True gripes: Just sit down and shut up

Back row? Front row? At MGM cinemas there's no choice
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I went to the cinema the other day. I like to spend whole days in the cinema, hopping from martial arts to marshal Kane with a bucket of mixed popcorn and a hip-flask. Usually the experience is unalloyed pleasure. But some computer nerd somewhere wants to put a stop to that.

The MGM chain books seats by computer and other chains are following suit. A nice idea, in theory: dial the number, make a few beeps in response to pre-programmed questions, swipe your card through a machine at the other end and bingo: no need for human interaction, no more endless waits on answerphone queues.

Well, apart from that fact that there's obviously a big business conspiracy to force everyone to buy tone phones (pulse doesn't work), there is an irritating feature of computer booking that makes you want to pull the plug on the whole shebang. When you've bought your tickets, a disembodied voice tells you this: "The computer will allocate the best seats available at this time."

I like the front row. You get no problems with basketball players, you can dump your bags where you can see them, stretch your legs or sit on the floor. And it's there that you get the full cinematic experience: the loudest crashes, the biggest bangs and everything so huge you have to turn your head to see what's going on. If you're at the front, you fall into the screen and take part in the action. Sit at the back and you might as well wait until it comes out on video.

And MGM's best seats available? Their seat allocation fills up from the centre, then backwards. This makes no allow-ance, of course, for normal human nature, let alone my own eccentricities: if you had your choice of seats in a 300-seat theatre, would you choose to sit in a tight little bunch with the 50 other people in there? It gets worse. Not only can't you nominate your choice, no one else can do it for you. I pressed the button the other day to speak to a human being. Could she book me into the middle of row one? "I'm sorry," she said. "The computer won't let me. All I can do is book you some seats. I can't override the system."

Orwellian dystopia floats before my eyes. They want to tidy me into row L. Is this the death-knell of consumer choice?

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