Vertigo Café: Advertising Euthanasia

By Julian Petley

In Britain, threats to free speech are rarely as direct as in the MacDonald’s case. More often, dissenting or maverick voices are silenced in circumstances so diffuse that even the victim may not notice. It is a process which can be seen at work behind three recent and apparently unrelated events; the closure of the Lumiere Cinema; the opening of the Camden Town Odeon; the rejection by two West End cinemas of a campaign commercial.

The Lumiere, one of the largest and most centrally-situated of London’s independent cinemas, closed in June. In July, a new Odeon opened in Camden Town where, four years earlier, there were two independent cinemas - the Plaza (itself linked with the Lumiere and two other independent cinemas) and, latterly, the Parkway, famous for its art deco interior. Both were well patronised and behind the closures lies a complex story involving a long-running conflict between local residents and a property company, Sunley Tariff, landlord to the two cinemas and then a subsidiary to the multinational Lonrho. Local support for the Parkway Cinema helped fuel opposition to a proposal by the company to redevelop the site. Camden Council eventually rejected the plans but Sunley Tariff, nevertheless, evicted the leasee of the Parkway in 1993 and turned a deaf ear to residents’ protests. In 1994 the Plaza’s lease was due for renewal and negotiations broke down just after the Plaza played host to a meeting of the Friends of the Parkway. Both cinemas were then closed. Discussions between the landlord and potential tenants or buyers were not public and so the details of how the Odeon group ousted independents remain obscure. The outcome is not. Camden Town has a cinema again but one showing the same films as other nearby Odeons and which is unlikely to be loaned in future to residents trying to defend their space against corporate interests.

The story of the censored commercial concerns a film made for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and approved for screening by the Cinema Advertising Association. The Society intended to pay for a run in a West End cinema but the management of those approached, the Leicester Square Odeon and Empire, declined to show it. The cinemas belong respectively to the Odeon and the UCI chains and the decision therefore barred the commercial from a very large number of cinemas. However, an opening was found at the Everyman Cinema, an independent away from the West End. After the screenings an article in the Guardian noted that the audiences were neither distressed not outraged. Subsequently, the manager of the Odeon had another look and agreed to take the commercial. Good sense and free speech prevailed. But would the end have been so satisfying if all independent exhibitors had gone to the wall?