Whether you like to immerse yourself in the surround-sound and SFX of a modern day blockbuster, relive memorable scenes from an old or recent classic or explore the culture and art of another country, London has a cinema that’s just right for you. Standing out from the vast crowd are the seven cinemas listed below, although there are dozens more to try out in the UK’s entertainment capital.
The Electric Cinema
Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema, originally built in the early 20th Century, is quite rightly a Grade II listed building. Everything from its gilt-domed box office, immaculate stonework and gentle curves to its classic billboard lettering, leather upholstery and mosaic flooring enhances the architectural beauty of this gorgeous Portobello Road cinema. Inside things continue to impress, with two-seater red velvet sofas (which are more like beds), wine coolers, footstools and tables stocked up with snacks and drinks. From Italian nibbles to a hearty plate of fish and chips, you can tuck into your favourite food while enjoying the latest blockbuster movie, art-house flick or classic title. The cinema also houses the Electric Brasserie and a private club, the Electric House. The Electric is a favourite of film industry buffs and everyday filmgoers alike and stories of people calmly collecting refunds as blitz warnings flashed on screen evoke the wartime spirit of London. Prices range from around £5 to £12.50.
After converting her auctioneer’s workshop into one of London’s first full-time cinemas, the Kingsland Palace, Clara Ludski soon commissioned its expansion, complete with majestic hexagonal tower: the Kingsland Empire. After various face and name changes, the cinema eventually became the Rio in 1976.
Noted for its attractively curved art deco interior with shabby chic touches, the Grade II-listed Rio offers a superb viewer’s experience with excellent sound quality and unobstructed views of the screen.
In 1995 the running of the Rio was turned over to an elected Board of Directors who today run the cinema as a not-for-profit charity. They have ensured a very eclectic mix of films including extended seasons of foreign-language pictures. However, the cinema announced that it was suffering financially in 2013 and urged more people to use it or risk losing it. Prices range from around £3.50 for a matinee to £7.50 with concessions occasionally available.
The Ritzy, Brixton
Now part of the Picturehouse Group, the Ritzy in Brixton is sometimes billed as the ‘best cinema South of the River’. It first opened in 1910 as the Electric Pavilion but its life nearly came to a premature end in 1976 until Lambeth council stepped in to save it from demolition. Its five screens show a mixture of mainstream and independent films and it also has dedicated kids’ films on Saturday and even mother and baby showings. There is often something other than films going on at the Ritzy, including live music, comedy and quiz nights or exhibitions in the in-house gallery. The Ritzy was redeveloped in 2009 and now houses the Upstairs at the Ritzy bar and a separate bar and cafe on the ground floor (where you can enjoy a Ritzy Burger or maybe some smoked salmon in saffron broth! Film prices range from £6.50 to £8.50.
Odeon Leicester Square
With its unmistakeable polished black granite facade, complete with a neon-lit column stretching nearly 40 metres up into the West End sky, the 1683-seat Odeon Leicester Square is London’s red carpet premiere venue with prices to match, tickets costing from £9 up to over £20 for certain seats. With a spacious two-tier auditorium and glass and leopard print seats, the Odeon has a luxury feel and its state-of-the-art sound systems make it the place to go to get the most out of today’s SFX-heavy blockbusters. The Leicester Square branch was built in 1937 from the designs of Harry Weedon and Andrew Mather. It is Odeon’s flagship premises and hosts the annual Royal Film Performance. It is the largest single-screen cinema in the UK and was the first to install a wide screen and digital projector. The Odeon also has the facilities to put on the occasional live performance.
The Prince Charles
Barely two minutes walk away from the glitz and glamour of the Odeon Leicester Square is the non-subsidised Prince Charles of Leicester Place, formerly one of London’s best-kept secrets before being ‘discovered’ by Quentin Tarantino who described it as everything a cheap cinema should be. And with members able to get tickets from £1.50, the Prince Charles is indeed refreshingly budget-friendly, with most tickets costing a maximum of £5. There are plenty of quirky touches to love about the Prince Charles, from the Lovers’ Chairs; the Good Bad Movie Club, celebrating the best of bad cinema; and the signature £14 Singalonga shows (which have included a Big Lebowski ‘quote-a-long’). The programme is always kept fresh and varied, with around ten films put on each week, and the addition of a second screen has added mainstream films to the mix of this local’s favourite.
Another of London’s old relics, the 1910-built Phoenix (formerly East Finchley Picturedrome) puts on a mixture of new releases, independent films, old and contemporary classics and foreign-language films. It boasts a charming barrel-vaulted auditorium with iconic wave-like seating and is regularly chosen as a backdrop for photo-shoots, even making an appearance as a 19th Century theatre in the film ‘Interview with a Vampire.’ The in-house coffee bar offers a selection of cakes and sweets to enjoy and there is also a licence to sell alcohol. Ironically, the Phoenix lived up to its name by surviving an attempted demolition in 1984 when the Greater London Council overruled the planning permission that Barnet Council had given to a property company. Since then, the Phoenix has been run by the community as a charitable trust and all profits are reinvested to help with the upkeep of the building and educational projects. Prices are around £5 to £8.
The British Film Institute was founded in 1933 and covered by a Royal Charter. It first took over its present site to the south east of Waterloo Bridge, in 1957 under the National Film Theatre banner, before being renamed BFI Southbank in 2007. The building is now part of the Southbank Centre and houses three cinemas screening a combination of classic, independent and foreign-language films. There is also a bar on-site which puts on occasional films, as well as a mediatheque, gallery, studio and shop. BFI Southbank are currently promoting the ‘Film Forever’ project to help support the UK film industry.