There are moments in life when time stands still; when you are precisely where you want to be and nowhere else, living in the moment, and enjoying every minute of it. It’s the stuff of poets, song-writers, and dreamers.
Saturday night brought along one of those precious moments and its one I won’t forget for sometime.
A figure stood on a stage that was surrounded by a gorgeously stylish ‘art deco’ proscenium arch. A plush, comfy red velvet swivel chair held my tired but excited frame. My fingers curled around a glass of sauvignon blanc and as a joke was made from the stage, my eye caught my husband’s and friends’, all sat around the same small table.
Name after name were thanked, the history of the ‘odyssey’ behind the building of this Odyssey recalled, and apologies made for unpainted handrails and unfinished bars.
The curtain lifted, the state of the art sound system reverberated in my chest, and the opening scene of one of my all-time favourite films rolled: Cinema Paradiso. Could a more apt, or more enjoyable film been chosen for this, the third of four opening nights of The Odyssey Cinema, St Albans?
You see, this day had been 20 years in the waiting for me, since the year the Odeon closed in 1994. At the time I was living in a city that had an art house cinema, and knew that St Albans deserved similar. But what James Hannaway, the marvellously maverick cinema-developer of Berkhamsted’s The Rex and now The Odyssey, has brought to St Albans is far beyond what I’d hoped.
This jewel of a cinema is even bigger than its older brother, The Rex, with double the number of ‘orchestra’ seats – moveable, swivel chairs positioned around small wine bar style tables, a bar bringing up the rear which you can visit at any time. The upstairs has similar seats but fixed in more typical, cinema rows but with plenty of legroom and many romantic ‘sofa’ seats. Priced at £11 or £9 each, they’re far, far better value than the dreary multiplex cinemas.
As I laughed at scenes of rural 1950s Sicilians crying, laughing, and living their lives in their own cinema, memories came back of how, as a teenager, I used to laugh and yell at Beverley Hills Cop, Rambo or Superman on a Saturday night in this very cinema with my sixth-form friends. We’d avoid the dodgy boys at the back, or maybe surreptitiously sneak into the ‘smoking zone’. Ok, we weren’t as loud as the Sicilians (this is middle class England after all) but there was a whole lot more sense of community than is nowadays found in the plastic, soulless multiplexes that replaced it in the 1990s. Being in town, kids could walk or get the bus to it, so going to the cinema was a social occasion. It may have had a sticky red carpet back then, but no-one really cared. (Now, the carpet is sumptuous).
The 1970s ads in the intermission (remember those?) have become the stuff of local legend: the plump Punjabi dancer, grinning inanely at us as the delights of the New Gulshan Tandoori restaurant (still there!) were extolled, is still a source of much hilarity amongst my school friends. And that kaleidescope of nuts! Health & Safety would be having a fit if they saw it today.
This was the spot where I saw two films that awoke me out of childhood. Cry Freedom, the film that opened my eyes to apartheid and awoke a passion for pursuing social justice, and Fatal Attraction, that very Eighties of films, that was like a nasty lightning bolt.
But Saturday night wasn’t just a trip down memory lane for me.
My heart swelled with pride at what this community had thrown money at, campaigned for (thank you Herts Advertiser and St Albans Civic Society), cajoled Mr Hannaway into taking on board, and worked tirelessly for over the last 5 years. It was the story of a community overcoming the mighty property developers to build something that would bring joy to us all rather than another 15 ‘luxury’ apartments. It was the realisation of a dream, a dream that most everyone in that cinema that night shared.
I then realised that our children might have the chance to experience something that most kids will never have – the romance, community and excitement of cinema as it was intended. And just as long as they stick to the upstairs seats, we’ll all be happy!
This might have been end of one odyssey, but it’s just the beginning of another….