Living in this part of London is like stepping back in time in some ways. I hardly ever used public transport as an adult living in the provinces, but here I jump on and off buses like a schoolboy. I’m used to doing my shopping in malls, hypermarkets, and retail parks, but now there are small independent shops everywhere I look. I buy my meat from the village butcher instead of the deli counter at Tesco, and my fruit and veg from the local greengrocer. All my memories of greengrocers were childhood ones up to this point, from when I used to do the shopping with my mum as a toddler.
My love of the cinema also began in childhood. My brother and I used to go to the ABC Minors every Saturday morning. The ABC cinema in Windsor is long gone but the happy memories of a cinema full of squealing kids slurping Kia-Ora and cheering on Flash Gordon in black & white are as strong as ever. If you asked me two days ago, when was the last time I went to an independent, single-screen cinema, I would have struggled to answer. To my children, the cinema is the Megaplex: ten, twelve, sometimes sixteen screens in one building. It’s all they know. All that is about to change, because yesterday Karen and I went to The Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley.
I guess it’s because London is so built-up and populous that it still has a good number of thriving independent cinemas. The Phoenix is famous: TimeOut magazine calls it “the best independent cinema in London”, and BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode regularly refers to it as his favourite cinema, anywhere. Dating from 1910, the cinema’s foyer has been rebuilt but the auditorium is original, and features Art Deco friezes on the walls, pulled into relief by muted spotlights. The seats are red velvet, and they creak when you shift your weight. They use the old-fashioned tickets: coloured paper off a roll in a machine under the counter with “Admit One” on it. The refreshments are… refreshing too. No nachos or Slush Puppies here. The shop is more like a theatre shop and bar in one, so you can take a glass of wine or beer in with you to wash the popcorn down.
We’d arrived about twenty minutes early. Karen will tell you that being late to the cinema is a pet hate of mine. Rushing in when the lights are off and the trailers already running really winds me up. I absolutely loathe it. Consequently our cinema trips are usually timed with military precision, with plenty of leeway allowed for delayed journeys. The Phoenix is one stop on the Tube from us, so ten minutes after locking our front door we walked into the box office. We had to wait in the foyer while they cleaned the auditorium following the previous showing, so what else was there to do but to indulge the novelty by having a beer? By the time they let us in my (plastic) glass was nearly empty — or should that be “a bit full”? — so I got a second beer (great this not driving lark!) and some popcorn. Karen made her one glass of red wine last.
Three things prevented this from being the perfect cinema experience.
First, during the second trailer a man with the most absurd wiry afro sat in front of me. He looked, from the rear in the dark, like the illegitimate love-child of Cleo Laine and a toilet brush. The sloping of the rows meant that I could still see the screen despite this obstacle, but only if I remained sitting bolt upright. There should be special seats on the back row with a sign in glow-in-the-dark letters: “Please give up this seat if a person with big hair needs it.”
Secondly, my two beers had their natural effect and I had to step out halfway through the film to go to the toilet. Another pet hate of mine. Not the toilet per se, just having to miss part of a movie to use it. Lesson learned there.
Finally, the movie was too long. It was No Country For Old Men by the Coen Brothers. I absolutely loved the first hour-and-a-bit of this film. It’s highly atmospheric, dramatic, and tense while looking gorgeous and being expertly played by the cast. But then it seemed to plateau out and just coast on, and on. I found myself looking at my watch 30 minutes before the end. That never happened in Lord Of The Rings.
On the way back to the Tube station afterwards Karen decided she wanted to get on a bus, so we crossed the road to the stop. Within two minutes the bus arrived, we jumped on, “blipped” our Oyster Cards on the reader, and five minutes later jumped off, about 200 yards from our flat. I could get used to this.