The day it rained popcorn: a barmy army proclaim their matinee idols

The matinee session at the Odeon Leicester Square combined the terror and tension of The Blair Witch Project with a level of audience participation to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

With nerves jangling, about 2,000 fans filed into Britain's largest cinema auditorium to find complimentary England scarves on their seats.

While the house lights were up, the throat-clearing and popcorn-munching suggested that the occasion might be a damp squib. But those fears proved unfounded when darkness fell and the England team lined up against their rivals.

The first 10 rows stood for the national anthem, ignoring indignant cries for them to sit down. All of a sudden, the normal rules of cinema etiquette had been kicked into touch.

The show proved to be a hit with the crowd, which was made up of competition winners and West End office workers ushered in off the streets shortly before kick-off.

When David Beckham bloodied Kily Gonzalez' nose with a surreptitious elbow, there were roars of mirth. Then, when Beckham scored from the penalty spot on 44 minutes the crowd rose in unison to the sound of several klaxons – and it began to rain popcorn.

"We haven't had a roar like that since Ali put Foreman on the canvas,'' the cinema manager, David Hilton, said, referring to the "Rumble in the Jungle'' heavyweight boxing duel between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, one of the last live sports events screened by the Odeon in 1974.

The half-time queue of adrenaline-charged young men outside the lavatories seemed to suggest that where there is a widescreen television and alcohol, an ad-hoc "barmy army" congregates.

In the mezzanine bar, the scene of much air-kissing and refined behaviour during countless film premières, fans calmed their nerves before the second half with a hastily sunk bottle of beer.

Danny Nutt, an actor, said: "The atmosphere's brilliant – it's like 10 pubs rolled into one in there. When Beckham scored I got popcorn all down my back.''

Emma Clark, an accounts director for a West End advertising firm, said: "It's great in the cinema because you can get a seat. It's got the atmosphere of a pub, but the difference is you can see the screen.''

When the fans filed back for the second half, it quickly became clear that the earlier fun had given way to tension. In front of the stage, an army of scarf-waving fans drank their nerves away, while others held with white knuckles onto the arms of their chairs.

At the final whistle, the audience stood and several children scampered down the aisle towards the screen.

Dominic Williams, a mathematics student from University College London, said: "It was brilliant in there – like having your own soft-furnished football terrace. But the last 15 minutes were unbearable. I haven't squirmed like that since I last saw The Shining.''

As the lights came up scores of cleaners set about removing football fans' detritus before re-opening the doors to a pre-teen hoard of Spider-Man devotees. But by then the afternoon had already been given over to a different breed of super-heroes.

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