……. BFI Southbank
One of my Christmas presents five years ago was a year’s membership of the BFI – and I’ve renewed it every year since. Here’s five reasons why……
– Preview screenings Seeing films ahead of the crowd is one of the best things about the BFI and, if you’re a member, advance booking means you’re more likely to get tickets for the popular ones. That, in itself, is great, but when an interview or Q&A with the director or star of the movie is added on, it becomes something special. I’ve had some great evenings: Gone Baby Gone followed by an interview with both Ben and Casey Affleck and This Is England plus a Q&A with a very affable Shane Meadows are just two. And there’s always the possibility of the unexpected: the audience at the screening of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd was asked to stay in their seats afterwards for a surprise – which turned out to be a 40 minute Q&A with the director himself!
– The London Film Festival I’ve already written extensively about the London Film Festival (see postings from October). As a member, I can also book in advance for this event, so I stand a better chance of seeing the films I’m really keen on. Please note I said I stand a better chance. It doesn’t mean that I’m guaranteed the tickets I want, although last year I saw three corkers – The Ides of March, Coriolanus and We Need To Talk About Kevin. One year it meant I was sashaying up the red carpet in Leicester Square on my way to a premiere. To my right, Tom Cruise was working the crowd and the Editor of The Times was in front of me. Sadly, the film was Robert Redford’s cumbersome Lions For Lambs, but the event itself was a huge buzz!
– Screenwriters’ Lectures Jointly organised with BAFTA, these started in 2010 and are a fascinating and welcome insight into the craft of the writer. The first series concentrated on British screenwriters and I attended two them, seeing Sir David Hare and Ronald Harwood. Last year, it widened the net and achieved the considerable coup of persuading the usually reclusive Charlie Kaufman to give what turned out to be an inspirational lecture. I went to the Paul Laverty event as well, which was actually an interview as he admitted he couldn’t give a lecture to save his life! I don’t know if a third series is planned for this year, but I sincerely hope so.
– NFT1 Much as I love the HMV Curzon in Wimbledon (see my previous Five Reasons To Love last November), my favourite screening room has to be NFT1 at the BFI. Quite apart from my memories of the many films and interviews I’ve seen there, it is simply the best venue for watching a movie. The gentle rake of the seats and good sightlines mean that it feels much cosier than a 450-seater. The seats themselves have recently been re-upholstered and allow you sit back comfortably, as well as giving you a decent amount of leg-room – important even when you’re 5 ft 3 ins! The acoustics are good and I do believe that the projection room is always manned.
– Benugo’s Until I became a regular on the Southbank, Benugo’s was my favourite place for coffee when I worked near City Road. But the company is also responsible for all the catering at the BFI – and a very good job of it they do too! Benugo’s Bar and Kitchen is the main restaurant, just near the bookshop, and is a great place for a celebratory meal. The food’s good, the staff friendly and efficient and the atmosphere lively without being off-putting. It has its own vibrant bar, complete with brightly upholstered sofas and chairs, which is a fun place for a drink. Benugo Pimms, served during the summer and made with ginger ale, is a personal favourite!
The Riverfront restaurant, near NFT1, is less formal with rustic wooden tables and chairs. The food is the same as in the main restaurant, but the menu is more limited. Its bar is popular at the weekend for breakfast – get there early if you want a seat – and serves snacks and cakes, plus alcohol and hot drinks. The only downside is that during peak times in the evening, the acoustics are such that it becomes extremely noisy. But if it’s a nice evening, you can always escape to a table outside …….
Although I was saddened to hear that the BFI lost the funding for its new premises last year, there was part of me that felt relieved because, instead of moving to near the Tate Modern, it’s now staying where it is. Yes, there are parts of the building that are a touch frayed around the edges, but I always feel very much at home in the place and its departure would have left a sizeable hole on Southbank. Leicester Square’s current upgrade has meant that some of its usual premieres have been re-homed at the BFI, reinforcing its credibility and profile, so let’s hope they continue – and that the BFI continues to be at home on Southbank. It’s where it belongs.