Pizza the action: Ellen ordered takeout for the Oscars but no one wants to hear someone munching through 12 Years a Slave. (Photo: Getty)
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Punters will always want to eat when at the cinema. It’s time for the film-tailored menu

Cinemas warn you to put your mobile phones on silent but say nothing about the clash of jaws or the gargling of gullets.

Harvey Woolfe, a regular consumer of Real Meals, writes to suggest that I tackle the vexed question of cinema food. He observes that whereas there are tintinnabulating warnings in advance of every screening that patrons should put their mobile phones on silent, there is nothing done about the clash of their jaws, the gargling of their gullets, or – my favourite, this – that peculiarly gravelly noise the last few CLs of a fizzy beverage makes as it is sucked up a straw from a waxed paper cup. Indeed, the policy of film-house management is positively to encourage comestibles (the noisier the better) by flogging them in the foyer. Harvey speculates that it’s all about profit, Statesmanlike socialist that he presumably is, but the horror show that is screen snacking is actually rather zeitgeisty. I heard a DJ on the radio the other day saying that he’s set up a pressure group to campaign for better viewing behaviour, following an incident in which his subtitled enjoyment was compromised by other patrons both munching and chewing the fat on their dog-and-bones.

Well, good luck to them all but I’m afraid I can’t lend my shoulder to this particular wheel of processed cheese. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as incensed by inconsiderate eating as the next intolerant middle-aged cinemagoer; in fact, probably a great deal more so. I’ve been known to offer to meet these swine in the lobby and serve them a knuckle sandwich if they don’t desist, but on balance I accept it as part of the rough and tumble of popular entertainment. The thing is that films and food are a gestalt that’s been fully formed since the Keystone Kops were slinging custard pies; to go to the cinema and not shell out £3.50 for a bag of chocolate-coated peanuts that you could – with even infinitesimal foresight – have got around the corner at a fraction of the price would be a paradoxically impoverishing experience.

The same goes for those evilly glowing hot dogs that birl on their metal rollers; and for great, glistening heaps of buttery popcorn; and not to top off such a rotten repast with a demijohn of carbonated corn syrup would be a solecism on a par with loudly demanding ketchup at a state banquet. Besides, the artier cinemas usually offer quieter food – flapjacks, ham croissants, chai lattes – and the artier films attract thinner spectators. You’re unlikely to find yourself at a late-night screening of, say, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal with someone behind you lustily squelching wine gums. True, there is the occasional nightmarish crossover situation when what should be a famished cinematic road gets hopelessly jammed. My own enjoyment (if that is the appropriate term) of 12 Years a Slave was rather undercut by being surrounded by wage slaves who happily troughed their way through every excoriation.

Still, it made me see the film in a different light – by the end I was interrogating Chiwetel Ejiofor with my eyes, and thinking: “Hmm, you’re looking a little porky for a man in bondage . . .”

Ignoble thoughts, certainly, but it makes me suspect that instead of a blanket ban on cinema eating, we require appropriate dishes. After all, what was it that the Italian futurist Marinetti demanded for his fascist banquet: raw meat torn by trumpet blasts. So, for 12 Years, punters should be offered hominy grits, rice and beans; for Shame, Steve McQueen’s superb anatomising of sex addiction, they should be given flavoured condoms to lick, Viagra to snack on and pubic hairs to thread between their teeth; and for his debut feature as a director, Hunger, there should indeed be not so much as a melt-melded bag of Revels on sale.

All of which reminds me of a photograph I was emailed a few years ago which showed the seat occupied by a Very Big Movie Producer during a screening of an epic tale of starving polar explorers. This producer is both fiscally big and morbidly obese, and he had munched his way through the film in the most egregious fashion. There, forming a sort of blast pattern on the carpet, was the evidence of his insane appetite: half-chewed candy bars and hot dogs had been cast aside, litres of soda spurted skyward, and the finger-fumbled popcorn lay as thick and white as pack ice.

This is the dietary nightmare that underpins the whipped cream of the dream factory, and it is – as the mogul would no doubt concur – non-negotiable: snacking belongs to passive forms of entertainment as Pearl does to Dean.

I went to the theatre this week to see Francesca Annis in Peter Gill’s new play, Versailles. It’s an oxymoronically modern period piece, set in a late-Edwardian country house during the Paris peace conference of 1919, that gratifies playgoers with the unearned but amusing right of hindsight. At one point a character says of the lower middle class: “They have a capacity for single-mindedness that could lead them anywhere,” at which everyone laughed knowingly. In the interval I chatted amiably with Melvyn Bragg, another reader of this column. We both had ice creams – mine was Belgian chocolate, his stem ginger flavour. Both cost a reassuring £4.50.

I say to Harvey Woolfe, what’s good enough for His Lordship is good enough for everyone; surely that’s what men died for at Ypres and Passchendaele?

Next week: On Location

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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