Broken Shark's Guide to London Cinemas - Part 1

First up, apologies for the London-centric nature of this guide. It is after all where we are based and as nobody pays us for any of this, well, you get what you pay for really. Either way, London is blessed with an embarrassment of mostly not embarrassing cinemas (now the old Trocadero one is no longer with us) and as we spend a huge proportion of our lives within these walls, we thought we would impart out knowledge on the subject to you, the cinema going public. In no particular order then:

Believe it or not, our old hometown fleapit....

Believe it or not, our old hometown fleapit....

Notes - we've done our best to be as accurate as possible with the information here but these are subjective reviews not a buyer's guide so forgive any errors. Prices listed are correct as of Mid-2016 and list the cheapest adult price to the most expensive. 

Cineworld

Location West India Quay
Number of Screens 10
Electronic Ticket Collection Yes
Bar Yes
Ticket Price Range £11.05 - £12.20

Our default cinema for a long while simply because of its location in relation to BS’s London office. Cineworld have a huge number of generic multiplexes that to be honest, don’t really offer a great deal of variety. For a blockbuster though, they are a decent option. Recent insistence on removing general admission in order to charge a premium for ‘Star’ seats, that is, the ones in the middle block with the best view is irksome, particularly as in this instance, there aren’t really any bad views from the auditorium. 

In terms of practicalities, the screens all offered raked seating with a small amount of sloped seating for the first eight or so rows in the larger screens with decent legroom throughout. Picture and sound quality is largely okay but nothing special. I’m pretty sure none of the staff have ever heard of 35mm, though that’s no real reflection on the staff who I’ve always found are generally more pleasant than most at a multiplex.

Tickets can be booked online at a 10% discount and, more crucially can be collected from a usually queue free machine in the lobby. Smart phone tickets are also now available though I really can’t pull myself away from the souvenir ticket. Concessions are standard pick n mix, hot dogs, nachos and fizzy drinks / popcorn in containers bigger than your head. This cinema still retains a box office though I suspect that will not be long for this world. The Cineworld Unlimited pass is incredibly good value if you are loyal to one chain. There is a bar on the first floor that seems to be open at completely arbitrary times and has so little atmosphere you feel you need breathing apparatus. Bizarrely it has a pool table that I have never once seen in use in hundreds of visits.

Overall this is a decent go to location with mainstream movies, pleasant staff and an acceptably bland atmosphere.

Curzon Soho

Location Er....
Number of Screens 3
Electronic Ticket Collection No
Bar Yes
Ticket Price Range £8.00 - £15.00

The currently threatened central London flagship for the Curzon brand of cinemas was built in 1912 and converted to its current three screen format in 1998. If the cretins who are developing Crossrail 2 have their way, it will eventually be demolished to make way for a ticket hall (petition here: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-the-curzon-soho). Imminent destruction aside though, the Curzon chain is one that has a reputation for screening the more independent side of movies though in recent years this has started to be a little inconsistent.

Screen 1 is a decent enough screen, though anybody with a multiplex-centric view will be disappointed by its size. Seating is mostly sloping with a section of six or so rows at the back that is raked. There is a bonus row for those of us with longer legs that sits at the bottom of the rake and has an entire walkway of legroom due to the layout of the seating. Views in the sloped seats can be troubling if you’re watching a subtitled movie as it doesn’t take that big a person to obstruct your view.

The downstairs bar area was recently re-modelled and now sports a much cleaner look than previous which to be honest I think has removed some of its charm. The bar itself is decent enough and staff are efficient, though the recent loss of the admittedly poorly sited box office means that you’ll have to get involved with the drinks queue to pick up your ticket or deal with any membership renewals (something I’ve never quite got to the bottom of on the website, hence my expired membership). Upstairs houses a cafe that I’ve never seen a free seat in and have only ever managed a particularly uninteresting ham and cheese toastie from. The almost secret bar downstairs outside the screens is no more, which is probably for the best as the area got very crowded when the screens kicked out.

Crucially, the Curzon does allow you to take your beer in with you, something starting to catch on now but in days gone used to be totally off limits. Decent membership offers have recently introduced with the all movies free membership coming in at £350 a year (£29 a month), which is dearer than the multiplex equivalent though you’d only have to see a film every other week to make it pay.

Overall the Curzon Soho scores high on atmosphere and currently treads a decent line between a good nostalgic old school cinema and a more pleasant modern cinema experience. The reduction in less mainstream movies is a shame but these have mostly been moved out of economic imperative I suspect to the newly refurbished Curzon Bloomsbury (nee Renoir).

Odeon Leicester Square

Location Starting to think this line is pointless
Number of Screens 1 + Studios next door
Electronic Ticket Collection Yes
Bar Kind of
Ticket Price Range £15.00 - £17.50

The big one. The main man. This 1,600 seater monstrosity is where you’ll find yourself if you’re lucky enough to attend a gala screening at the London Film Festival or a premiere of some description. Astonishingly, given the horrific seating, this used to be 2,000 seats but 400 were removed to enhance the leg room. If you’ve been here and you’re over five foot eleven, this will be baffling news.

Built in 1937 and I suspect only refurbished to remove the above mentioned seats and install some marvellous leopard print upholstery, this is about the only place left in the UK where you get to see the man on the organ rise from the stage before a performance. The cinema exists now solely based on its size and its ability host royal visitors without them having to mix with the populace. It’s also one of the few remaining cinemas that retains a circle as well as stalls.  

