trove/ Treasures untold/ How many wonders can one cavern hold?’ And then: ‘When’s it my turn?/ Wouldn’t I love/ Love to explore that shore above?’ If I was singing about a Kingston-upon-Thames childhood, and dreams of The Spectator, or similar, I didn’t know it; and if had only seen The Little Mermaid on television, I doubt I would have felt it at all. I was very happy until I was promoted to the splendour of Screen 1, which always seemed to be showing Ghost, a film in which Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore do terrible things to a potter’s wheel. If good films are better in cinemas, bad films are worse.

I chart my happiness and neurosis in cinema: Star Wars in 1978, somewhere in Cornwall; Casablanca in the Odeon Leicester Square; It’s a Wonderful Life at the Richmond Filmhouse in Water Lane, which threatened to flood, much like George Bailey’s life; Cinema Paradiso (the director’s cut only; Weinstein destroyed that film) at the Empire Leicester Square; Synecdoche, New York at the Curzon Soho, which left me weeping, though it would not have done at home.

I knew I had to get married when I went to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005. It was a 10 p.m. showing at the Apollo in Regent Street. At first I was the only person there. I had a bucket of popcorn. Then another woman entered, also with a bucket of popcorn. We weren’t alone. There was at least one other person in London as lonely as she, and as lonely as me: and we knew that in a cinema.

I pity people who don’t know the ecstasy of cinema in picture houses, and I mourn every one that is lost. They are rooms of infinite possibility, even if you don’t bother to watch the film. On our second date my husband and I fled to the back row of the gallery of the Odeon Leicester Square to snog in front of The Adjustment Bureau. It should have been Cinema Paradiso, but I was in love.

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spectator.co.uk/podcast - Tanya Gold and The Spectator’s arts editor Igor Toronyi-Lalic on the joys of cinema.

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