Good grief, why would anyone want to write about this? Well, a friend was reminiscing about the qualities of her home town (Clevedon, Somerset) and the rather beautiful old custom-built cinema there, and I countered with the tale of woe that was my home town (Tavistock); no cinema until the mid-90s, and that one only dealing in films which had finished their run in all the main cinemas. Hardly what any teenager gorging themselves sick on teen magazines full of new releases wants.
The conversation turned to other cinemas I’d been to; in my teens I went to a boarding school in Somerset, and one of the ways to escape the tedium of sitting in a brick building in the middle of sheep fields was the regularly-organised trips to various cinemas. As a result of this, I saw some truly abhorrent films between 1994 and 1999, on the big screen, which these days I wouldn’t watch on the screen of an iPod after torrenting them if you actually paid me (alright, that’s a lie, I was paid to review The Village and that was about as bad).
Some of these films I hated because I was a teenager and didn’t really appreciate them (The Crucible, The Scarlet Jacket, the latter of which has given me a lifelong disdain for Thomas Hardy’s prose), some I hated because they were unequivocally rubbish (Forces of Nature, a deeply forgettable movie starring possibly Sandra Bullock and someone else and I don’t remember very much beyond it being bad and the leading lady had cool lavender streaks in her hair). Some were actually rather good, and most of them I watched in Yeovil’s perfectly serviceable cinema, or Poole’s swish-seeming out-of-town complex.
Then there were the films we saw in … slightly less magnificent buildings.
These reviews haul from the recesses of my teenage memory, and I fully expect the cinemas in question to have either improved or shut down by now, so don’t take them so much as warnings as whatever the opposite of nostalgia is.
1. Cinema Town: Wells
Film Watched: Fierce Creatures (a pleasant enough comedy featuring the cast of A Fish Called Wanda and very recognisably the environs of Marwell Zoo, which I visited a lot as a child).
Why it was horrific: It was like the worst kind of Scout hall. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure, but the village I lived in from 6 to 13 seemed to delete in stashing all of its social activities in “temporary” structures which were upwards of 30 years old: long, low-ceilinged bunkers which always contrived to be colder than the outside air. This was more or less one of those, with a concession stand amounting to the ticket sales person reaching under a desk for some bags of priced-up cornershop popcorn and sad-looking M&Ms. Possibly the first time I had ever been grateful for the school’s usual “no tuck” rule with cinema trips.
The floor was flat rather than sloped, meaning that it was more or less impossible to see past anyone’s head and everyone got a crick in their neck; it was freezing cold, and the place smelled of something we couldn’t quite place until half-way through the film when something large and furry ran past my dorm-mate’s foot, she screamed and clutched at me, and we realised that the smell was rat urine.
Unlike the next two cinemas, I have actual evidence that Wells is no longer like this: the extras of the Hot Fuzz DVD show the premier of the film (which was filmed mostly in Wells) taking place in Wells cinema, which in the clips is a beautiful little thing with proper staggered seating and red upholstery and a distinct absence of large rodents. Wells also holds the dubious honour of housing the most horrifying public toilets I’ve ever set foot in and then dived out of immediately afterwards, but I should stress this was in the 90s. I am pretty sure it’s now a picturesque holiday destination and it has always been populated by friendly people although possibly not towards me after I’ve written this.
2. Cinema Town: Weymouth
Film Watched: Dracula: Dead and Loving It (a largely poor parody of vampire films by Lesley Nielsen et al which nevertheless amused the rag-tag selection of juvenile delinquents given the treat of watching it).
Why it was horrific: Not so much “horrific” as just “totally unsuited to be a cinema”. The floor was damp, we could hear traffic outside all the way through, and were a couple of times convinced the screen was going to fall on us. From what I remember they began closing the cinema almost before we’d walked out of the screening, and the entire place smelled of off milk.
That said, I do have a vendetta against Weymouth anyway: my father took me there on holiday when I was 7, whereupon I suffered quite a severe head injury at the hands of some lovely children on a campsite with a concrete playground, and I spent my teens being dragged through the town after dark by various “friends” who were very enthusiastic about the possibility of hooking up with one of the multitudinous boy racers who used the town centre for demonstrating twin exhaust pipes. Perhaps it would be unfair to be rude about Weymouth’s cinema when there was so much else about it to make me steer clear of it for the rest of my life.
3. Cinema Town: Salisbury
Film Watched: The Crucible (we also watched Hercules, Ghost Rider, and Daylight here, along with a British movie about rugby so utterly unmemorable that I can’t Google anything about it, but it was only the screen in which we saw The Crucible to which this applies).
Why it was horrific: Because I couldn’t bloody see. Aside from that, it was colder than a witch’s tit, creaky, lopsided, and rumoured to be full of mice – but then “freezing, creaky, lopsided, and definitely full of mice” also applies to my flat so I can’t really complain about that. However, when we went to see The Crucible we ended up shoved into a selection of seats toward the back of a screen so steeply banked that we were somewhere above the screen, as if looking down on the stage of a theatre (in fact, without Googling, I can’t be sure that’s not what the building originally was). Directly in my line of sight and blocking most of the screen was a large wooden chandelier which, to my untrained teenage eye, looked approximately a million years old, and was held in place by a chain made of something the colour of tar.
To my perennial annoyance, our teen-herder wouldn’t let me sit in the aisle to watch it (something about a “fire hazard”, ho hum) so I watched almost all of The Crucible at a ninety degree angle from that usually considered optimum for film viewing. The question of “why the bloody hell was that chandelier there” was never addressed, but in hindsight I can only assume it was a listed building.
It’s fair to point out that none of the other screens in the Salisbury Odeon produced quite such a deleterious effect on my back and neck muscles, and also to speculate that this experience made me a little unimpressed with the possibility of “doing” The Crucible as our school play the following year…