Desperately seeking Kevin

What is the true meaning of cinema? Serena Mackesy finds out at the Prince Charles
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all right. all right. settle down. The cinema means many things to many people: snogging in the back row; getting slapped in the back row; something in a roll in a box and a large Diet Coke; complaining about the person sitting next to you eating popcorn; Keanu Reeves's breathtaking acting ability.

Or, to some people, the cinema means Kev from Leicester. Kev works at the Prince Charles and is the voice on their answering machine. Kev is something of a cult figure: people who have no intention of actually pitching up that day at the 490-seat auditorium call in to hear what he has to say and tell their friends to call as well. Forget Barry Norman: Kev is the cineaste's cineaste.

If you've not encountered Kev you will find him on 0171-437 8181 and he will fill you in on the movies and their stars in broadest Brum-speak.

Uma Thurman, for instance. "She is pretty," Kev says, "but not as pretty as my girlfriend." Of Jean-Claude van Damme he says: "He's a brilliant method actor. He really gets into his roles, doesn't he?" The appalling Stargate is a "hugely enjoyable scientific epic. It's not that huge and it's not that enjoyable, but anyway..." Bandit Queen is "a very good story, actually, about an Indian woman who killed a load of people," and Shallow Grave "is a story about three friends and a bodyful of suitcases". Indeed.

The Prince Charles, tucked up an alleyway off Leicester Square, is one of those success stories that represent a victory for the consumer. Where the lifeless multiplexes round the corner charge pounds 8 for every seat, the Prince Charles charges pounds 2. The idea behind this originally came from Canada: take films that have gone off from the majors and charge video-rental prices to see them. The idea has caught on in a big way: about 8,500 people pass through their doors each week and the two evening shows are almost invariably sold out. "All the other cinemas have started taking notice of us now," says Rupert Mathias, their "publicity bloke". "Before, we were classed as a bit of a joke, but we've become a prod in their backs every now and then."

Obviously there will always be a sector of the potential cinema-going audience who values cushioned seats and air conditioning above the actual experience of seeing a film. These have been successfully targeted in the recent drive to get people back into the cinema over the last few years. But at the same time, the life of independents has been picking up of late - witness the amazing success of the Clapham Picture House, which has become a focal point of the social life of its part of south London. They tend to be a bit cramped and short on plastic fascias, but they have something that the multinationals' chrome palaces can never attain - character.

The cinema is the home of those famous Rocky Horror Picture Show late- night screenings, which have been packing them in, basques and all, for years. Quentin Tarantino can thank his lucky pocket that Reservoir Dogs still plays there two-and-a-half years after its release. "We used to have people come in dressed in Tarantino gear and fully kitted up with water pistols," says Rupert. "We called them the Reservoir doggies." The custard club, being resurrected after a break, involves midnight sneak previews with apple pie and custard: the illogicality of the link between the two doesn't seem to detract from its popularity. They're toying with the idea of Opportunity Knocks evenings.

The current fave rave, though, is their twice-weekly showings of the divine The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, prefaced by an excellent show by Brooke and Sandra, a couple of lissom drag queens, which "costs pounds 3 because we had to buy the stage and the lights". Despite this enormous outlay, there's never a dry seat in the house.

But it's got to be said that Kev is the real star of the show. Before Kev, the cinema received about 100 calls a day. Nowadays they receive about 900. Kev has a pair of checked trousers and fills us in on his relationship with his girlfriend. Last Friday he was "filled with love and warmth" and we heaved a sigh of relief. He does, of course, have his detractors; he was even forced into retirement at one point: "We had a few complaints," says Rupert, "because they said he had a stupid regional accent that nobody could understand and it to (sic) cost them more than 10p because he rabitted on a bit." The retirement lasted about four months and the management had to bring him back. "He got postcards saying `Kev, you are my love, you are my life, please don't leave'."

He still receives a trickle of postcards and even visits, but the hopes of those in search of a date are doomed to failure. Despite his persona on the answering machine, Kev is publicity-shy and would only pose for our photographer within the anonymity of a paper bag. "Everyone's instructed to say that it's his day off, or that he used to work here but he got the sack and just pops in to do the machine." Perhaps one day this hero of the ether will honour the world with his own late-night review slot. It just isn't going to be quite yet.