Why are cinemas disappearing from our high streets?

Picture houses used to be at the heart of communities; now they're almost invisible


How encouraging that film exhibition in the UK is no longer facing the threat of extinction that loomed in the 1980s. Back then, the video revolution ate into audience numbers with its big, chomping top-loader mouth, and many towns woke to discover they were in possession of a brand new bingo hall, but were also one cinema the poorer.

So audiences are going to cinemas now. But where are the cinemas going? The dominance of the multiplexes has had the strange effect of pushing the cinema into the closet — or, more accurately, into the shopping centre. I’m not here to take issue with the mall multiplex, a phenomenon that began in the US, or with its occasional technical shortcomings, poor staffing issues and so on. But what its popularity has done is to remove cinema from the physical architecture of our towns and cities. Oh, there are exceptions — the Curzon, Everyman and Picturehouse chains, as well as thriving cinemas such as Brighton’s Duke of York (now owned by Picturehouse) or the Glasgow Film Theatre — but for the most part it remains an exotic experience to drive or walk through a town outside London and actually pass a cinema. A functioning cinema, that is. With a marquee [a text display of the films showing above the entrance of the cinema].

A director described to me recently the disheartening feeling each time he turned up to introduce films or conduct Q&A sessions at a US cinema, only to find that each one was in a mall, or nestled within some concrete structure not visible from the street. We tuck most of our cinemas away now as though we are ashamed of them. Many of the others are derelict and/or barricaded (like the much-fought-for EMD cinema in Walthamstow, which I have written about here before), or else remodelled into other businesses (such as the gym on London’s St Martin’s Lane, WC2, which was once the city’s plushest arthouse venue, the subterranean Lumiere Cinema, where I used to go to see first runs of Peter Greenaway films — and, more importantly, to see disgusted patrons walk out of those same Peter Greenaway films).

Time presses on. And this is no lament for that fact. But couldn’t we make more of a fuss of the cinemas that we do have left? I’ll give you an example: my local Odeon, in South Woodford, east London. Admittedly I have a sentimental attachment to this particular cinema, since it was the site of many formative experiences for me from childhood (when it was The Majestic, and then the ABC) and throughout my adolescence. Even setting that aside, it’s hard for a cinema lover not to be appalled by the cinema’s recent decision to throw in the towel.

Oh, it’s still open. But the posters, those titillating mementoes, are all out of sight, and the one display visible from the street shows some tatty standees behind a dirty window. Worst of all, the cinema has given up on its own marquee. Do films come and go so quickly now that there’s simply no point advertising their existence? I’m inclined to think it’s more about the move of cinemas toward anonymity, facelessness, anything but the demonstrative beauty of the art deco picture palaces.

I used to love the marquee display — those big, clunky letters strung up on the illuminated frontage so that the titles of the films could be seen from neighbouring postcodes. The spookiest sensation of all was when you emerged from the cinema after the last show on a Thursday night, only to find that all trace of the film which had just ended had been removed by the cinema employees, who had hung in its place on the marquee the title of the new week’s attractions. You had only your fragile memory of what you had just seen to prove you had even been there at all.

There’s no marquee now, just a message in capital letters that reads: check our website or call for listings. They could have saved even more letters, even more manpower, had they opted for a more candid declaration, something along the lines of Odeon: we can't be arsed.

A cinema in the Forties in Derbyshire. Credit: Getty Images

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.

Martin Knoller/Wikimedia
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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror