(P.1) Fancy a film tonight?

SCREEN, Cinema, page 8-9
Does the out-of-town multiplex offer more than just pricey popcorn and nachos?
By Harriet Lane


Steve, one of two projectionists at the UCI multiplex in Lee Valley, north London, has only been to the cinema of his own volition once in the last two and a half years. He didn't enjoy the experience. 'I don't like watching films with other people. Customers are so annoying, talking and eating sweets and popcorn, it's really difficult to concentrate.' Instead, he and a handful of other staff members spend several hours on Thursdays viewing new stock, assembled from five or six individual reels which he has spliced together after delivery from the Rank depot, to check that the sound and visual quality are up to scratch and that he has put them together in the right order. The staff are quite an accurate critical barometer. 'Everyone walked out of The Avengers.'

During his shifts, he works in a long, dim, chilly corridor, dotted on either side with peepholes and projection windows. Through the glass are the cinemas: Lee Valley, one of the largest multiplexes in London, has 12, and Steve, pacing the tiled floor like Florence Nightingale with her lamp, is responsible for half of them, pressing buttons to lower lights, reduce and raise volume and cue the trailers. All the while, great rolls of film are slowly spinning, feeding through shiny metal machines, spilling their store of kisses, fights and heists onto vast white screens a hundred feet away. Twenty-four frames a second, a mile every hour.

Acetate film has given way to polyester, which is thinner (and thus simpler to transport), cheaper and stronger. Steve's ears are tuned to detect the slightest irregularity in the constant snickering tick that fills the room: if something sounds different, there's trouble. Not surprisingly,'interlocking' - an increasingly common practice whereby a single print of a very popular film, such as Titanic, is played through two or even three projectors and is thus. seen by a much bigger audience in a number of screens simultaneously within the same complex - is a complicated business.

Sue Malinson, the cinema manager, says the projection room has a very special atmosphere: 'At night, it's absolutely lovely there, walking along and looking out into these dark spaces. You're the eyes and ears of what's going on.' Part of the reason why she likes it so much, you can't help feeling, is because elsewhere in the UCI Lee Valley, as in every multiplex in the UK, atmosphere is in perilously short supply.

The first UK multiplexes opened in I985, at Salford Quays and Milton Keynes, at a time when a night out at the flicks meant a shabby, if characterful, local fleapit with curtains that made a rattling noise as they parted, and a kiosk that sold little more than Maltesers and butterkist. Just as video was threatening to permanently hobble film attendance, the new breed of cinema monoliths arrived from the States, proving that, whatever anyone said, there was still a great national desire to go out to the movies. The appetite has not yet been satisfied. Indeed, by the end of this year, it's thought that the country will have 2,900 screens, an increase of nearly 700 in three years.

Recently, the Bristol Evening Post reported that, by the year 2000, there will be something like 70 screens catering for the city. Sheffield, which already has 53 screens for its 550,000 population (a higher ratio than any other British city) is currently bracing itself for the arrival of another 24. Not bad for a city which, in the mid-Eighties, was making do with a single Odeon.

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And yet, in so many ways, the multiplex is a difficult creature to like, as the current protests about a proposed 20-screen monster in Crystal Palace** demonstrate. Not content with gobbling up green space for their enormous carparks and shoehorning smaller independent cinemas out of the picture, the giant Virgin, Warner Village, UCI and Showcase cinemas are charm-free cavernous constructions, often situated near motorway junctions or out-of-town shopping centres. Their architecture reflects their surroundings. Cruising past with your boot full of Ikea bags, you have probably mistaken them for storage depots or yet another furniture superstore. Inside, once past the foyers selling overpriced US-style cinema food - nachos with cheese, Ben and Jerry's ice-cream - you find yourself wandering long, featureless corridors, like the ones in The Shining or Terminal Four at Heathrow, in search of an auditorium which, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, has all the cosy intimacy of a squash court.

'There's been a revolution in the whole cinema experience,' says Lee Parry, house manager of the brand-new Warner Village in the O2 centre on London's Finchley Road. 'The cinemas of the past were just houses that showed the film. The multiplex offers a completely new dimension.' The 02 Warner Village, with a peak ticket price of £7.50 for an adult, aspires to greater things than the relatively rudimentary UCI (£5.50). The staff wear navy baseball hats and polo shirts. In the eight screens, there's stadium seating and tip-upable armrests. The Warner Village foyer, situated at the end of a spectacular escalator ride over bamboo thickets, sculptural jets of water and fake boulders, boasts 40 TV screens belting out snippets of Merrie Melodies cartoons and trailers, a cafe and a computer games booth, plus the usual concession stalls, signed in pink neon, flogging expensive sweet and salty things (large popcorn, £3.40; soft drink, £2.30). There are enormous plastic effigies of those Warner Bros gods, Sylvester, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, which children are forbidden from being photographed with or climbing on. Elsewhere, there are groovy state-of-the-art loos in red, black and chrome, which look like a bit of a Batman set. You could easily spend a very expensive day in the winsomely-titled Warner Village.

