Two recent events have conspired to remind me what’s so special about the antique notion of seeing films at the cinema ie. not at home on the telly, or on a laptop, or on a phone, but sat, in an auditorium, in the dark, surrounded by others, on a big screen.
At last month’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, I was tasked with hosting a series of special preview screenings of upcoming televisual delights at that fine city’s unfathomably pleasant Filmhouse cinema. We showed all sorts, from the nail-biting first episode of the BBC/HBO co-production Hunted, to Victoria Wood’s next BBC one-off, the lovingly made biopic Loving Miss Hatto. But the climax of the three-day programme was Asylum of The Daleks, the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who (which aired on TV two Saturdays ago, but at the time had only been seen by a lucky audience at the BFI in London).
It was surreal enough to be sat on the front row of a cinema next to Who showrunner and principal writer Steven Moffat while the first of his “blockbuster” episodes was premiered, but what made it all the more rewarding was watching the illuminated faces of all those Doctor Who fans as they gazed upon the huge screen. They laughed at the in-jokes. They cheered at the first descending chord of the credits sequence. They gasped at the scary bits. It was a joy to see.
Not only did seeing Doctor Who in a cinema with a rabidly enthusiastic sell-out crowd make sense of why the show is still so popular – simple answer: it brings pleasure – it reminded me why “going to the pictures” remains such a unique pleasure for me. In this technological age, digital access to films and TV has never been easier, and “home cinema” means that your living room can become a mini-Odeon. But there’s nothing like making the effort to get out of the house, down the road or into town, and to submit to the idea that the film is showing in one sitting, and you can’t pause or rewind it, and if you go to the loo, you miss some of it. You are a captive audience, and that’s unique.
Doctor Who is designed for the living room, where there is a sofa to hide behind. In many ways, it’s unfair to show it massive, as it’s literally made for TV. (Ironically, the episode of Hunted seemed at home in the cinema, but its production values, and budget, are movie sized.)
This week, I saw the new Anna Karenina at the cinema. I found it thrilling, although not all critics have. Director Joe Wright’s bold conceit was to re-stage Tolstoy’s torrid aristo-soap in a theatre – to point up the theatricality of ritualised life in high society 19th century St Petersburg. Very clever. And yet, it’s a totally cinematic device; as the cameras move around the set, our collective experience is nothing like that of a theatre audience, which is necessarily static. Only moving pictures can do this.
So let’s watch (and love) TV on TV, and see theatre at the theatre, but let’s not forget that films, so instantly and widely available for home viewing, should ideally be viewed first at the flicks.