Whenever I visit my local Odeon "multiplex", a quotation from Orwell's 1984 comes to mind: ''This, he thought with a vague distaste - this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania."
It's not just the plethora of American-accented films that create the rebarbative impression that one is living in the 51st state, it's the actual cinema theatres, too. Not content with gorging ourselves on a relentless diet of popcorn pictures, we are also abandoning the old silver screens for shopping-mall film theatres. The new Odeon multiplex that I go to in Wimbledon, south London, is more or less identical to any Loews Cineplex in North America; but, compared with the Odeons of my youth, these multiplexes suck.
Odeon is by far the UK's biggest cinema chain with 97 sites, providing film entertainment on 608 screens - some of these not much bigger than my 42-inch TV at home. Founded by Oscar Deutsch in 1930, there were 258 Odeons in Britain by the time of Deutsch's death in 1941, and more than half of them in new buildings. These were often masterpieces of contemporary design and would not have looked out of place in the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis. As a child I used to think that one day I would buy my local Odeon and, rather like William Finlay in Brian de Palma's movie Phantom of the Paradise, set up an eccentric home there. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to set anything up in this new generation of Odeons, except perhaps a decent bonfire.
Following Deutsch's death at the age of just 48, the Birmingham-based Odeon business (Deutsch was born in Balsall Heath, the son of a Hungarian scrap-metal dealer) was sold to J Arthur Rank and remained in the Rank Group until 2000, when Odeon was sold to Cinven for £280m and merged with the ABC chain of cinemas. Cinven is based in Europe, but its business heart is in the United States; and the company proceeded to spend £75m giving Odeons all over Britain that authentically American feel. The screens got smaller in inverse proportion to the size of the new popcorn cartons and plastic cups for Coke.
The Cinven business strategy was successful, however, at least in terms of hard cash. At the end of 2002, Odeon had a turnover of £200m and an expected profit of £46m. Which helps to explain why, less than eight weeks ago, Cinven sold Odeon for £431m to a consortium of investors headed by the Westdeutsche Landesbank. It seems unlikely that the new money-minded owners of your local Odeon are going to do anything that interferes with this Americanising business formula, and I think we can safely expect that from now on handing your ticket stub to some idiot in a baseball cap is going to be part of the British cinema-going experience.
I took my children to my local Odeon twice over the Easter holiday weekend, which did nothing to abate my loathing of American cultural hegemony. It's not the popcorn-filled, cola-fuelled children who are most in danger of throwing up in the cinema these days; it's me. The films you see in the cinemas are, most of them, quite bad enough. It's the trailers that really want to make me puke.
Two artists provide almost all of the voiceovers for US movie trailers. Their names are Dan Lafontaine and Red Pepper, and they sound virtually identical: both have cloyingly strong American accents (although, incredibly, Pepper is English) and the same deep, gravelly, aftershave kind of voice. They both pretend to inform the viewer factually as to the plot of some film, but what they are doing is selling the film through exaggerated descriptions and syrupy hyperbole. Watching the trailer for Piglet's Big Movie, I kept asking myself what A A Milne would have made of it. I think he would have concluded that this Winnie is a poo.
And what of Kipling, I thought, as we endured The Jungle Book 2 ("the continuing story of one of Disney's most beloved animated classics", runs the giggling voiceover for this travesty; "with noo songs, noo friends, and some of the coolest cats to ever [sic] roam the wild"). It's a dreadful film, possibly the worst that Disney has ever made, and proves if proof were needed that Disney is all about the bottom line and nothing else.
Upon returning home, I glanced through Kipling's American notes, written in 1899, and found this contemporary-sounding observation: "A man on the train said to me - 'we kin feed all the earth, jest as easily as we kin whip all the earth'." Even more true today, I thought. And on the evidence of The Jungle Book 2, the bastards kin also take the world's greatest literature and reduce it to the intellectual level of a hog.
The Jungle Book 2 (U) is on general release