Health and safety in the cinema

December 17, 2008

Treated myself to a trip to the cinema yesterday, to watch the British horror film The Children. It was playing at the Empire Leicester Square, a cinema that boasts my favourite auditorium – the huge Empire 1, which has a fab, subtle lightshow before the programme starts.

The Children, being a lesser release, was in Empire 3, a pokey little auditorium up some stairs. The size wasn’t the problem though. Everyone shuffled in and found seats in the dark, with only the bright green glow of the Exit sign and the light from the adverts playing on the screen to light the way. This darkness was perfect for watching images on the screen, but not ideal for finding seats before the main feature had even started. Then when the feature did start, the lights suddenly went up, so much so that I could see reflections glinting on the bald head of a chap two rows in front. It was rubbish. Especially for a horror film.

A lot of others shuffled and grumbled, but being Brits no one got up to ask about it. One chap might have done, but still nothing was done about the lights, so I went and asked. I met a chap on the stairs who stuck his head and said “No, they’re the safety lights.” Eh? Safety lights now have to be so bright that they reflect on the screen and dull the image? That defeats the object of the cinema experience, where the illumination comes from the image on the screen, and any other light source is a distraction, be it a bright green Exit sign too close to the screen or the light pen of a tiresome numbskull journalist who never mastered the skill of taking notes in the dark.

I toyed with the idea of leaving, but the film was gripping. Indeed, The Children, along with Eden Lake, has raised the torch for quality British horror high for 2008.

Afterwards, the same guy from my row was asking what was wrong with the lights at the ticket counter, so I joined in too. The woman was joined by the guy I’d spoken to before, who may well have been the manager. He said the lighting should have been on similarly during the adverts, because it was required safety lighting. He explained that Westminster Council’s fire officer had recently been round and said all the lighting needed to be increased. So great, Britain’s disproportionate, nannying health and safety culture is now buggering up the cinema experience too. Westerminster is particularly pedantic, one of the worst governing bodies when it comes to health and safety, so this may well mean all cinema experiences in central London are now ruined.

Now, any sensible, logical person knows that putting a sign up by the ditch saying “Beware, ditch” won’t stop people occasionally tripping into that ditch. Accidents happen, full stop. They’re freak, fluke, matters of chance. Legislation cannot prevent accidents happening. In a cinema auditorium, the bright green light of the emergency exit sign is highly visble, even if you have poorer eyesight. And indeed, if you do have poorer eyesight, presumably you’ll be wearing your contacts or glasses if you’ve gone to watch a film. Insisting on bright ambient light during the main feature – the bit you’re paying for – in a cinema is only going to ruin the experience. The manager guy did say they were hoping the redevelop that Empire 3, but if Westminster now insists on X candela that probably won’t help.

These days, many people have big TVs and can control the light levels in their own homes – where thankfully, a health and safety officer can’t knock on your door and tell you to turn on your lights. If people have this option at home, more and more will stay away from cinemas that are themselves now legally required to bugger up the light levels in auditoria and ruin the fundaments of the experience. If, like me, you love going to seee movies in a cinema, where that beam of light is projected over your head onto a screen that by and large is still bigger than most TVs (and certainly our old CRT), creating that unique atmosphere that’s intoxicated punters for more than a century, this is a tragedy.


During the few weeks after I posted this, I went to a couple more central London cinemas, such as the Cineworld in the Trocadero and the Odeon on Shaftesbury Avenue. Neither had lighting as offputting as in that specific Empire auditorium, so either it’s not a Westminster council edict, or if it is, these other cinemas are yet to act on it.


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