The cinema at the end of the world

Welcome news this week that the Shaftesbury Avenue Cineworld, a cinema that looked and felt like it had only narrowly survived the apocalypse, is to close and be refurbished into a seven-screen Picturehouse, the only other option being to take off and nuke the site from orbit, just to be sure.

I don’t know why I’ve spent so much time there over the years; probably just for the convenience: one quick tube journey to Soho for breakfast and then only a short stagger to see a film at a cinema that, while generally decrepit and with only a 50/50 chance of seeing a film projected correctly, at least wasn’t an Odeon. The seven screens gave it more variety than most and in the earlier years I could even stop for a quick go on an actual Street Fighter II arcade machine.

At my preferred time to visit, there was never anything about entering the Shaftesbury Avenue CineWorld that didn’t feel sinister, right down to the way the you had to first surreptitiously head into the Trocadero up a dimly-lit escalator next to one of those awful shops that sells Jack Skellington backpacks to tourists. It didn’t look like I was going into a cinema, but was instead heading into a seedy clip-joint for a £50 glass of lemonade and an unsatisfying encounter with a stripper who looked like a dinner lady.

That part of the Trocadero has been for ages a desolate snapshot of a forgotten time with its House of the Dead arcade machine, air hockey table and a faint aroma of cheap hot-dog and nachos; not once did I see anybody else in there, though there were occasionally sounds from behind the permanently-closed metal shutters. Forget about refurbishment, just board it up and let it rot for future generations to discover and puzzle over when seeking escape from the robot hordes. “Grandfather,” they’ll ask, “what is a ‘Laser Tag’?”.

This was all before I’d even get into the cinema proper. Going in, I’d go past the unstaffed ticket kiosk, glancing at the old CRT TVs showing film listings heavily tinged in magenta and would head for the concessions counter to buy my ticket. Only two members of staff would ever be present, one behind the counter and one waiting to take the ticket, and I’m pretty sure that they weren’t just the only members of staff at the entrance, but in the entire building, the films left to run as best as they could by themselves.

The pair of staff would normally be so close to each other it would have been easier if the one behind the counter just printed the ticket straight into the waiting hands of the other but I guess one must respect the rituals. I’d pay on a card machine that would always fall out of its holder as soon as I started pressing buttons, pass my ticket along, and in I’d go, an ironic ‘enjoy the film’ half-heartedly mumbled at my back as I crossed the threshold.

For the best — by which I mean worst — experience, my film would be in Screen 7, requiring a trudge up about 20 escalators and through corridors in near total darkness thanks to blown bulbs. If you wanted to film a horror story set in a disused cinema, this was your place; stained carpets, isolation, unused concessions kiosk blocked by a metal grille, all that was missing were flickering neon signs, showers of sparks and a shadowy figure scraping a knife along a wall. At least then you’d have some company that wasn’t just another passing mouse.

Then there was the almost-gleeful disregard for whether the film was being shown correctly, or at all. In my years of attendance I’ve seen auditorium lights left on, ghosting, an entirely pink screen, films shown in the wrong aspect ratio or the picture starting halfway down the screen before wrapping back around the top, and caption subtitling obscured by the picture being zoomed in just enough to clip them off, which felt so specific as to be malicious.

It was always left to an optimistic audience member to go and complain about these issues, back down three floors to beg the gatekeeping duo to dispatch an imaginary third to sort this shit out. If you could convince them there was a problem, you’d then go back and wait another half an hour with a blurred picture or a burning seat or whatever, then admit defeat; nobody was coming.

Every bad experience would have me swearing to myself that I’d never go back, but I’d still find myself there over and over. The place had a weird pull to it, and it’s not as if other central London mainstream cinemas had much of an upper hand. The Leicester Square Odeon for instance may not be the shambling wreck that Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue was, but with its outdoor-queue for tickets, prices aimed at the clueless tourist, bag checks at the door by burly security guards and in-screen air-conditioning on so high as to cause frostbite, it’s hardly a compelling alternative.