Paul O’Connor on how he helped stage a lockdown Leicester Square cinema premiere – with eight seats…
A decade before lockdown I worked with an imaginative group of artists in Wales to create a cinema on wheels. Our mission was to create a mobile venue to screen independently-made short videos. Which is why we dragged a 1972 caravan out of a hedge and converted it into a mobile picture house.
Since then, the Sol Cinema has shown thousands of videos on high streets, in factories, a bank, on a farm and even in a zoo. Complete with smartly dressed usherettes and buckets of popcorn, the Sol Cinema has performed at numerous festivals including Glastonbury. We hosted a young people’s film festival in The Barbican. Our solar-powered cinema even performed for a billionaires’ 50th birthday party, in the middle of the Yorkshire moors.
All this came to a sudden halt of course in 2020 when COVID-19 arrived. With everything cancelled, the Sol Cinema sat in the shed until a phone call a few weeks ago prompted us back into action. The infamous ska band Madness asked if we could help premiere its new three-part documentary TV series, Before We Was We. Since all the regular size cinemas were closed, the band thought it’d be fun to do its launch in the world’s smallest mobile picture house.Array
Following a flurry of Zoom calls with the Madness art department, we found ourselves leaving Wales for the first time in nearly a year. Arriving at the infamous Leicester Square in London was a thrill, and we were guided to park in front of the Odeon cinema. The 1600-seater film theatre dwarfed our eight- seater one. The crowd control barriers went up and everyone had their temperature taken, masks were issued and the hand sanitiser was shared out.
As we prepared the Sol Cinema, ARRI cameras were unloaded and 650W lighting rigs were set up all around us. A 15 metre, bright red carpet was unrolled, and gold roped stands were sited in front of the doors of the Odeon, itself draped in plush red velvet. Masked up film crews busied themselves setting up a black tent around the Sol Cinema so they could film interviews with the band inside through our open window.
Just as the ‘SOL CINEMA’ sign was being changed to ‘CINEMAMADNESS’, a ball of energy dressed in black leather bounded into view, filming all the while on his phone.
“I make films too you know” he says as a way of introduction, as he peered into the plush interior of our mobile cinema. This is how I met Chris Foreman, the founder of Madness. Chris explained that he invented his own style of filming when he began attaching his phone to his guitar during gigs. “Live streaming from the neck of my guitar gives the fans another perspective”, he not unreasonably argued. He said he coined the term ‘Axecam’ to describe his filming technique.
Madness are masters of innovation after all, which helps explain why they’ve kept making music for 45 years. That’s despite Rolling Stone magazine dismissing them in their early days as ‘the Blues Brothers with English accents’.
The band grew up just a couple of miles away in Camden so it wasn’t surprising that the crowds got excited when the most recognisable face of Madness turned up. Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson smoked a thin cigar as he signed autographs, whilst one woman shouted if she could snog him. Not the most tactful thing to ask during a global pandemic, so Suggs declined from behind the barriers (“have you got long lips?”).
It didn’t stop her shouting her demands forcing the film crew to eventually step in and ask her to quieten down.
During rehearsals, Suggs was dressed as a showman in a long maroon outfit and tasked with pulling the Sol Cinema into place for the filming. With one of our crew hidden behind and pushing, Suggs began pulling only to get his cloak briefly stuck under the tow hitch. A couple more attempts missed his mark before finally the director Will Clark was satisfied that it all looked perfect.
As night fell, the lights of the Odeon lit up and the massive LED display boards showed the young Madness band members in the publicity posters for Before We Was We.
As we sat waiting for kick off time, Suggs drank a beer and told me he still loved performing. “We still have a lot of fun making music together which is the main point of being in a band” he said whilst signing a poster for us: ‘Good work, best cinema, love Suggs’.
Being fellow performers, we chatted about the places we end up in but agreed nothing could top Madness standing on the roof of Buckingham Palace in 2012 singing their biggest hit ‘Our House’. “Performing on Buckingham palace was an extraordinary experience and surreal and we had a great day”, he smiled.
“I don’t remember ever thinking about whether it was going to last. You see this polished Madness that’s been going for years and people would think, course you knew. But I didn’t have a clue. I wasn’t taking it the slightest bit serious”.
That lack of seriousness obviously paid off, as the front man is now reportedly worth a cool £15m.
Suddenly it was action time. Firstly, a nearby busker had to be slipped £40 to turn off his sound system until the premiere was over. A cameraperson with a steadicam followed Suggs as he pulled the Sol Cinema effortlessly into place at the end of the long red carpet. Suggs then joined fellow band member Chris and director of the TV series Ben Timlett in front of the throngs of photographers.
The full day of preparation paid off as it all looked fantastic. The weather was perfect, the cameras rolled, and Suggs had a few costume changes, at one stage appearing as an usher. Despite the odd hiccup – his tray strap broke spreading popcorn and sweets all over the ground – it all went smoothly. As the clock neared 11pm, director Will Clark finally said ‘cut.
Will Clark told me afterwards that “I’ve not yet submitted to the Guinness Book of Records but I like to think we’re in the running for the smallest premiere in the world”.
In a flurry of activity everything was packed away and after a few elbow bumps, we hooked the Sol Cinema onto our van and left Leicester Square with some great new memories. That, and an exclusive Madness dart board as a souvenir….
Before We Was We’s first episode will be available for free on YouTube on Saturday 1st May 2021. All episodes will be available on demand on BT TV and exclusively on AMC.
The Sol Cinema is available to hire via www.thesolcinema.org