The only thing that are missing are the customers. The O2 centre opened a couple of months ago, and so far people don't seem to know it's there. Precious little is going on; even weekends are quiet. The staff are, you sense, burning up with cabin fever. It gives you something to do. When people drop popcorn, you get to pick it up, says Melicia, today on duty at the ice-cream counter, watching enviously as a member of staff dashes to retrieve a few tell-tale white blobs from the foyer carpet.

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Melicia is a young South African film student between courses in the States, who wants to end up making movies like Buffalo 66. She is not enamoured of (a) blockbuster films ('I hate those films, like Armageddon, when America is the saviour of the universe'); (b) old customers ('really, really grumpy'); (c) the British public ('Much ruder than South Africans or Americans'); and (d) the ice-cream stall ('It's very quiet. It makes me feel like I'm wasting oxygen or something'). She keeps casting longing looks at the popcorn concession. 'Popcorn is the best one. There are more people to talk to, more things to be done, and it makes time go quickly. Pick 'n' Mix is actually the worse. One of the kids here, he's from Spain, he calls it "The Cage".' Melicia says the most popular ice-cream flavours are chocolate, raspberry and mint. On cue, two 10-year-old boys sidle up to the counter. 'One mint with marshmallows,' says one. 'Ugh, mint, that's disgusting!' says the other.

A group of mothers and children moves past us towards the exit, talking about The Prince of Egypt. 'Did you cry?' one mother in grey felt Birkenstocks asks another. 'When was the crying bit?' asks a perplexed infant, breaking away to somersault across the foyer carpet's big yellow star. Kevin, an usher, used to work in a factory 'making ham' before he came to the Warner Village. 'People like to moan,' he says philosophically. 'Everyone complains about the noise. One old lady, in Screen 8, the smallest screen, said, I can't watch the film on that screen. It's too big." She and her husband got a refund. He doesn't make use of the two cinema tickets he is given on top of his wage every week because he manages to slip into the good sections of the films (the end of Rush Hour, the action sequences in Blade) anyway during work. 'If you time it right you can catch all the best bits.' The oddest thing that the cleaners have found in a cinema after a showing, says Kevin, was a belt, 'which we thought was quite interesting'.

Over at the Lee Valley UCI, which over an average weekend has around 7,000 visitors, no one would get very excited about that. Sue remarks in passing that the cleaners found 'one of those gel boobs from La Senza' dropped behind some seats after one showing - no one turned up to claim it - and Alan, another member of staff, says that quite recently customers complained that a couple were noisily having sex in the back right-hand comer of Screen 6. What film was on? 'I can't remember. It didn't have a very high rating.'

Perhaps these sorts of shenanigans will be ironed out when the Lee Valley gets its long-awaited revamp sometime in the future. Sue talks enthusiastically about the joys of stadium seating and the 'black box' which is being pioneered at the Trafford Centre in Manchester: 'It's state of the art. Everything in the cinema's black, so nothing distracts you from the film. It heightens your senses.'

And this is what the increasingly powerful movie chains are aiming to do: to streamline the experience, eliminating ushers with flashlights, and organists rising out of the pit, and even coloured walls, in favour of a branded, universal experience allowing you to engage more fully with the film - as long as you've engaged first, equally fully, with the hotdog concession.

Maybe this is a pity. After a few hours there, you realise that, though it's no beauty, although it's nothing more than a glorified shed dumped in the middle of nowhere that caters almost exclusively to car-owners, the Lee Valley UCI does have a personality of a sort, a personality that the spanking new Warner Village conspicuously lacks. Perhaps this is why the UCI has its regulars: a group of three old people who turn up every so often, simply to sit for hours in the foyer, eating hotdogs and reading newspapers. 'They aren't bothering anyone,' says Alan, 'So we let them stay.'

**London Regional Properties currently have outline and detailed planning permission from Bromley Council!! [Ed.]

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Last updated 18/9/99