Cinemas are awful, aren’t they? I’m not talking about the artform. I like cinema. But cinemas, the bricks-and-mortar buildings, the garden-variety multiplex chains, are the worst: sticky-carpeted monstrosities, devoid of joy, where eye-watering popcorn prices require a payday loan, experienced projectionists have been replaced with a teenager pressing play on a DVD player, and the whole place possesses as much atmosphere as dead amoeba. It doesn’t matter how good the film is. You wouldn’t eat Michelin-starred food at a restaurant that looked and smelled like piss.
Unsurprisingly, savvy Londoners have been turning to alternatives, and a veritable popcorn-flavoured smorgasbord of pop up cinemas have, in a very literal sense, popped up all over the city. One such pop-up is the Rooftop Film Club, in which hardy souls surrendered themselves to the Great British Weather for movies under the stars.
The team behind Rooftop have sensibly hibernated for the winter and now the Underground Film Club offers subterranean cinematic nourishment for the discerning film fan. There’s no sticky carpets or pervading sense of despair here. This is cinema with a soul.
The ‘Underground’ element is something of a misnomer – it is, technically, at ground level – but it definitely feels somewhere a burrowing animal might feel at home. The club resides at the Vaults, a cavernous series of Victorian warehouse spaces beneath Waterloo station only recently rediscovered and turned into a “multi-disciplinary art space”. Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic Theatre was a recent occupant.
The film club are its current temporary residents, using a lavish velvet-seated auditorium borrowed from Banksy, no less. It’s a sumptuously decked out space, with curious art tidbits adorning the walls, leather sofas, and colourful changing lighting creating an ambience all of itself. The bar from Bulmers Cider dishes up moreish cocktails, and a colourful range of Bulmers in new flavours, neatly in keeping with the #LiveColourful campaign. There’s even a Bulmers Live Colourful photo booth, which provided Warhol-esque photo prints on the spot. (Not your average passport pic.)
Inside the auditorium itself, the curvature of the tunnels gives the whole thing a proscenium arch sort of feel, like this is the revived fossil of a grand old picture house from the golden age, when going to the cinema meant four feature films, a newsreel, a cartoon, and a rhubarb ‘n’ custard bon bon from the foyer, altogether costing a thrupenny bit with change to spare.
There were, alas, no bon bons on sale at the Underground Film Club. But there was an excellent pie shop. And – joy of joys! – reasonably priced popcorn.
The evident effort and love from Bulmers poured into the experience enriches the filmwatching process beyond measure. I was there for opening night, to see Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, a tale of whimsy and farce almost tailor-made for the quirky surroundings. The clever sods gave everyone wireless headphones, which dulled both popcorn and the trains overhead to a distant murmur.
I came out of the film with a smile on my face, wondering quietly to myself that if the permanent, soulless multiplexes of the world were replaced with these spirited, thoughtful pop-up alternatives, it wouldn’t quite be the end of the world.