I wasn’t born with a silver spoon but rather into the silver screen and into a life in movies. Darryl F. Zanuck, the flamboyant 20th Century Fox movie mogul, was barking on the phone to my mother, moments after I catapulted into the world, checking in to see if she was working from the maternity ward – which of course she was.
Shelley was European Story Editor for 20th Century Fox when she married my father, but she went on to do all manner of cinematic projects with him. They got the show on the road with a film distribution company called Shelltrie Productions in the 1970s, representing many unknown and quirky art house films, as well as original superhero flicks such as The Incredible Hulk and Captain America. They then turned their hands to writing and publishing, and finally, became cinema owners in the 1980s, suing people and companies along the way, in order to protect the French art house industry. Keeping in mind neither of them was French, this was an odd pastime.
My first cinema experience at the age of three wasn’t the tearful Bambi or the rags to riches Cinderella. It was the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. To this day, I can’t watch any Charlton Heston film (although let’s face it, this may have more to do with Mr Heston’s acting than the apes). My parents continued this abuse throughout my early years, stealing me out of school and taking me to film festivals: Cannes, Avoriaz, Chamrousse and Deauville were all on the annual festival trailblaze. They were great fun, and my parents even bagged the top prize in Chamrousse for a Czechoslovakian film they were distributing called The Apple Game.
My most memorable Cannes was watching Roy Scheider take the Palme d’Or for All that Jazz in 1980. The clapping went on, it seemed endlessly, for his talented portrayal of the womanizing, brilliant and troubled director Bob Fosse.
The Deauville American film festival in Normandy was only in its second year when I met an actress who to this day remains an icon and role model: Jodie Foster. We chatted bilingually in perfect French and English, and the then 14 year-old actress was gracious and kind to the shy 8 year-old who had just seen her in Bugsy Malone.
You had me at Michael Caine
I’ve been the subject of two attacks in my life, both of these in Parisian cinemas. Perhaps I spent too much time in picture houses, or maybe it was just a strange coincidence. The first was whilst watching Educating Rita and falling head over heels in love with Michael Caine (his portrayal of the alcoholic but genius professor Dr Frank Bryant in this film is the reason I went on to study English Literature. I spent years looking for a Dr Bryant in every classroom, with limited success). A bomb exploded above a sweet shop next door, causing some damage to the cinema and obliterating the shop. The second was in an arthouse cinema in Paris, whilst watching Citizen Kane: machetes in hand, the screen was ripped to shreds by a gang of hooligans. Mercifully, the police arrived before they could move onto the stunned audience.
London’s Dream Palaces
My second job out of university was to work with my in-laws in their London company, providing ticketing software to cinemas and theatres all over the world. Our first client was the Prince Charles cinema, and we went on to provide systems for some of the greatest venues, my favourites being The Old Vic and Victoria Palace in London, and El Capitan in Los Angeles.
London has a unique and totally glamorous collection of cinemas which really make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, with all the luxury trimmings of a movie mogul’s home cinema. You can kick back in your love seat with a glass of fizz, or a three course-menu with discreet service during the screening. There’s really no excuse to stay at home and watch a DVD.
Cinema, movie theatre, picture house – call them what you will, these are London’s finest silver screen pleasure domes:
The Electric Cinema: Sexy and Swanky
The Electric Cinema in Portobello Road is my go-to for an evening of razzle-dazzle. It’s in Portobello Road, so the cinematic experience starts in the streets, with every landmark from the romcom film Notting Hill within a stone’s throw (travel bookshop, tattoo parlour and market, to name a few). This cinema is where you’d expect to see Jane Russell swishing up and down the aisles as a cigarette girl. It’s plush and baroque, featuring leather love seats and footstools, luxury cashmere throws and champagne on tap. The Electric Diner next door is perfect for a pre or post film snack, and for east end Londoners, The Electric has a sister cinema in Shoreditch too.
Boxing Royal at Curzon Cinemas
I love the Curzon chain. My first cinema outing in London was in 1989 to see Henry V at the Curzon Mayfair, starring gods of screen and stage Kenneth Branagh, Brian Blessed and Derek Jacobi. The Mayfair has two original royal boxes, and it’s the perfect place for watching live opera streaming from London’s Royal Opera House and the New York’s Met.
The Lounge at Whiteleys – For grown-ups only
The Lounge is an adults-only cinema with a club class atmosphere. The head chef, Rowley Leigh of Le Café Anglais, has devised a Finger, Fork and Spoon menu which is delivered seat-side, together with the cocktail of your choice. Top-ups are provided throughout the screening at the push of a call-button. For traditionalists, there’s also hot dogs and popcorn, and for the sweet tooth like me, a death by dessert menu including my favourite: Ferrero Rocher delight, salted caramel sauce, hazelnut and nutella ice cream. Yum!
Everyman Cinemas – Pretty as a Picture
The UK’s coolest independent chain of cinemas with luxury seats and bar service, the only trouble you’ll have in these dream palaces is staying awake during the feature film.
Olympic Cinema – Music and Lyrics
The Olympic’s previous incarnation as a recording studio played host to many famous and infamous artists including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Queen, David Bowie, Barbra Streisand, Prince and Madonna. It’s now also a private members’ club upstairs, a diner, my local, and very nice indeed.
Somerset House – Al fresco flicks
This pop-up cinema is only open for business in balmy August, and it takes centre stage under the stars in the Somerset House courtyard. In December, this is my go-to for dreamy Yuletide ice-skating.
Hooray for Hollywood!
There are so many silver screen greats, but this is my list of all-time favourites.
I realise as I look at the list, how cinema is as much about sound as it is about sight: from Farinellis’s kitsch but totally magical aria, Lascia ch’io pianga; to the soundtrack that time machine’s me instantly back to university campus life in The Big Chill; Michel Legrand’s fairytale score for the incestuous Peau d’Ane; and the death scene in Death in Venice – is there anything more hauntingly beautiful? Midnight in Paris is perfect in every possible way, and makes me nostalgic about my years in the City of Light every time I watch it.
What are your favourites?
I’ll leave you with the Great Farinelli, singing Handel’s Lasica ch’io Pianga. I’ve watched this countless times, and it unfailingly gives me goosebumps.