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.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge