There is a crater in the town where I grew up. Running between the bougie restaurants and Tunbridge Wells train station, lies a massive hole where the ABC Cinema used to be. With its closure in 1999, the town centre has lacked a cinema for nearly two decades.
This matters because, inarguably, something has been lost by its absence (not least the theatre where David Bowie’s parents met). But during lockdown, movie houses up and down the country have similarly disappeared from our lives. There’s been no place to pop into on a rainy Sunday; accidentally discovering your new favourite film just because it happened to be showing when you turned up. We’ve all missed the unique experience of becoming immersed in another world for two hours – enveloped by noise and darkness. Remember the smell of popcorn with a huge mark-up, while you smuggled a family sized bag of peanut M&Ms in your jacket pocket? We can all agree that it’s not quite the same shuffling from your work-from-home desk to your dented, sunken sofa – scattered with popcorn kernels, fluff-caked Minstrels, and sadness – and pressing play on Netflix…
Luckily, there’s a flickering light at the end of the tunnel. Come May 17, cinemas will reopen in England and Scotland (Wales and Northern Ireland are yet to set a date). They’re resilient, cinemas – faced with almost as many challenges as the music industry, and overcoming them with dignity. They are quite possibly the only mass entertainment format to have been faced with a pandemic before – in the shape of the Spanish Flu and they came back swinging, giving rise to the silent movie boom of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. They were a shelter and comfort during World War Two, an escape during the ‘Winter of Discontent’, and a tonic during the 2008 financial crisis – a place where real life didn’t matter for a couple of hours (as long as you turned your bloody phones off).
Of course, there are some bits we won’t miss: the budget-breaking concession stand (eight quid for a Tango Ice Blast?!); the surly 17-year-old shift manager who silently judges you for going to see the new Michael Bay film; the seats specifically designed to make you shift about an inordinate amount; the lad on a second date two rows in front of you providing a ‘funny’ commentary that no one, including his embarrassed date, asked for; the inexplicable need to go to the loo during the important bit – what do you mean you can’t pause it?
But even those things have their charm – adding to the romanticism of sharing an experience. After you’ve poked at the touch screen, pre-booked online or – if you’re feeling retro – talked to an actual human person, you can walk through that brightly coloured, dimly lit corridor and settle down to the adverts, which you can loudly take the piss out of, and the previews, which you can take the piss out of a bit more quietly. And then you’re submerged into another world.
So, personally, to Screen on the Green, to the local Curzon or to the Picturehouse around the corner: we cannot wait to see you again. If only to erase the memory of Sonic The Hedgehog – who knew it would be one of the last big films to come out pre-coronavirus.
And to the owners of the Tunbridge Wells crater? I urge them to fill it in with a new cinema as soon as they can – because cinemas still have an ability to ignite that little bit of magic, that little bit of soul, in our communities.