Gilbey on Film: save our cinemas!

Unlike out-of-town multiplexes, the likes of Walthamstow's EMD bring communities together.

The campaign to save the EMD cinema in Walthamstow, east London, is nothing new (the NS reported on it back in 2004) but it is vital that anyone wishing to add their signatures to the petition does so by the end of this month.

The McGuffin Film and Television Society (so named in honour of Alfred Hitchcock, born in nearby Leytonstone) has done a hardy job of highlighting the social and cultural loss that will befall this corner of London if the cinema, which is Grade II listed, is converted into a church by its current owners UCKG (United Church of the Kingdom of God). UCKG bought the building in 2003, following their acquisition of the Rainbow Theatre, the legendary former music venue in Finsbury Park, north London. Since then, the EMD has stood dormant, and was recently occupied by squatters. Images taken by the local MP Stella Creasy have shown the interior to be in a state of significant disrepair, contrary to the claims of UCKG.

A video filmed by torchlight inside the cinema was as difficult for me to watch as any horror movie. I have a sentimental attachment to the place -- it was where I saw my first film, and countless subsequent ones. I was as happy there as a child as anywhere I have ever been, so it would not be overstating the case to say that seeing the dilapidated, water-damaged interior now is like witnessing the desecration of a childhood home.

The connection with the EMD, or the Granada as it was known when I used to go there, reach even further back in my family. My Italian grandmother, who still lives in nearby Chingford, used to visit the cinema most Monday evenings after she first arrived in London. She was in her early twenties and had left Italy to live in east London with her husband (my late grandfather) whom she had married when he was stationed in Grado during the Second World War. With only a few English phrases, and even fewer friends, these cinema visits served various purposes: they gave her a breather from looking after a young baby (my father), while the films helped improve her English vocabulary, and the social aspect brought her into contact with other Italian immigrants.

She looked after me a lot in the early years of my life, and it was in her company that I rode the few miles to Walthamstow on the upper deck of a Routemaster, and visited my first cinema. It couldn't have been the movie we saw that hooked me -- I was four years old, and it was a feature-length version of the ropey 1970s sitcom Man About the House, chosen simply because that was what happened to be on. More likely it was the Granada itself. The description on the McGuffin site brings the grandeur of the place back to me:

Flamboyant interior decorations by the world famous Russian director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky ... The cinema's lavish interior was inspired by a trip to the grand Alhambra Palace in Spain, resulting in the Granada's large foyer being designed in an elaborate 17th Century Baroque style with a marble floor and extravagant chandeliers while the main auditorium boasted colourful Moorish-inspired arches and grille-work. Sidney Bernstein [the cinema's proprietor] insisted that the beautiful interior should be decorated with fresh flowers each day.

Perhaps at the time I just thought that all cinemas were that swanky. Possibly the magnificence of the Granada didn't hit me fully until I visited another local cinema, the slightly less impressive Woodford Majestic, which couldn't boast chandeliers, or that expansive carpeted landing outside the Granada's Screen 1 on its first floor, so ridiculously vast that Gatsby could have comfortably hosted an intimate shindig there. The Majestic certainly didn't have fresh flowers in the lobby every day. Did anywhere?

The glory of the Granada was wrapped up for me in lots of other wonderful aspects of the cinemagoing experience -- the unspoken, delicious naughtiness of being in the cinema in the afternoon, the picnics that my grandmother would prepare for us to share in the stalls (Spam and Salad Cream sandwiches, crunchy red apples, Golden Wonder crisps, orange squash that she would decant into glasses in the dark). We saw a lot of the Disney releases of the day and a good deal of inferior things I expect, but whatever we chose must have been immeasurably improved by where we were seeing it.

That still held true for the movies I saw at the Granada as I got older. It felt just right seeing Scorsese's After Hours there on a grey Saturday afternoon, the building's faded glamour all around me, and only two or three other people in the cinema. And I'm sure Scream, the last film I saw at the Granada (in 1997), was that bit scarier because I wasn't sitting in one of the slick multiplexes which had begun springing up in the vicinity, but rather in a waning picture palace full of its own lingering ghosts.

