London's – indeed, the UK’s – biggest cinema screen at 540 square metres, the BFI Imax stands alone in the centre of a busy roundabout next to Waterloo station. Like a princess in a fairytale it’s surrounded by a labyrinth of eerie tunnels, which heroic filmgoers must brave if they wish to sample the delights within. But trust us, it’s worth it. The screen is, of course, absolutely massive, the sound quality is spectacular and the seats are arranged at such a vertiginous angle that there’s no chance of a head blocking your view. It’s not cheap – as much as £20 for a premium seat – but if you like your blockbusters vast and noisy (and who doesn’t?) there’s really nothing else like it in town. One word of advice – locate your nearest loo before the film starts if you’re prone to a mid-film pee, because they’re all but impossible to find.
Formerly the National Film Theatre, this much-loved four-screen venue on the South Bank in Waterloo became the BFI Southbank in 2007. For film lovers who know their Kubrick from their Kurosawa, this is London's best cinema. Certainly, it's the city’s foremost cinema for director retrospectives and seasons programmed to showcase international work or films of specific genres or themes. It’s the flagship venue of the British Film Institute and plays home each year to the BFI’s London Film Festival and to the BFI’s seasons, such as 2014’s celebration of sci-fi. BFI Southbank also regularly hosts Q&As with some of the world’s leading filmmakers. The venue itself is a hot spot, with two bar-restaurants (one overlooking the river, nestled under Waterloo Bridge), a bookshop (good for DVDs too) and a library.
The jewel in the Picturehouse crown opened in 1992 and has been screening a mix of mainstream releases and independent films from its handy location beside Clapham Common ever since. Like all Picturehouses it’s a super-popular local cinema with a devoted following who come for the snug, anti-multiplex atmosphere and comfy reclining seats. Take your pick from the gut-expanding array of posh snacks and grab a drink at the bar, which has become a destination in itself – and is perfect for a post-film debrief. Plus you can buy a glass of wine to take into the movie.
The seeds of Morley College were sown by the Victorian social reformer Emma Cons, who in the 1880s created the Royal Victoria Coffee and Music Hall in order to provide penny lectures and ‘morally decent’ entertainment in the Waterloo area. Beginning life as Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women, the adult education college – which is named after the benevolent textile manufacturer and MP Samuel Morley – moved to its current location in the 1920s but was largely destroyed during the Blitz. Rebuilt in 1958 to a design by CC Voysey, the building has expanded with the purchase of a former pub building across the road, a sculpture studio in a disused church nearby, and a more recent extension. Over the years, Morley has become famous for the calibre of its teaching staff. Gustav Holst was Director of Music from 1907 until 1924. Other high profile figures associated with the college include Ralph Vaughan Williams, Virginia Woolf and David Hockney. Reflecting its cultural associations are several permanent artworks in the building, including paintings by John Piper and Bridget Riley and, in the canteen, a series of murals created by Edward Bawden in the early 1960s, which depict scenes from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’. If you’re not a student, there’s an opportunity to visit the building as part of Open House London, which takes place in September.
The Ritzy is a Brixton institution, much loved for its friendly staff and anti-multiplex atmosphere. One of south London’s oldest picture palaces (it originally opened in 1911), today the Ritzy has still got a little of that grandeur. Its five screens are all comfortable and reasonably sized, while the programme strikes the perfect balance between major blockbusters and independent films, plus late-night shows and classics. There are also two bars, one offering a view across Windrush Square and serving slap-up café food, the other tucked upstairs inside the cinema and playing host to an array of club nights and stand-up shows.