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Last weekend I went “home” to visit my mother. On Saturday evening, I ate dinner with friends. I arrived late, having falsely assumed I knew the way to the restaurant—The Waiting Room, a veggie haven in Eaglescliffe, near Stockton-on-Tees, named for its proximity to the train station into which I had arrived from London King’s Cross the previous day. After a quick detour through Yarm, I ate my bodyweight in mushroom paté and curry. We stayed and chatted until half past nine.
By this time it was very dark and very cold outside. I bade farewell to my dinner companions, who were off to watch someone from Saltburn perform in the X Factor final. I drove through the frosty night in search of the Showcase cinema. A135 out of Eaglescliffe, A66 eastbound. No problem. The cinema is neon lit, and fronted by a bright white tower, which lists the films being shown each week. I parked my mother’s little black car in the near-empty car park and ran inside. I learned some days later that the singer from Saltburn won the competition in the end.
The last time I went to the Showcase, a 14-screen multiplex alongside a dual carriageway just outside Middlesbrough, I was two feet shorter and a lot more interested in dinosaurs. The set-up is a relic of the early ‘90s: a sprawling strip mall, bookended by a casino and a bowling alley, close to a commercial horseshoe and a cluster of chain restaurants. It was American devised, and remains to this day American owned. There are twenty-one other Showcase Cinemas on the peripheries of smaller towns and cities across the UK: Dudley, Newham, Paisley. Because they are geared towards drivers, they are often frighteningly quiet at night. When I was old enough to start going to the cinema alone (or I should say with friends, alone came later), I went to one in the centre of town, which was busier and could be reached by rail.
“Just coffee?” asked the assistant at the Ben and Jerry’s stand.
“Yes, no ice cream for me,” I replied, misunderstanding the question.
“No, I mean… you only want the coffee? No water, no milk?”
He looked a little unnerved, and handed me a brown takeaway cup with an inch of bitter liquid in the bottom.
“No one’s ever asked for that.”
The proof that I had really travelled back in time twenty years came when I discovered I had been the first person to order an espresso at the snack stand. Not my usual tipple, I admit, but after all that food and with bed a long way off it seemed the right thing to do. The idea of a heavy latte made me wretch. The rest of the cinematic fare didn’t appeal much either: rubbery hot dogs, fizzy drink buckets, ice-cream, popcorn from only £4.95. Dotted about the room were tall shielded billboards, of which only two were advertising movies. Once upon a time these gilded placards were the only way to find out what was coming out over the next few months. Now there is an app.
The theatre itself was, frankly, rank. As you walked in the soles of your shoes stuck to the floor, ripping as you walked, like velcro. The seats wobbled uncontrollably when you adjusted your position. The back rests were horribly low. There were fifteen people in the room with me, not one of whom gave more than a grunt at what was ostensibly a comedy. They all carried huge boxes of popcorn and drink, as if they knew in advance that they’d be needing some distraction.
The film finished around midnight, and in the Showcase’s defence, I was rather impressed that they continued to start films as late as 1am. Good news for insomniacs. I left the cinema by the big glass doors. The car park was nearly empty and the tarmac glistened under the street lamps. I thought back to my first visit here, in 1993, to see a man get eaten on the toilet by a T-Rex. I had sat next to my father, who instructed me that the best thing to do in the event of a scary moment would be to cover my eyes. Then, everything about the place seemed new, and to somehow represent a changing and improving world. Gone was the dusty old Odeon in town with its poor heating, hard-backed wooden seats and dim screens (now itself a car park, in which pretty much nobody parks). Here to stay was this drive-thru world, which, despite being frozen in time, continues to do business. It is a useful reminder of a time when things in the north east didn’t just close, but were built, and stayed open all night.