My reason for turning on the faucet of nostalgia and giving it the full Alan Titchmarsh is not self-indulgence (well, not only self-indulgence) but rather to point out a truism with regard to the campaign to save the EMD: that cinemas situated in communities, unlike multiplexes out-of-town, are not merely buildings. They are focal points for those communities, repositories for our memories, bridges from the past into the future, monuments to the immediacy of film, and part of who we are as a society.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Florence Foster Jenkins shows the delight of love's delusions

This new film about a notoriously bad singer, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, is an unsually honest portrayal of how relationships work.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice is all very well. The real-life heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) practised her whole life. “An hour a day!” she boasts in Stephen Frears’s marvellous film. “Sometimes two.” But it isn’t talent that enables her to reach that prestigious venue in 1944. She is wealthy enough to be able to hire it on a whim and to give away a thousand tickets to servicemen returning from the war. Some might wonder if those soldiers hadn’t suffered enough.

What packs the place to the rafters is her reputation. Florence is still known today as the world’s worst singer. Reaching for a note far beyond her range, she would launch herself at it in the manner of someone trying to dislodge a ball from a tree by lobbing a boot. It’s possible that some of the shrieks she emitted were audible only to dogs. The poor blighters.

In a clever, clinching decision by the screenwriter Nicholas Martin, it is Florence’s uxorious husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who provides the dominant point-of-view in the film. His glasses are not merely rose-tinted, but heart-shaped. The couple’s domestic arrangements may be unconventional – St Clair slinks off each night to see his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at his own apartment, paid for by his wife. But it is with Florence that his true loyalties lie. He is a master at coaxing favourable reactions from those in her orbit. When the young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes to audition for Florence, the sound of her voice wipes the inno­cence from his eyes; he emerges from her drawing room with something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder. But St Clair conducts the young man’s reactions with a nod, a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes to produce a response that will be broadly flattering to Florence.

In a rich and nuanced performance, Grant radiates warmth. He indicates to others the delighted expression he wants them to adopt for his wife by first adopting it himself, then watching them follow suit. Listening to a reporter filing copy over the phone about Florence’s concert, he makes his presence felt after hearing the phrase “appreciative applause”. The journalist hastily amends the adjective to “thunderous”. Contented, St Clair moves on.

It could be argued that the script deprives Florence of agency in her own story, so that she exists merely through her husband’s eyes. Then again, there is every danger that, without the prism of St Clair’s devotion through which to filter that story, Florence would have been left as cruelly exposed on the screen as she is when she takes to the stage. A similar insurance policy was taken out in Isn’t She Great, in which Bette Midler played the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann. Any scorn or snobbery from the audience was absorbed before it could reach Susann by the device of putting her husband, ­Irving, in charge of the storytelling. There was no question mark in that film’s title because it was rhetorical. Irving wasn’t asking.

It was to be expected that a director as humane as Frears would not mock his subject. What is magical is the way he modulates our reactions to Florence just as St Clair does on screen. We are still laughing when a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played over the end credits, but our laughter has become even warmer. The question of whether the title character is oblivious to her own flaws is left moot, as it was in the case of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film about the legendarily dreadful director. But then most of the people around her are harbouring delusions. Even St Clair isn’t entirely self-aware. The movie opens with him indulging his thespian tendencies with excruciating results. There is only one full scene in which he doesn’t appear but it’s an important one: Florence confides to Cosme that St Clair can’t act. It is her little secret.

This is an unusually honest portrayal of love as a system whereby two people can maintain one another’s delusions to the point where they almost cease to be delusions at all. If you don’t tell me I’m a prize ham, I’ll keep secretly replacing the champagne flutes that shatter when you practise your scales. That sort of thing. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred