Dark dreams writ large on abandoned silver screens

More than a literary thriller, Nicholas Royle's new novel mourns the lost world of rep cinema.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Reading The Director's Cut, the new novel by author and journalist Nicholas Royle, it's hard not to visualise the film waiting to be made out of it. Not only is it about the mixed fortunes of a group of tyro directors who, in early 1980s' London, collaborate on a dubious film project, the novel is also shot through with a feeling for London's now-depleted circuit of repertory cinemas.

Reading The Director's Cut, the new novel by author and journalist Nicholas Royle, it's hard not to visualise the film waiting to be made out of it. Not only is it about the mixed fortunes of a group of tyro directors who, in early 1980s' London, collaborate on a dubious film project, the novel is also shot through with a feeling for London's now-depleted circuit of repertory cinemas.

Would Royle describe himself as part of "the black turtleneck collar brigade", as the novel dubs the cinephile generation that cut their teeth on Wenders' triple-bills? "I suppose so. I even have a black turtleneck" he admits. "When I moved to London in 1982, the most exciting thing was the cinemas, there was a huge range of rep programmes. It was unbelievable to me, all we'd had in Manchester was the Aaben in Hulme, which was a really rough part of town. When I came to London there was the Scala, the Everyman and the NFT, the Roxy and the Electric. I just went from one to another. I nearly got kicked out of college for not turning up for lectures because I was spending half my time in the cinema."

Those years spent living in the dark and soaking up the history of film inform Royle's cast of characters. As a literary thriller, The Director's Cut joins the pantheon of novels that explore the darker aspects of cinema's fascination, dealing with memory and guilt, manipulation and death. The quartet of would-be directors - Richard, Harry, Frank and Angelo - shoot their first and only collective effort when a film projectionist named Iain Burns enters their lives in the early 1980s. Discovering he has tertiary syphilis and little time left to live, Burns has quit the quiet comfort of married life in East Anglia and travelled to London where he falls in with the younger crowd and becomes the "star" of their film, Auteur. Hungry to film, the group doesn't spend too much time agonising over the possible consequences of their decision to shoot Burns' last moments. But is Auteur a suicide note on celluloid or a snuff movie? When, 15 years later, a body wrapped in a 16mm print of Nick Roeg's Bad Timing is unearthed from a demolition site, the film returns to haunt them. "It just seems that whatever subject I write about, death is inevitably in there" Royle concedes. "I think I wanted this novel to be more optimistic than the last [ The Matter of the Heart] but I suppose inevitably it is about cinema and death."

It's also a novel about the death of a certain kind of cinema-going. Burns' passionately held belief that where a film has been shown is more important than where it's been shot unites him with Angelo, the novel's disturbed film despatch clerk. After Burns' death, Angelo's conviction takes the form of an obsessive logging of all the abandoned cinemas in London and he becomes an archivist of empty space, the chief curator of what he calls "The Museum of Lost Cinema Spaces". "I partly agree with Iain Burns," says Royle, "that you can't show that many films to that many audiences in a place for so many years without having some effect on the building or the area. It would be nice to think that there's a particularly rich concentration of memories and emotions in these particular areas."

When a cinema closes it's said to have "gone dark". At one moment in the novel, Angelo and Iain Burns are on their way down Portobello Road to see a screening of Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage when they pass the Electric, a cinema that's long been "dark". Burns launches into a rhapsodic paean to the mysterious power of the cinema screen. "This is what's important. This place." he tells a sceptical Angelo. "This is where the love affair is consummated. Between you and what's on the screen and in the air all around you. Believe me, this place and others like it - they're the ones that have the power. They'll never die." It's hard not to hear the novelist's own lament for a lost circuit of cinema-going pleasures in these words. What with the Scala Cinema having mutated into a hip night-spot, The Lumiÿre transformed into a hotel (do its sleeping residents find their dreams invaded by the movies once screened there?), and the Everyman attempting a relaunch, the rep-cinema landscape has been transformed out of all recognition since Royle's days. Sure, the multiplex is partly to blame but maybe it's the miniplex, in the shape of the Curzon Soho's combination of rep-programme and tasteful bar, that's the future.

Spiralling out from the novel's central idea of the cinema as a museum of memory populated by a parade of ghosts is the search for a killer on the loose on the London Underground. Linked to this storyline is the enigmatic figure of Fraser Munro, a Scottish experimental film-maker who, it transpires, may well have inveigled his way into the group of film-makers. The novel ends with an article on Munro by Frank, who's long since thrown in his dreams of film-making and become a critic, in which there's a nicely caustic aside about "so-called Young British Artists [making] life difficult for real film-makers by selling their wacky home videos for huge sums of money to Charles Saatchi and other gullible collectors with deep pockets."

This was my excuse to test a pet theory of mine on Royle. Given that the rep circuit has withered almost to extinction and independent British film-making has all but disappeared off the cultural map, what did the author make of the increasing presence of film in the gallery? Is it fertile ground for future film-makers? "I'm fascinated by it but remain a bit sceptical." Royle told me. "I really want to see Mark Lewis's Peeping Tom piece at Tate Britain, partly because he shares a name with the character from Michael Powell's film. I saw Douglas Gordon's Silent Movie and was impressed by it - a big dark space and a projection, it felt like you were in a cinema. That particular reference in Frank's comment came from having taken part in a weekend of artists and writers in a gallery in Amsterdam in 1995. There was a video I saw over that weekend of a bloke in a gorilla suit who jumps up and down until the suit disintegrates and he's left naked." Royle shakes his head and laughs. "It was just so silly. No redeeming features whatsoever. I go to quite a lot of galleries and I usually take my little boy Charlie and sometimes find that my attention span is no longer than his, a matter of seconds." Which, for a novelist so concerned with the matter of celluloid memory, may be a blessing in disguise.

'The Director's Cut' (Abacus) by Nicholas Royle, £9.99, is published on Thursday

Comments