diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 04, 2015

I went to the cinema recently. This may not interest you.

I went to the cinema in a disused tube station. This may interest you more.

For five nights sandwiching last weekend, Charing Cross tube station was turned into a cinema. More specifically the Jubilee line platforms, closed in 1999 after a mere 20 years in service. Or to be more precise the concourse between the two platforms, to ensure there was enough space to cram in a screen and 100 chairs, and call the whole thing a cinema. Because who'd not want to do that?

This subterranean enterprise was courtesy of the Rooftop Film Club, temporarily renamed the Underground Film Club for the duration. They normally run pop-up cinemas on rooftops, hence the name, but on this occasion headed in the opposite direction to run a season of current and classic movie favourites. In doing so they teamed up with TfL, firstly because you can't gain access to an iconic location like this without their permission, and secondly because TfL had something they wanted to promote. The Night Tube starts in 100 days time, by which time you'll no doubt be tired of hearing about it, but at this early stage a cinematic tie-in provides just the right amount of media leverage to increase brand awareness amongst London's late night socialites.

Those who booked early enough were offered the choice of a wide variety of films, many with a railway theme, from Strangers on a Train to Paddington, and from Some Like It Hot to An American Werewolf In London. Nothing over-artsy was on offer, these were cinematographic bankers to get bums on seats, and this helped to sell out tickets very fast. These cost no more than a normal seat in a top West End cinema too, indeed possibly less, and all this with a free trip to a disused tube station thrown in. What do you mean you're gutted to have missed out?

Gaining entry to an Underground cinema isn't entirely straight-forward. Ordinary members of the travelling public walking past the entrance at the top of the Jubilee line escalator hoped to peer round the normally-locked doors, but without a ticket no such luck. You had to wave your online booking at a desk in the main ticket hall upstairs to gain an appropriately coloured wristband, and then get waved through the ticket barrier by a member of station staff to avoid touching in and getting charged for an incomplete journey. That got you through the Jubilee line doors, but even then you had to queue up again for a special TfL Visitor sticker, individually named and numbered, to ensure that nobody got locked in later by mistake.

And down. The Jubilee line escalators at Charing Cross are well known from films like Skyfall, this being the only place on the network where production teams can shoot in a modern tube station away from ordinary passengers. The money this brings in may also be the reason the escalators still work. On this occasion they'd been illuminated in purple, for added atmosphere, which killed off natural authenticity but considerably added to the cinema vibe. I decided against sliding down the metalwork like James Bond, partly because it's a long way down but mostly because I didn't want to get chucked out before the end of the evening.

At the bottom of the escalator the first of the two mothballed concourses had been transformed into a sort of cinema foyer by the addition of more mood lighting, plus a hot dog stall and a cocktail bar. These weren't appallingly priced either, although many who queued up for a drink were disappointed to discover that every cocktail was fruit-based (because the Mayor enacted a system-wide ban on alcohol seven years ago). Four side passages had been kitted out with bar tables, but alas roped off so you couldn't pass further onto the platforms. Damn.

So there we stood guzzling popcorn and sipping our pseudo piƱa coladas, in a tiled vault still lined by the trappings of everyday service. A 'NO ENTRY' sign lurked on the wall, a black "WAY OUT THE STRAND" lightbox hung at the foot of the escalator, and the original line diagrams remained available to help guide unseen passengers on their way. These line diagrams were from the pre-Stratford days when trains left platforms 3 and 4 "for all stations on the Jubilee line", and when you changed at West Hampstead for something called British Rail. I thought it was fascinating but I was clearly in a minority - most of those present were far more interested in eating, drinking and chatting to their friends than revelling in the disused heritage all around them. The uniqueness of the experience was seemingly wasted on them, and only a handful of us seemed to be taking the time to explore this small secret space properly.

Eventually the time came to pass through to the other concourse to watch the film. This at last was our cue to be allowed onto the platforms, any precipitous fall blocked by the presence of a train in the platform, and watched over by various TfL staff just in case. Ah, the films and TV programmes that have been recorded here, in one case (I think it was Silent Witness recently) doubling up for at least three different stations in the hope that viewers would be fooled by a simple change of nameplate. But on this occasion it soon became all too clear that we weren't hanging around on the platforms for long, just a brief shuffle in, down and out. This special location was briefly so full of people that any attempt at a decent photo was wasted, and grrr, we'd not be coming back this way either. Still, at least I'd been.

For the 'cinema', about 100 chairs had been squeezed into the vaulted space at the foot of the other set of escalators. Because the roof was curved the screen couldn't be too high off the ground, so it seemed likely that the bottom portion would be at least partly obscured for most of the audience. I found a seat by the wall and hoped that nobody too tall would sit in front of me. To listen to the film a set of wi-fi headphones was required, with buttons it took me a while to locate in the dark (and a bit longer to fully understand). But eventually I replaced the noise of static with the pre-feature soundtrack, just in time for the introduction and brief health and safety talk, with a member of TfL staff on standby just in case.

And then I watched the film. Great film.

Admittedly it's not in every cinema that the words "Ladies and gentleman, there is a good service running on all London Underground lines" boom out from behind you every ten minutes, but that was where the headphones came in useful. At the end of the film I was slightly disappointed when the lights went up as soon as the credits started rolling, suggesting that the organisers weren't quite serious movie buffs, and and everyone simultaneously stood up to go, suggesting the patrons weren't either. But all too soon it was time to leave, this time via the other set of escalators we'd been sat in front of all this time. These lead to the Bakerloo line and aren't quite as shiny, plus they have a staircase up the centre, and that was to be our way out.

In the passageway at the top we had to give back our Charing Cross Visitor stickers, but in return we got a free Night Tube 'night owl' badge to remind us why we'd been allowed to come. Underground Film Club probably won't be back, sorry, its blaze of publicity now complete. But you might have a ticket to visit over the next half dozen weekends because the London Transport Museum have kindly arranged some behind the scenes tours. It'll be a proper tour too, but you won't get a film, and you'll only be down in the depths for an hour, plus the tickets cost almost twice as much. Plus that's sold out too, sorry, because few things are as popular as an impossible-to-get-into tube station. Should have come down in 1999 for one pound forty, eh?

» Ten photos from my visit
» Information about closed-off Charing Cross
» More information about closed-off Charing Cross
» A visit to closed-off Charing Cross
» Underground Film Club tweets
» BBC London News report

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