Source: Peter Ackroyd, ‘When the Viewing had to Stop’, in Peter Ackroyd (ed. Thomas Wright), The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), pp. 140-142 [orig. pub. The Spectator, 7 March 1987]
Text: There comes a time when Mr Pickwick, bewildered by the horrors of the Fleet Prison, announces that ‘I have seen enough … My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room.’ These are very much the sentiments of your film critic on abandonning his generally undistinguished and no doubt ineffective career; enough is enough. No more films set in what journalists call ‘Thatcher’s England’; no more tearful tributes to the elderly starring Katharine Hepburn; no more masterpieces with the subtitles in Americanese. And no more questions from the only mildly curious, on the lines of ‘What film is worth seeing?’ I never really knew. Yesterday I turned back to the pages of the Spectator in 1979 when I began to write film criticism, and I could recall nothing of the films I then either praised or damned. They had gone, vanished, disappeared. I usually find it difficult to recall even the film I saw in the previous week, so effortlessly to the images slip or slide away.
Perhaps more memorable than the films have been the cinemas themselves. There were ghastly places in north London, where health food was sold over the counter; there were dank crypts off the Tottenham Court Road which people used as refuges rather than as places of entertainment. But there were also some agreeable little spots, somehow removed from this world: the Minema is generally billed as the smallest cinema in London but it is also one of the most comfortable, and those who have a taste for macabre interiors should visit one of the auditoria of the Cannon Haymarket. And I regret the passing of the Academy, Oxford Street, which curiously resembled a toy theatre blown up out of all proportion.
And of course the cinema itself was always as important as any of the films being shown in it. The queuing, the buying of undrinkable coffee, the harridans bearing trays of ice-cream, the advertisements for Levi’s jeans and the Electricity Board, the warnings about one’s handbag, all furnished the slow and cosy passage into the filmic world. And yet even as I enjoyed these simple pleasures I was aware of the fact that they were essentially of an old-fashioned and even anachronistic sort – not ones, perhaps, which will survive the end of the century in their present form. I seemed to be participating in a social activity that was already past; I was still part of the audience that first went to the silent cinema in the twenties and I was certainly not part of that unimaginable future populace to whom the cinema will mean no more than the penny gaff or the diorama do to us.
Comments: Peter Ackroyd (1949 – ) is a British novelist, biographer and critic. He was film critic for the Spectator magazine from 1979 to 1987. The essay from which the above extracts are taken was written upon his giving up being a film critic.