Aisles of plenty

Films have long been accompanied by the crunch of popcorn and the slurp of drink. Matthew Sweet ponders an unhealthy obsession
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The Independent Culture

There's a cinema in Milton Keynes where you are positively encouraged to bring your own nibbles. No popcorn deliquesces under Perspex, no frankfurters perform a lardy log-roll over the grill, and no jelly snakes are sucked and then put back in the pick'n'mix. It is owned by Stelios Haji-Ioannou - the entrepreneur with a thing about the colour orange - and it operates on the economic model that is now synonymous with his name: ticket prices vary with demand, and there's no such thing as a free lunch. Unlike the airline easyJet, however, easyCinema has not been a roaring success. Stelios attributes this to the intransigence of the major film distributors, which, appalled at the idea of punters seeing first-run pictures for as little as 20p, are refusing to do business with him. I have another explanation.

Eating rubbish, overpriced food in the dark is a time-honoured element of the cinema-going experience. It's also a fundamental part of the economics of film exhibition. In the 1950s, it was admitted that the Odeons and ABCs made more of their profits from the sale of Toffets and drinks-on-sticks than they did from selling tickets at the box office.

At the National Film Theatre - where you're only allowed to take sparkle-free mineral water to your seat - a season of archive screenings entitled Eat, Drink and be Merry will recognise the long association of cinema, fat, carbohydrates and sugary drinks. Undernourished punters will be able to watch Elsie and the Brown Bunny (1921), a promotional short for Cadbury's chocolate, in which a little girl in a pinafore dress falls asleep over her box of soft centres and dreams of allowing a bipedal rabbit to punt her to the magical realm of Bourneville. (There's no connection, thankfully, with the Vince Gallo fellatio flick.) They'll also see an upbeat 1926 advert for Candy Cushions, in which usherettes stride down the aisles taking sixpences in exchange for boxes of sweets that also contain snazzy free gifts such as necklaces, fountain pens and - rather more alarmingly - razor blades.

Further down the programme, a gaggle of Benny Hills extol the virtues of Schweppes tonic water, and an animated bouncing ball encourages members of the Odeon Cinema Club to stop choking on their Sherbet Dips and join in a jolly song from which some of the words have been obliterated, apparently because someone detected Nazi undertones in the lyrics.

We should be glad that the British Film Institute has seen fit to preserve ephemera of this kind. Most people will only go once to see a film. The adverts, however, circulate for much longer periods and are viewed hundreds of times. They don't, consequently, melt away like ice in the sunshine, but remain lodged for ever in unregarded corners of the cinema-goer's brain.

It only takes the words "Butterkist, Butterkist, ra, ra, ra!" to conjure up the image of an elderly woman losing her pince-nez in a box of toffee popcorn - or the exclamation "Auntie Beryl!" to summon the figure of a woman in a slinky white dress strutting towards a glass of Bacardi and Coke. My local cinema closed down more than a year ago, but I can still recall the sequence of morphing animations that expressed the quality of the building's facilities - particularly the curious sight of a disabled stick-man transforming into a 99 ice cream.

The food-free cinema may be a triumph for hygiene: Stelios has eliminated the age-old usherette's perquisite of peeling back the lid of the ice-cream tub, licking off the bit that adheres to its waxed underside, jamming it back on again and pretending that it never left the tray. But his competitors are pursuing exactly the opposite strategy. In the Filmworks chain of cinemas (whose parent company, UCI, once owned the building now occupied by Stelios's Milton Keynes multiplex), punters willing to fork out £15 can enter the Gallery, an over-18s section of the auditorium with a licensed bar, comfy armchairs with fold-down food tables and unlimited free popcorn, nachos, hot dogs and biscuits. It's the stuff of Homer Simpson's dreams.

Just listen to the terrifying imagery of their dope: "Some of our guests are so hungry that we sell around 15 million hot dogs every year and enough popcorn to fill the Millennium Stadium three times over!" As George Orwell might have said if he'd been standing in line at the snack bar on his way to see S.W.A.T.: if you want a picture of the future, imagine ketchup sploshing on to a greasy frankfurter - forever.

Eat, Drink and be Merry begins on 15 December