They've pretty much tried everything at Piccadilly's Trocadero: from the original notorious Edwardian bistros — known at the time as pick-up joints — to the memorable clutter of the 1980s, which made the block feel more like the Tacky-dero, haunt of sullen teens and clueless tourists. Anyone remember Segaworld or Planet Hollywood or Alien War?
The latest company to take up residence in this difficult-to-get-right slab of prime real estate is the cinema chain Picturehouse, which has just completed the Troc’s transformation into what the group is calling a “cathedral of cinema.”
It’s quite a classy brand to squeeze in between horrors such as The Rainforest Cafe and Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Co. And some might say the new resident is yet another sign of Soho’s gentrification (the tickets are not cheap), but we took a look around the newly refurbished building and we did like what we saw.
There may be plenty of cinemas in nearby Leicester Square but this one does feel special. All seven screens are a decent size, which is worth mentioning up front because West End cinemas have a deservedly bad rep for selling expensive tickets then funnelling customers into miniscule rooms with screens the size of blackboards.
Picturehouse Central are proud enough of their screens to name each one after a cinematic hero, so you can watch new releases in the Terry Thomas or Sigourney Weaver screens. The tech is state-of-the-art and has already persuaded Sundance Film Festival and Open City Doc Festival to make the complex their home.
The aim here is to create a cultural hub rather than yet another multiplex — something that will be especially welcome if the Curzon over the road, which has long been the area’s free hangout for film nerds, is to be demolished for Crossrail. And architects Panter Hudsith have carved out some vast and very comfortable areas for pre and post film debates to flourish.
There is a fine café bar as you walk in through the main entrance with a grand double height staircase (where a glum HMV once stood). It’s a bit dingy at the back of the café where natural light from the stairs can't quite reach, but the warmth of the décor compensates. Around the walls is a mural by artist Patrick Vale, who told us:
“It depicts the history of cinema, but through the mechanics behind film instead of just the people. It starts with the Big Bang because without light you wouldn't have cinema, then it goes through different projectors and technological innovations, leaving you at the end with the question: what's next?"
Upstairs, after you've passed under a swarm of fat lightbulbs, there is another generous lounge bar though this time it's flooded with light. The abundance of sunny furniture and so much space underlines the focus on encouraging visitors to linger.
This seems like a smart strategy at a time when Netflix and other home entertainment are causing cinema audiences to stay in instead. Here Picturehouse has made a flagship that feels homely and encourages you to make the film just a part — not the entire purpose — of a night out. Phase two of the project will see two more floors turned into a member's bar with a rooftop terrace that will open up views along Piccadilly and Haymarket. Hopefully other London cinemas will be encouraged to up their game in competition.
Films start this Friday at Picturehouse Central, while a first live Q&A event sees documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer present his film The Look Of Silence on 14 June. General tickets are £7-£18.