For quirkiness and sheer fun factor, your starting point should be the Prince Charles Cinema, just off Leicester Square itself. This single-screened, budget-friendly arthouse movie theatre is something of the platypus of the West End: it shouldn’t really have managed to exist in the first place, and yet, marvellously, it thrives. Showing independent off-the-radar works as well as cult and mainstream films it considers good enough to fit its bill, the Prince Charles Cinema has also hosted Dom Joly and his team of comedians as they pranked the audiences, has an official Kevin Smith toilet and is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movie theatres in the world. Encouraging audience participation in the form of sing-alongs and pyjama parties, it’s unlike any other cinema experience you’re likely to have, no matter how unique the film – definitely one not to leave off the list!
The title of London’s oldest and most grandiose original film-house goes to the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road (now with a second establishment in Shoreditch): opened in 1910, this Grade II listed Notting Hill institution boasts a beautiful gilt-domed box office, mosaic floor and a Baroque-style auditorium. There is also a tempting food and drinks menu so you can kick off your evening with some light tapas-style snacks, a couple of glasses of wine or plump for a full-on main meal. You can enjoy all of it while watching your film of choice, reclined in the plush leather armchairs (complete with footstools) or give up the pretence and settle into… bed. That’s right, the front row has been removed completely to make way for a number of double beds, newly installed, with the idea of enticing canoodling couples down from the back rows to centre-stage (you have to book the beds in pairs). There’s good news for the sweet-tooth types of the room too: the foyer of the cinema has a new American-style donut bar, complete with inventive flavours such as Maple Bourbon, Bergamot Orange, Ginger Chew, Mexican Chocolate and Berry Trifle. The Electric Cinema shows old classics and arthouse films as well as new releases, while the Electric House club next door has also been redesigned with a new Chicago-influenced diner and a library inspired by the Speakeasy bars of Prohibition-era America.
At the cutting edge of film, design and art, the Institute for Contemporary Arts was founded by artists, critics and collectors with the aim of introducing the unknown and unshown to a public that might have otherwise not have had access to their work. Through debates, exhibitions, films and more, the ICA prides itself on its spirit of experimentation and radical programming. They were the first to showcase, among others, Damien Hirst, Steve McQueen and Luc Tuymans. Cinematically speaking, the Institute launched the ICA/LUX Biennial of Moving Images in 2012 – four days of celebrating film, directors, image makers and informative panel discussions for enthusiasts and newly acquainted amateurs alike. During the rest of the year, the ICA screens an enviable repertoire of arthouse productions and independent releases, classics and retrospectives. The full £6 ticket price will gain you access to the film of your choice (in one of the two theatres) as well as the ICA galleries and the Fox Reading Room.
The Brixton outlet of the nationwide Picturehouse group, The Ritzy is one of Britain’s largest specialist film venues. Dating back to 1910, it retains many of the original features and is an atmospheric place to soak up either the latest in arthouse cinema or a mainstream crowd-pleaser. Saved from demolition back in the 1970s, the cinema encompasses 5 screens, a cafe-restaurant that does a great line in budget-friendly breakfasts and brunches, a lively bar that also holds live (and very often impromptu) music sessions and an added upstairs space for hosting the weekly film quiz, independent events, talks and the increasingly well-frequented Ritz Crackers stand-up comedy night. A neighbourhood gem and London institution, in other words.
If you’re up North West, Kensal Rise is home to another charming independent London cinema, The Lexi. Staffed mainly by local volunteers and donating 100% of their profits to a South African charity, this is cinema with a social conscience. As well as the main 80-seater, single-screen cinema (complete with 16 person VIP balcony box), the Lexi also offers eclectic pop-up venture Nomad to offer screenings in various outdoor spots around the capital, such as Queen’s Park, Fulham Palace and more during the summer months.
Of course, you could shun all of the above and opt for superstar comfort of your bed and Smart TV in every hotel Piccadilly, we won’t tell anyone…