The stalls upstairs offer a slightly better viewing experience as the seats are raked though I’m yet to work out exactly how these tickets are allocated for the big events. Downstairs is a far less pleasant experience. Legroom is still woeful meaning at six foot three I struggle to fit into the seats at all and the seating is only sloped meaning if you’re sat behind me and the movie has subtitles, good luck with that. Badly lit aisles also make finding your seat a challenge and lord help you if you need the toilet. For the girls, the toilets at the back of auditorium lead to nice long queues that clash with patrons trying to escape the auditorium. For the boys, some of the pokiest toilets in London await you with six urinals and two stalls split across two toilets. And that for the best part of a thousand people.

A bar exists upstairs along with a quite wonderful balcony affording views out on to the square but the bar is tiny and generally only available to the stars. A concession stand downstairs is blocked off for events and a drinks trolly that appears at the front of auditorium is generally sold out instantly.

Overall the Odeon Leicester Square is holy available for the novelty value. Despite its decrepit nature, there is still nothing quite like strolling the red carpet, even if it does precede a hundred minutes of agony.

BFI Southbank

Location Take a punt
Number of Screens 3 + Studio
Electronic Ticket Collection Yes, then broken, now no
Bar 2
Ticket Price Range £7.45 - £10.65

As a patron at the BFI, this review is going to struggle to be objective but I’ll give it a go. The home of the BFI, strictly speaking this is the National Film Theatre, hence you’ll see the acronym NFT on your ticket. One of the few places left where a truly eclectic programme runs year round with only a smattering of mainstream blockbusters touching any of the hallowed screens.

It’s safe to say that the BFI Southbank is the true home of any London based film geek. Three screens, a studio, a viewing gallery, a library, shop, exhibition space, riverside bar, Benugo bar and a lovely secret library bar all nestle under the bridge at Waterloo. The screens vary in size and quality of experience greatly. NFT1 is the centre space, though it manages to be one of the few modern cinemas with a rake and still have viewing issues. Leg room is minimal though the seats are comfy and you can get away with it on a aisle seat. Get a big person in front of you though and you’re going to struggle a bit. The screen is decent though and on occasion you can still see a 35mm print here, though I can’t remember the last time I did. Exceptional occasions also see the hallowed 70mm print exhibited. Screens two and three are both okay, with three offering probably the best views due to the rake, though that is only if you can suffer the measly legroom. The Studio is as small as you’d expect from the name so whatever you do, don’t get the front row or you’ll end up with something akin to whiplash.

Both bars are nice, with the large outside area of the Riverside bar being a winner for those summer evenings and the Benugo bar winning out for its cosy sofa feel in the winter. Both are perpetually busy though so you’ll have to time it right. The continuing lack of a member’s bar is a slight issue with some members though it’s not clear how well used that would be and how economical it would be to staff.

Regular strands are the main selling point of the BFI, along with introductions and Q&A sessions with both stars and the BFI’s encyclopaedically knowledgeable and generally quite personable programmers. Membership confers a wide variety of benefits, not the least of which is some pretty good advance access to the BFI’s flagship London Film Festival. The newly revamped LGBT festival Flare is just finding its feet and will go on to great things to.

Overall the BFI Southbank is a bit of a mix really. In terms of programming, atmosphere and facilities, it is unrivalled. In terms of viewing experience, there are better places and it will be interesting to see over the next few years which direction the building goes with the recently announced plans for a custom built complex to the side of Waterloo bridge, between the current cinema and Jubilee Gardens.

Picturehouse Central

Location Piccadilly Circus
Number of Screens 7
Electronic Ticket Collection Yes
Bar Yes
Ticket Price Range £13.00 - £18.00

Subject of a monumental rebuild that was opened only this year, the Trocadero (shudder) is now home to probably London’s finest cinema, certainly in terms of experience. Seven screen sit on top of a pretty generously sized cafe. Up a flight of wonderfully lit stairs finds a large bar and a ridiculously opulent range of concessions (including some of the most expensive doughnuts I’ve ever clapped eyes on). Up from here gets you to the massive screen 1 and member’s bar with wonderful views across the city and an impressive mezzanine floor.

A recent LFF visit did witness a punter accidentally rip off one of the massive front doors to the utter horror of the attendant staff (who, we assume, whisked off the poor lady and plied her with as many free offers as were required to mitigate the potential legal action), so it’s fair to say they may have rushed the last of the build to get this on programme. We’re not holding that against it though as the building is awesome.

The bar offers a great range of beverages, pretty tasty food and, crucially (at the time of writing at least), has a licence that means it can only serve booze to people with a current day ticket to a screening - depending on the time of day. So, the proles are kept at bay and the bar is filled with people actually waiting to watch a movie or dissecting one they’ve just come out of.

Screens themselves are all of a standard that you would expect from a brand new cinema, though works on the rest of the Trocadero building mean that occasionally you’ll be able to hear an angle-grinder in the background at the moment. Screen 1 is gigantic and has the now standard largely raked layout of rows at the front on a slope. The rake is decent so you’ll have an uninterrupted view wherever you sit and legroom is spot on so you’ll be able to walk when you leave. I’ve found the sound quality a little quiet but that’s being particularly pedantic to be honest. Screens 6 and 7 tend to show documentaries and are smaller though the quality and seating is still good.

Price-wise, there’s no getting away from the premium nature of the place. General tickets are expensive but documentary tickets are a disproportionate bargain (at £8), an offer which has now been extended into 2016. Memberships are available though which confer a £3 discount on tickets along with a veritable deluge of other offers and of course, entry to the lovely member’s bar.

Programming offers a decent range, particularly with the documentaries, though obviously with this being a prime location the emphasis is on mainstream blockbusters. Events are pretty frequent, with a showing last year of Ian Softly’s superb and criminally overlooked The Skeleton Key being a highlight.

Overall The Picturehouse Central is probably the gold standard now for premium cinema in London. A decent enough programme housed in a magnificent space with bags of facilities and a good membership scheme lead to an impressive experience.

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