WRITING

Imax / Section 28 / Dancing on Sunday

January 2000

I had one of those No. 9 bus experiences early last month when I found myself at The London Imax twice within a week: once for a screening of the BBC 2 adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and then again, a few days later, to see Disney's Fantasia 2000. The cylindrical Imax cinema, at the centre of a Waterloo traffic island, opened to the public last year, but in this country, Imax remains a very long term investment. If I had any money, I'd take a punt on it, but the odds would not be favourable. The UK has only four screens - two in London, one in Bradford and one, unaccountably, in the seaside village of Ingoldmells, near Skegness, on the site of the cinema where, back in the seventies, I saw Towering Inferno and Watership Down. Even worldwide, Imax cinemas only number around 200. There just aren't enough screens to warrant any major commercial investment in the product.

Unfortunately, it's the product and not the potential on which Imax is judged and, so far, it's not exactly been Oscar winning stuff. Imax films are financed in the main by educational and scientific foundations, mostly North American, and to satisfy the grant-giving criteria they have to prove heavy pedagogical worth. The Imax films I've seen were edifying dissertations on dinosaurs and mountains. Ninety-nine percent of the budget had clearly gone on the technical, which left about £3.20 to spend on the actors. We all know what peanuts buy. In thirty years, only 140 Imax films have been made and we're still waiting for one to do something more than simply exploit the incredible technology.

But the potential is huge, particularly for the transference of stage productions to film. 3D Imax – not available in the UK - has the ability to do what every director, or choreographer, for that matter, must dream of. It can direct the eye to an essential action, however minimal, without the viewer ever losing sight of the overall context in which that action takes place. This is, of course, what happens in real life. Just because I have my eye on the computer screen right now doesn't mean I can't see the chaos on the rest of the desk or the room beyond. Working in 3D Imax, a director could relax, safe in the knowledge that the subtle handshake stage left, pivotal to the plot, was not lost on those members of the audience who just happened to be admiring the scenery at the time. While conventional theatre relies for its impact on the audience's focus being in the right place at the right time, 3D Imax works the other way round. It puts the essential action unavoidably in your face. There's only one snag: to get the effect, you have to snuggle up to your date wearing goggles shaped like a diver's mask. Still, if Hugh Grant can do it in Notting Hill and manage, nevertheless, to get the girl then perhaps it's only a minor drawback.

In truth, I'm secretly delighted that the educationalists have Imax all to themselves at the moment. The films might be a touch patronising and the acting truly risible, but at least it's not all special effects and car chases. Once the expenditure to income ratio improves and the blockbusters move in, it'll be all Mad Max and Robocop.

Disney's decision to release a new version of their 1940 classic in Imax indicates that the major Hollywood studios already have more than a spark of interest in the technology. Like its forerunner, Fantasia 2000 is really just a lesson in how to listen to music - nothing more – and thanks to the shortfalls of the National Curriculum, I suspect a high proportion of the young children packing the London Imax were getting this lesson for the first time.

Is it just me, or is Eastenders' covert propaganda agenda starting to show through? Just as Section 28 and the teaching of homosexuality in schools is on the front pages again, the children of Albert Square are holding their own debates on the issue. Casting the local hooligan as the homophobe and the wise old woman of the square, Sonia (fourteen going on forty-five) as the voice of tolerance would seem to indicate that the programme's executives are pro-repealers. The message is undoubtedly the right one, but as the programmes' shameless and repeated promotion of the Dome before Christmas has had no effect whatsoever on ticket sales, the soap-box soap may need to rethink its strategy.

I was delighted to hear that the Sunday Observance Act, which has forbidden dancing on the Sabbath since 1780, is at long last to be repealed. This will come as a great relief to the law abiding dancers of The Royal Ballet who have a matinee of Coppelia on Sunday, May 14th – the Opera House's first Sunday ballet performance for as long as anyone can remember.