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Everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news. I was wearing black tie and sitting on the 43 bus when news reached me on my portable electronic device that Queen Elizabeth II had passed away. “Operation London Bridge is down” was underway and my evening would clearly not go quite as planned.
The news was not unexpected, plans had been made for decades, yet still there was widespread uncertainty. When Princess Diana died, nobody was prepared for the scale of the British public’s outpouring of grief. When the Queen’s husband Prince Philip died it “became the most complained-about piece of programming in BBC’s history.” This time football matches were almost immediately cancelled, while theatres kept ramp lights on but with a minute’s silence beforehand.
Official UK government advice didn’t dictate who should and shouldn’t close as a mark of respect. In the end a handful of independent cinemas closed on the night of the news. There were no angry headlines or backlash against the 99.8% that didn’t. Instead, cinemas will close on the day of the funeral, with smaller chains reopening on the evening after the end of the funeral. Under United Kingdom law nobody who wishes to carry on grieving is compelled to visit a local cinema. Though should you wish to follow the ceremony on the big screen, a number of cinemas such as Vue offer the ability to do so for free, with many sites already fully booked.
I was at a preview screening in Mumbai on the night of the 26/11 attacks in 2008. The film (indie comedy ‘The President is Coming’) was interrupted half way through, when my Blackberry (!) started pinging with SMS texts asking if I was all right. The rest of the screening was cancelled. I learned that night that if there is ever a good time to close cinemas, it is when terrorists are killing people by the dozens in your city. Did cinemas close when King George VI died? Does that even matter? Adam Aron, Mooky Greidinger, Phil Clapp and Tim Richards weren’t even born then and televisions were as rare as Google Pixel phones are now.
Meanwhile decision had to be made at the Murder Mystery preview of “See How They Run” at Everyman Muswell Hill, for which I had come fully dressed for the part. The call was quickly made to cancel the screening, send home the band but not turn away those that still came for the reception. In the end it was a dignified event, with memories swapped about the Queen, whose coronation took place the same year as the film was set. There were toasts both to Her late Majesty, as well as the new King. I had come to see the historic cinemas as much as the film, which I was able to. The right call was made.
The Queen herself was fond of both films and their stars. Not only did she act with James Bond and Paddington, but she has a “secret” cinema screening room at Buckingham Palace, much like the United States President has at the White House. But it was at the Royal Premieres where the Queen met every film star from Marilyn Monroe to Lady Gaga. Yet the Queen’s support of British cinema ran even deeper than that, as noted in an email from BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts:
“In 1972, The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh generously gave their share of the profits from the documentary film Royal Family to the Society of Film and Television Arts (SFTA, a forerunner of BAFTA) as a donation towards a new headquarters for the Society. The original idea to have a headquarters was conceived in early 1970 by Richard Cawston, a producer of Royal Family.”
The main screening room in BAFTA is named The Princess Anne Theatre after the Queen’s only daughter, who was patron of BAFTA for many years. The building itself is owned by The Crown Estate, which was very accomodating during the extensive recent refurbishments. The Queen’s grandson Prince William (now Prince of Wales) is the current patron of BAFTA. The Queen even got her own BAFTA statuette in 2013, when “an honorary British Academy Special Award was presented by Sir Kenneth Branagh in recognition of The Queen’s outstanding patronage of the film and television industries.”
In the end, the minor question in the greater protocol of whether cinemas should stay open or closed was overshadowed in the British press by a bigger royalty-related cinema question; should London’s Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square change its name, now that Charles had finally become a regent? Just like the formal news of the Queen’s death was a note posted on the gates of Buckingham Palace, so to the PCC put up a brief notice on its front door: “No, we are not changing our name.”
Long live the King! And long live cinema!
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