Picturehouse Cinemas portray themselves as “Independent”, which probably has some really compelling meaning in terms of non-connexion to any particular studio, but in practice they feel like a classy chain rather than true independents – a bit like the Curzon chain. They show a wider selection of films than the nadir of the UK’s scene, the Odeons, but they also show your big releases – I saw Interstellar and Gravity at the Picturehouse in Oxford. My general feelings had thus been luke warm about the chain until I was looking for a place to see The Lobster, which was only showing at Picturehouse Central at anything like a convenient time.
Picturehouse Central is near Piccadilly, which is to say, near the centre of the Entertainment Universe of London. It’s surrounded by glitzy restaurants, theatres, and the gaudy light-show that is the Circus itself. That all just heightens the instant sense of class the place exudes as you walk in. It’s been fitted out with a semi-industrial chique, with a long bar along one side and a grand staircase leading to the upper levels. There’s no doubt when you walk in that you’ve arrived somewhere cool. The clientele the night I was there first may have been especially glamorous as it was the opening of the African Film Festival, but the whole place exudes a very modern class. Up the grand staircase are the ticket offices on one side, but on the other side is a large bar and restaurant. The whole space feels light and airy – and definitely meets my criterion of being a place to go even without the attached silver screens.
More pleasurable still is entering the cinema boxes themselves. The seats are large, fixed rather than folding, and comfortable. The screens are not enormous, but they’re perfectly placed in relation to the seats so they fill your field of view without overwhelming you. I estimated from pacing in front that they’re basically “regular sized” by the Odeon standard, but because the designer clearly understood the use of the space they feel bigger. The Odeon has its seats always awkwardly skewed to one side of the screen and at an angle, like they hate people enjoying film – this was just perfect. The picture was perfectly projected, which to be honest, is fairly manageable even in English cinemas. The best thing though, was the sound. Most English cinemas have front-mounted speakers that are simply turned up to absurd levels as if loudness was the only point. The sound at Picturehouse Central is loud enough that you can hear everything with crystal clarity, and not loud enough that there’s either discomfort or distortion.
Picturehouse Central represents something coming close to the best cinemas, and I heartily approve – the one downside is the price. At £18 a ticket, it’s beyond outrageous. It’s certainly an absolutely huge improvement over any Odeon I’ve been in, but I’m not sure it’s literally twice as good. Actually, I’m pretty sure it is. However, that price does start to look pretty reasonable when I compare it to, say, the Vue at Leicester Square which has all the typical faults of an English cinema for £14 a film. Picturehouse Central doesn’t have quite the presence of the best cinema I know, but it’s about as good as cinema gets here.