At a cinema near you

Eight million people in Britain watch movies every month.

"Such w-o-nderful names," reminisces housewife Pam. "The Commodore. The Embassy. The Excelsior."

"The Regal. The Savoy. The Fleapit," adds husband Dennis, a general practitioner, heart-warmed. They are consuming pork chops with aubergines and a bottle of wine before stepping next door to see Fargo at The Screen On The Hill in Belsize Park, north London.

"I remember writing to Shirley Temple as a child and my mother taking me to the postbox," says Dennis.

"And he's still writing to them now, only it's Sharon Stone," says Pam.

The Coen Brothers' gory and comedic Fargo draws a diverse crowd, united by a willingness to pay pounds 6 each and share 95 minutes of flickering light.

Jane is an artist from Finland. "At seven, in the dark, I was taken by my father to see A Hard Day's Night," she says. "It fascinated me because of the light and the dark and the twilight world revealed in England's grey. The Beatles were in this half-light, but having fun, and that gave me great hope as a Finn. And in my work tonal contrast has become a key element. I love black and white - La Haine, David Lean's Great Expectations..."

"That scared me to death as a kid," says her American friend Scarlett, "when the guy comes out of the marshes at the beginning."

"During Rob Roy, when Liam Neeson chops open Tim Roth's chest and he bends over, someone at the back began clapping and shouting 'Oscar! Oscar!'" says Linda, who is doing a PhD in bones and joints. "That's what makes the cinema special.When I was a teenager, I went to see Jaws on a Saturday morning. The people sitting behind me were nudging each other and warning that something was going to happen - the head was going to roll out of the boat. And they said, 'Now, now'. And it didn't happen... but then suddenly it did."

Spike, a tree surgeon and gardener: "It's more exciting if you only see a film every five or six years. It really is. But during Apocalypse Now, my mate was snoring louder than the helicopters. Very entertaining all round."

"I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit at Golders Green when someone had removed the 'T' from the sign outside," says Thomas, a store manager. "There was a magnificent atmosphere that evening. During The Fly II, I remember a man went 'Ooooooooooooh' at the back, as if he was having something done to him, and everyone wept with mirth. Something like that always happens to raise the tone of a run-of-the-mill film."

Lois, in her seventies, is at the front with niece Violet, who declares an undiminished love of Midnight Express; Lois harks back to seeing her first film, a French film, Les Visiteurs du Soir, on holiday in France: "It didn't matter how good it was."

"I remember, when I was 10, my parents debating the risky decision of exposing me to the cinema for the first time one afternoon," says Peter, a painter, devouring an ice cream, "and it proved to be a nature film about polar bears. Still, I was absolutely in awe."

"Oh, my influences were all Disney," says his companion, Linda, a homeopath who has carried in a flask of tea. "101 Dalmations. When I was eight, it really moved my emotions. I really went through everything with those dogs."

"I used to go and see cartoons near Piccadilly Circus at 13, when my parents worked nearby," interjects Peter. "Horrible men touching my leg. But it didn't put me off."

Peter and Linda often go to see films together, but Linda prefers to go alone: "When it stirs you emotionally, there's more space to experience it and leave weeping. I just love the whole thing of being in the cinema and drinking my tea."

Ian, a civil servant, has his arms wrapped around Kathleen, a criminologist. "My father died in the War at sea and my mother had a great desire for me to see aspects of human life in the cinema. And I've been back to see The Ladykillers many, many times since. Contemporary films are often repulsive, yet remind one of the sanctity of life."

"Usually, I'm worrying about my bladder when I'm in a cinema," notes Eddie.

"From GoodFellas, I came out buzzing from the lifestyle, the violence and the drugs," says Meg, a dancer who goes to the cinema three times a week. Companion Malcolm, unemployed, scowls. "The richer your friends were, the more Star Wars toys they had. Still, I was really, really big on Star Wars. Pass the Coke."

Meg: "My dad took me to see all the Star Trek movies and I used to spend my time underneath the seats, trying to tickle people's feet, because they were all taking it too seriously. I wasn't scared, not like with the witch in The Wizard Of Oz."

"I was shit scared by Jaws," says Tim, a producer of commercials, "incredibly scared. Outrageously scared. That spoilt a couple of summers. Nicely, though. And I marvelled, in hysterics, at Life of Brian. It was right out there. I've been in love with cinema ever since seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with my father. In my business, people constantly make film references: 'I want something just like The Mask'. Really special is something original, like Roger Moore skiing off the slope and it becoming a Union Jack. What a fucking classic!"

"We're not munchers and crunchers," says John, who's of retirement age. "We don't like people eating or drinking in the cinema. The popcorn syndrome really does get on one's nerves during Les Valseurs."

"We moved to the Suffolk coast two years ago," says his wife Vivien, a children's charity organiser, "and the nearest available screen is, sadly, in Aldeburgh. One feels culturally deprived."

John: "We love living in the country, yet video does not hit our button. But whenever Vivien is in London on work, I take the opportunity to see three films per day. This passion began in the War. I went with my mother an alarming amount - for the people, the warmth and the images of extravagance I still need my ration. Do you remember seeing the film version of Shogun, dear, with Richard Chamberlain?" he asks as the lights drop. "There was a scene in which someone in bed in a little Japanese paper house is shot with arrows in quick succession. Zonk-zonk-zonk. And someone at the back yelled out, 'One hundred and ei-gh-ty'. Wonderful"

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