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The Everyman’s Library was founded in 1906 by Joseph Malaby Dent, the tenth son of a Darlington housepainter who left school at 13 and set off for London with half a crown in his pocket. First he worked as an apprentice printer. Later he became a bookbinder. In time he turned his attention to publishing, and founded the Everyman’s Library following the example of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. The idea was to produce durable, well-bound editions of the world’s great books at a shilling a volume, so that they might be bought by “every kind of reader: the worker, the student, the cultured man, the child, the man and the woman.” Each edition bears the same inscription, printed on the title page: “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.”
The Everyman Cinemas are a chain of boutique independent theatres owned by the Everyman Media Group. They are based in the most exclusive suburbs of north and north-west London: Hampstead, Maida Vale, Islington, Belsize Park. Founded in 2000, the groups aims to provide “a truly unique and memorable cinema experience that exceeds expectations and reaches the highest standards possible in quality, comfort and entertainment.” Each theatre offers its patrons in-seat waiter service, a fully-licensed cocktail bar, coffee, cake, champagne and (where possible) freshly baked pizza. Très chic. By design it smacks of elitism: limiting the nuisance distractions associated with the provincial megaplex. It does not model itself upon the ennobling propositions of its eponymous forebear, the Everyman’s Library, whose books can still be found for 50p a pop in the nation’s charity shops. For this reason I wanted to dislike it, but I did not.
After an unfocused ramble through the Museum of London’s “Victorian Walk” and “World City” exhibits, I set off north along Aldersgate up past the Barbican estate. The sky was overcast, but it was not cold. I read every single plate in the prehistoric, Roman and medieval rooms, so that by the when I reached the Black Death I had very little patience for it. Aldersgate Street became Goswell Road, and the City became Islington. I reached my destination, the Screen on the Green, around 4.30pm. I asked for a ticket to see Denzel Washington in Flight.
“We only have front row seats left.”
“That’s OK. How much will it be?”
“Please insert your card.”
“PLEASE ENTER YOUR PIN.”
“Oh God, I changed my mind. I need to go outside and have a think. Wait – how do I cancel this?”
I took my card and left. The box office assistant was not amused when I reappeared ten minutes later. I explained that while I still thought £12.50 was a little steep, the Vue down the road was only £1 cheaper, and seemed a lot less interesting as material for column-writing.
The Screen on the Green will be 100 years old this October. It began life when a group of Italian brothers started screening silent movies in the vacant unit at 83 Upper Street, Islington. Thomas Harold, the draper at number 82, saw how popular the screenings had become, and invested enough money to help the brothers take over the printer, confectioner and sign writers next door (numbers 84-86), all of which were demolished in order to make room for a purpose-built, 600-seat cinema.
The Empress Picture Theatre was refurbished in 1951 and renamed The Rex, during which time it was particularly popular with local Turkish and Greek expatriates. In 1970 it was renamed The Screen on the Green, and given a foyer which reduced the seating capacity to 300. In 2009, this number shrank again, under the direction of its new owner, Everyman Media, who constructed a stage at the front and a bar at the back. The seats were replaced with a circle of soft chairs and sofas (with foot rests). There are little table stands between each. It seats 125 people, and costs £12.50 to sit at the front.
Upon arrival, the auditorium seemed more like a café, or comedy club, than a cinema. As the trailers ran, a team of around ten bearded twentysomethings delivered cappuccinos, ice cream, beers and cokes to patrons already familiar with the run of things. The high number of staff is a good thing, and they were just as pleasant as the corporate patois had led me to believe. Unaware that Costa culture had infiltrated the art-house scene, I had already had my caffeine fix in the far more costly bakery next door. More fool me. When the trailers finished I feared the worst. The coffee machine kept on grinding at full pelt and the clink of cutlery and glasses carried on. But when the film finally started, the noise died down. The waiters let themselves out quietly, and I enjoyed the film in peace, with ample legroom, and nothing to complain about. Almost reason enough to make the journey to Islington. Everyman, I will go with thee.