The One Pound Fiftieth Element

That British culture is not really compatible with the great outdoors, is the inevitable result of a number of factors. For example, to get pavement cafes to work, you need…well, pavements. Unfortunately, most British pavements are somewhat unsuitable for sitting on, being about 18 inches wide, and thus not ideal locations for leisurely taking in the scenery. As Soho demonstrates, you inevitably spend the time being cursed by passing pedestrians who have to walk into the road to get round you, while you sip an exhaust-fume contaminated cappuccino.

So it is with the drive-in cinema, which singularly has never been a crucial element of growing-up in Britain, in the same way it was in America. The reason here is quite simple: weather. We have it, while the parts of America in which the drive-in flourished has climate. “We have two seasons”, says American ambassador Chris, “summer and waiting-for-summer” and there’s no denying that given this, open-air cinema has more inherent appeal than trying to peer through a steady drizzle towards a fog-bound screen.

However, Friday night demonstrated that, given the opportunity, there is no specific reason why it shouldn’t work, in the right circumstances, as a crowd estimated at 10,000 people thronged Battersea Park for The Fifth Element, part of the 1998 Stella Screen Tour. Two reasons for this popular appeal should be mentioned: a) it was a lovely evening for it, and b) it was free. The former have been notably in short supply this summer, and offering the latter was thus always likely to be a success.

I got there just after nine; housemates had arrived earlier, and established a bridge-head at the, er, walk-in cinema, spreading out a rug and marking territory. For the next hour, we were subjected to an annoying asshole DJ from Kiss FM, playing crap music and trying to whip up the crowd into an entirely unlikely state of frenzy. Sensibly 99% of the audience weren’t having anything to do with it, and the main result of his actions was to make the DJ character in The Fifth Element eventually appear to be a sympathetic and restrained individual. He was, admittedly, not the only asshole there. In no specific order:

  • assholes with laser pointers
  • assholes who decided to bring their bikes with them. Through the crowd.
  • assholes with inflatable sofas

The DJs other purpose appeared to be to remind us that the event had been brought to us by STELLA ARTOIS, and that STELLA ARTOIS were also selling us cans of STELLA ARTOIS for the very reasonable price of £1.50 per can of STELLA ARTOIS — available at the back, near the giant inflatable STELLA ARTOIS can. Now, I actually *like* Stel…the beer, but even I found this wearing, and neither am I stupid enough to pay 50% more than the price in my local off-licence. Fortunately, I’d been down the pub beforehand, and so was quite well enough lubricated, thank you.

Before the film we were even treated to the new St*ll* *rt**s TV advert. Er, except someone had forgotten to rewind it after the previous night’s screening, so we got the reverse version, before someone realised what was going on and pulled the plug, to much laughter from the viewing public. [They played it again after the film, but said public were too busy trying to make their way home to pay attention]

The movie started. Great picture, shit sound — it all appeared to be coming out of one speaker. However, it’s surprising what you can get used to, and after twenty or so minutes, you didn’t notice any more, and just kicked back in the ambience. Which was, it has to be said, remarkable to be part of possibly the biggest cinema audience ever in Britain, under a sky shading from pink to deep, dark blue. Concorde flew overhead, its bass roar adding to the low rumbling of the PA system. The odd star twinkled through the fluffy cloud cover overhead, lending the film a depth and sense of scale which was largely missing when seen indoors.

Bruce Willis was cool, Milla Jovovich was WAY cool, even Gary Oldman (in perhaps the silliest haircut of a career which has seen some stonkers) was cool. Just as food always tastes twice as good when eaten al fresco, I think films perhaps seem better when seen in the open air. This is especially true when they are grand cinematic follies like The Fifth Element, where the self-indulgences have room to breathe. As I write this, they are showing Jurassic Park, which would, I think, probably be similarly impressive.

The two hours flew by — or perhaps I was just distracted by trying to find a comfy position on the very hard turf. Ten thousand people stood up, stretched their legs as one, and tried to find taxis home. It was a grand experience, though it’s maybe not something I’d want to do all the time, because of the unreliable British weather. Still, maybe they could just work the program round it — but then, who’d really care to see Waterworld every Friday night?