Going to the Flicks

Barry Norman evokes the golden age of the picture palace.

Barry Norman presented the first in a couple of Archive Hours (15 January, 8pm) on the social aspects of cinema-going in his nice, resigned voice (although one misses his face, with its collapsed quality, as if he's permanently half­way through Battlefield Earth and scarcely bearing up).
“I've been going, man, boy and toddler, for a full biblical lifetime," he said (wearily?) of the cinema, before speaking to some very elderly people in Lancaster who pointed out that silent films were far from silent experiences. "They weren't silent. There used to be talking and talking all over the cinema and packets of something rattling and talking and talking - nobody bothered."

The same could be said of the Camden Odeon last week. I've been in there when people have literally been unpacking and repacking suitcases. A friend once said that, during a screening of the movie Se7en, the person in front was on a mobile phone, relaying the film as though it were breaking news at the scene of some catastrophe: "Brad's at the door. He's going in. He's dropped his gun! BRAD HAS DROPPED HIS GUN!"

Back in Lancaster, someone recalled the trays of tea that were handed out at intervals, the pot passing from person to person. Another spoke of the highly volatile nitrate film itself - of the explosions that sometimes came from the projection room, the sudden fires, the occasional glimpse of a projectionist with a tank of water poised over the reel.

Many people interviewed recalled the awesome glamour of the cinemas themselves - the "exotic sofas", the birdcage in the lobby, the glow of a just-lit cigarette, "like an Olympic torch . . . You'd hear, 'Give us a light, mate' . . . One match'd do the whole cinema."

How easy it is to get sentimental about that sad sight: the closed picture house. Whenever I walk past the remains of the Fan, near Mornington Crescent - the first cinema in the borough - and think of the roof that apparently used to peel back to reveal the stars for summer-evening screenings (it's now a snooker hall), I immediately remind myself that, in truth, much of the time I actively pray for release from the moving image. And I doubt if anything will be made in the next episode of this two-parter (22 January, 8pm) of the profound pleasures of the small screen.

Because I don't really want to see films in a screening room, silent or surrounded by sound. I don't want to see them on DVD, or even see them in company. I like to watch them alone on the box. I like to happen on a film when it's halfway through and fail to resist watching the rest, even though I've seen it before and it's late and I have to get up early in the morning. I like to sit there, thinking of all the other people in the country doing the same thing at that moment. I actually want there to be advert breaks, so I can go and find a pullover. I like realising that Kingdom of Heaven isn't half as bad as I sniffily declared it was when I first saw it in Leicester Square.

You get all sorts of silly ideas in the cinema. It can make you proper snooty.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency