Column: Leicester Square

Leicester Square is bloody horrible, isn’t it? Within its ill-defined borders lies an unlovely nest of tourists, school trips, stag dos, wayward tramps and an overwhelming smell of last night’s piss. Boris’s much-trumpeted multi-million-pound Olympic makeover did little to improve anything. Any Londoner worth his or her salt avoids the area like there’s a police cordon around it.

Westminster Council calls it “the focus of the film industry”. But nobody goes to Leicester Square to watch a film. Not by choice. Only gullible tourists fall in the trap, spending as much as £20 a ticket, in blissful ignorance of alternative cinemas as close as Tottenham Court Road which charge less than half that.

‘Twas not always thus. Leicester Square was indeed once considered the spiritual and geographical home of British cinema. Its vast auditoriums were shining cathedrals to film. It was famous for world premieres, gala screenings and royal appearances. Folk would travel miles to see a film there. It was a genuine destination for genuine movie lovers.

Premieres remain a regular feature, but the cinemas now play a sheepish second fiddle to chain pubs, sports bars, seedy nightclubs and “experiential retail outlets”. Witness the desperately pointless M&M World, which finally answers the age-old question: “where can I purchase an M&M-branded apron at 11pm on a Tuesday?”

The area’s increasing desire to profiteer from tourists is naked and ugly. Last month, with great fanfare, the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square presented its brand new IMAX screen to the world; in order to accommodate the new screen (a screen which costs up to £10 more per ticket), Empire’s legendary Screen 1 was demolished.

For the record, the jumbo IMAX format, which assaults your various senses with the gusto of a bare-knuckle boxer, is great fun. But Screen 1 was something else. It was a magnificent, 1300-seater art deco duchess of an amphitheatre, complete with traditional circle and stalls. And it’s a dying breed.

Empire’s neighbour to the south, Odeon West End, looks set for a similar fate; the council has approved plans to pillage the 85-year-old theatre in favour of a new hotel. Within a few years, there may not be any historic cinemas left in the square. In their hunger for commercial tourism, the businesses and town planners of Westminster have fashioned a gaudy and inauthentic facsimile of a late night hotspot, and paved over its filmic heritage (quite literally – only a handful of the famous celebrity hand casts remain).

Yet Londoners are hardy, versatile folk, and though film may have lost its Mecca, it has found thrilling new avenues outside of W1. There’s the Picturehouse chain, newly aquired by Cineworld but still infusing each of its locally set cinemas with thoughtful programming, grown-up food and drink, and a decent dose of community spirit.

There’s the cheap-and-cheerful indies like the PeckhamPlex or Romford’s Premiere, which offer wallet-busting sub-fiver ticket prices. There’s the outlandish outdoor screenings of Luna and Nomad; the darish novelties of Hot Tub Cinema and Cycle-In Cinema, and the immersive theatrical events of Secret Cinema.

There’s even – dare I say it – the option of watching a film at home. Audiences are increasingly choosing the sofa over the cinema aisle, and the square’s decline reflects changing viewing habits.

And then there’s the exception to the rule: Leicester Square’s very own Prince Charles Cinema. The diamond in the turd, it jostles with the best of ‘em for the title of London’s finest fleapit. New releases rub shoulders with cult classics and regular singalongs – at dirt-cheap prices for a loyal membership. Perhaps if its Leicester Square neighbours followed the PCC’s example, London’s true movie nerds might be more willing to tolerate the smell of last night’s piss.

First appeared on LondonLovesBusiness, July 2014.

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