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Picture this!
Kerri Sharp bemoans the fate of independent cinemas in the uk.

When the Hampstead Everyman was closed in 1998 for 'refurbishment', announcing that it would reopen in Summer of 1999, I was justifiably more than a little sceptical that this would actually happen, having seen a number of London's indie cinemas disappear from the listings pages and memories of cinema-goers.

'But more cinemas are being built now than at any time in the last 50 years,' the industry announces. I'm not unaware that in the time it would take me to mourn the loss of another of Europe's oldest independent picture houses, several new, squeaky-clean multiplexes would have been spawned.

But they're pants, and they're all alike; there's nothing unique about them. Being in them is not a cinema-going experience; your entertainment is dished up as if you were in a KFC. You could be in Carlisle, Exeter or Peckham, and you wouldn't know the difference. And like supermarkets, everything's too bright and plastic, over-packaged and conspicuously corporate.

And most often they're staffed by disinterested teens on the minimum wage. Maybe it's the blandness of the design that gets me all hot under the whatsit; the attraction of cinema for me in the first place was that it was adult, exciting, a bit grown-up and scary and thrilling; all darkened rooms and velvet drapes.


London alone boasts a treasurestore of architectural delights which were built with the sole intention of being cinemas, and which, until the 1970s and 80s, operated as just that. Some continue to eke out a shadowy existence of their former incarnations, operating as bingo clubs or dubious religious meeting places.

What was the Carlton Islington on Essex Rd - now surviving as a Mecca bingo hall - sports an impressive Egyptian-style façade and a French neo-classical, multi-coloured interior. Its sugary pale-blue, pink and gold leaf hall is as opulent and camp as a fin de siecle brothel.

The Granada, Woolwich (a Gala bingo club) has an interior which wouldn't look out of place in the most Gothic of Prague's churches - all pointy bits and dramatically illuminated nooks and crannies. But the Gaumont Palace in Wood Green, which was modelled on the deco design of Weimar Republic Berlin, is now permanently closed, presumably never to reopen as a concern which will preserve its interior - that wouldn't be profitable.

English Heritage has recently launched an initiative to catalogue and preserve Britain's classic old cinemas. Already 123 have listed status and another 30 are on the cards for protection from demolition. I'm glad that these buildings are not being bulldozed, but it would be great if they could exist as more than decorative mausolea. And it's a shame that there isn't a similar voice for preserving the independent programmes that could be shown in them.


One thing these ex-cinemas - and others too numerous and beautiful to list - share, is that they were built as magical pleasure palaces; places in which to dream, to suspend belief, and be transported to imaginary realms. But hang on, I'm being silly and romantic: I forgot for a moment that corporate Britain doesn't like us using our imaginations or having individual experiences.

It wants us to feel secure by being part of the gang of conspicuous consumers. Whether we're going to the movies or out for a bite to eat, we're at risk from a culture of homogenised sameness being dumped upon us. This culture purports to be tolerant and multi-faceted, but strikes me as being perniciously engineered to keep us all looking alike, eating alike and watching the same stuff as everybody else - and their kids.

Have you noticed how there's little difference between adults' and kids' eating, clothing and recreational habits on a mass level these days? Burgers and baggy clothes and PlayStations for all. Everybody in cords? Everybody in Gap?

Everybody in plastic soulless multiplexes that are never going to show an afternoon of Mario Bava movies or the Lone Wolf and Cub series? Up and down the country, from every 'High Street UK' with its predictable concoction of Next, Dixons and Snappy Snaps, to the multiplex cinemas that boast 'all the new releases', choice is becoming decidedly limited to what the dominant culture thinks we want to be consuming and how we should be consuming it.


There are plans for a 36-screen cinema complex to be built within the site of the old Battersea Power Station - which sounds like something of a nightmare to me: I predict a giant neon-lit consumer junkyard festooned with CCTV cameras and shite fast-food joints. Great. Just what we all need. I may yet stand accused of being unnecessarily pessimistic, but if and when this giant fun palace is built, I'll bet that the diversity of the planet's cinema history will not be represented.

The central nub of my argument is that many of us are sick of being infantilised by a conspiracy of niceness and primary colours. OK, so no one's forcing me to go to McDonalds and the multiplexes - and yes it's great to be able to get a cappuccino in Frinton - but it irks me that the choice of cinema programme is limited to so many of us - especially outside the major cities.

How many more of our independents are going to be 'closed for refurbishment' 'cos they're not making enough profit?

There are precious few venues catering for eclectic tastes. And very often the remaining independents that do so can easily get complacent about their programming. When was the last time In Cold Blood, The Shout or any other perhaps less-obscure and wonderful cult movies shown at your local?

In the past couple of years, the ICA has run some excellent Japanese double-bills, and the Riverside turns up some greats now and then - their recent Czech season was glorious. But nothing in my mind will compare to those classically sleazy horror/trash all-nighters at the Scala in the mid-80s.

They were a lot of fun - and not just for the chin-stroking aesthetes among us. Before I start sounding too much like Brian Sewell - 'lesbian leather-clad switchblade girl-gang movies, anyone?' (she shouted). Er...yes please.


I hold fond memories of themed programmes, fun all-nighters, obscure treats from the vaults and the snogging and drinking that went along with them.

As for the Everyman, I hear that it's been taken over by Oasis - no, not those Manc lads - the same people who took charge of the refurbished Ritzy in Brixton. It's due to open this Spring (2000). Only time will tell if they're going to be bold enough to put on something more challenging than the latest wacky Will Smith caper.

And don't tell me it's what the public want, 'cos I have a sneaking suspicion that the public want what the public get. Go out on a limb occasionally why don'tcha. A multiple-choice society should provide us with a bit of everything; not loads of the same in many different places.

The film freaks among us will doubtlessly have their own much-loved and prized collections on VHS, but nothing compares to the big-screen expereince.

Let's hear it for darkened rooms, organ interludes, the ice-cream lady, little wooden spoons, Baroque spleandour, a sneaky spliff at the all-nighter, great coffee in the foyer, and the independent cinema preservation society.
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