One of my great joys is the cinema. I don’t mean that I rush to see every new release; what I mean is that I love the experience of watching a film as it was intended to be seen. A hushed, darkened room, a ripple of anticipation, the trailers for features to come, the escape from the outside world: these are catnip to me. And London has every form of filmic experience you could want.
I can skip lightly across the multiplexes (multiplices?) of Leicester Square, Westfield and elsewhere. These do the job for fans of superhero flicks and overpriced popcorn, and that’s a simple pleasure not to be scorned. Cinema is a powerful medium and one which can genuinely transport us from our everyday lives for a couple of hours (or even longer, these days: thanks, Zack Snyder), and, in a world more atomised and isolated than ever before, it remains a piece of communal cultural worship.
Smaller local cinemas are a next-level experience. Fewer screens, perhaps, but they offer something approaching a premier experience, excuse the pun, with a good range of drinks and genuinely appealing food. I’m lucky to live five minutes from the newly opened Chiswick Cinema, which even has attractive little touches like double seats for couples (sue me, I enjoyed it) as well as a good combination of new releases, classic revivals and quirky features like opera live from the Met in New York.
My temple, however, is the British Film Institute on the South Bank. It is an opening into filmic heaven. Its four screens of varying sizes show a careful selection of new releases, classic movies, art house features and themed seasons, and it really is the sort of place one could turn up any night of the week and find something to enthrall. Earlier this year there was a season of Robert Altman films, including the iconic M*A*S*H and that slice of 1970s noir which is The Long Goodbye; currently there is a Mike Leigh season; and Christmas will yield the usual festive classics.
BFI was able to survive the pandemic — as a trailer reminds you before each film — thanks to the government’s Culture Recovery Fund for Independent Cinemas. I have never been so pleased to pay my taxes. Not only do I adore the experience of going to the cinema, it is something at which the UK shows genuine brilliance.
It’s nearly 40 years since Chariots of Fire won a clutch of Oscars and Colin Welland, holding one of the trophies aloft, shouted “The British are coming”. We came. And we’re still there. Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Steve McQueen, Sam Mendes: we’re exceptional at the business of film-making. The creative industries earn the UK hundreds of billions of pounds a year as well as immeasurable soft power.
I suspect a lot of London-dwellers are like me: there are lots of things I simply must do, events I cannot miss and exhibitions/shows/lectures I am waiting impatiently to see, but I don’t do all of the things for which I laud living in the capital. This year, especially as lockdown becomes — we hope — a thing of the past, I am doing my best to be diligently sociable, but I know I won’t manage everything.
So now we have short days and dark nights, use them. Get your calendar out, pull up the BFI website, or that of your local cinema, and get booking. Fill those evenings. Tickets are bemoaned as expensive, but how else can you spend two hours in another world for less than 20 quid? That’s the greatest bargain you’ll find.