Midnight marathons, plastic spoons and shagging rabbits: an oral history of Prince Charles Cinema

For 34 years, the West End venue has been a communal stomping ground for film fanatics and oddballs alike. Here, we look back to where it all began

A collage of cinema tickets
Image: Time Out
James Balmont

When it comes to filmgoing in central London, Leicester Square is undoubtedly king: its Odeons, Vues and Cineworlds make it a global tourist attraction for red-carpet-coveting fans. But amidst the royal array of cinemas, one misfit ‘Prince’ sticks out like a naughty child, vying for attention from a Chinatown back street.

That scamp is the Prince Charles: the capital’s legendary home of cult cinema, outlandish all-nighters and all kinds of weird and wonderful programming (which is explored in-depth via the venue’s own podcast). Nowhere else in London will you be enticed off the street by a readograph that declares ‘Sod the sunshine, come sit in the dark!’ – or ordered to ‘turn off your cellphone, asshole!’ via a recorded John Waters message. This is where demands for Thunderbirds, Werner Herzog epics, and Nightmare on Elm Street marathons (scrawled side-by-side on requests board) are actually likely to be fulfilled – alongside vibrant sing-a-long events and curiosity-piquing ‘mystery movies’.  

An eccentric institution beloved by fans of all walks of life – Saltburn director Emerald Fennell and Masters of the Air’s Callum Turner are among the latest to voice their admiration – the venue may well be London’s answer to historic revival houses like LA’s New Beverly Cinema (owned by noted Prince Charles fan Quentin Tarantino). Time Out caught up with some of the cinema’s most passionate patrons and partners to tell its story.

The beginnings, 1962-1989 

Originally constructed as the Prince Charles Theatre in the early ’60s – and apparently named for the Stuart royal who built the aristocratic Leicester House there – the venue endured a rocky start. But as a single-screen cinema, it developed a reputation for screening lurid content, proudly advertised on the now-iconic marquee.

Ben Freedman (owner, 1990-present): Historically, the Prince Charles did not have a good reputation in the industry…

Jonathan Foster (marketing, 2014-present): It was a theatre in 1962 and it failed. Then it was turned into a music hall. Judy Garland played there, back in the day. You can even find clips of her on our stage. 

Interior view during construction, December 1962
Photograph: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock PhotoInterior view during construction, December 1962

Fil Freitas (duty Manager, 2017-present): A lot of musicians passed through because the Ad Lib Club, [a nightclub] which was quite famous in the ’60s, used to be above it. One infamous story is that The Beatles first experimented with acid there. Now it’s a room where the projectionists make a coffee or patch together a film.

Robin Priestley (creative manager, 2002-2012): It kind of turned into a porn cinema in the ’70s. It claimed to have the longest-running screening of [French softcore movie] Emmanuelle in the country. 

We’d show European arthouse movies with nudity that British cinema wasn’t ready for

Paul Vickery (head of programming, 2008-present): We were brandished as a porn cinema because we would show European arthouse movies that featured a level of nudity that British and American cinema wasn’t ready for. It was a single-screen cinema, so when we were playing titillating movies like Emmanuelle or Caligula, they were the only film showing.

Freedman: It had been famous in the ’70s for showing controversial titles like Last Tango in Paris or Straw Dogs and then it showed Emmanuelle for three years non-stop and that was very successful. People would say: ‘Well, that’s a Prince Charles title.’

Someone standing outside of cinema
Photograph: Courtesy of Prince Charles

Vickery: Hellraiser had its world premiere here. And when Evil Dead played, it had a big readograph and took over all the posters. Ten years ago when we ripped off the building’s frontage, it revealed a huge, red, white and black painted facade of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. When a film played here, it got this elevated status. It changed how people would perceive you.

1991: Dawn of the £1 tickets

The Prince Charles was taken over by Robins Cinemas in April 1991, and soon found a new niche as a repertory cinema. Across the ensuing decade, the theatre built a reputation for its unconventional programming and cheap ticket prices. It even found itself at the centre of a hit TV comedy as a fandom began to take hold. 

Freedman: The ‘soft sex’ audience didn’t exist anymore because it had gone all to video. So, as a cinema, [The Prince Charles] really had no personality. We changed the policy, charging £1 to make it a destination people would talk about. 

I had rabbits shagging and a platoon of Coldstream Guards with tall Busby hats sat in front of punters

Edgar Wright (filmmaker): I remember as a kid seeing something on Barry Norman about a cinema that did cut-price tickets. So when I later moved to London, the Prince Charles became a spot I frequented a lot. It was a place to see second-run movies and old classics with a great audience… it was a bit rock ‘n’ roll and also had a very communal vibe about it. 

Freedman: The basic philosophy was always that we’ll show anything as long as it fills the place and it’s legal. The opening night, I think we showed Terminator 2. And then we showed a 16mm horror film about a killer goat and it sold out. I remember standing in a full auditorium and everyone was having a good time, and I had no idea why.

A fistful of fingers poster
Image: Courtesy of Edgar Wright

Wright: My first film, A Fistful of Fingers, opened there in November 1995 on the same weekend as GoldenEye – so I was very aware of the massive queue outside the Odeon Leicester Square while my screenings were less well-attended. I was broke and could only afford the travel card to London, so it was surreal to be a film director at age 21, wandering around the city, freezing and salivating while looking through the restaurant windows in Chinatown because I couldn’t afford to buy myself dinner.

Ricky Baker (film promoter; Eastern Heroes magazine founder): I had a stall in Chinatown where a lot of people would come asking where to get kung-fu movies, so eventually we decided we’d try and bring Jet Li to the Prince Charles. It was a nightmare. So many people turned up that the police came. But the atmosphere was great. We got a group of local Chinese guys doing the Chinese New Year dragon dance, and we screened Black Mask and Fist of Legend and gave everybody whistles to cheer on the end fight scenes. The audience erupted. It was like a World Cup final.  

Outside prince charles
Photograph: Courtesy of Prince Charles CinemaOutside prince charles

Dom Joly (comedian): We did a lot of filming there for Trigger Happy TV. Our offices were on the Charing Cross Road, and we were quite lazy, so if we stopped working I’d often just pop down to see a film. But I had loads of ideas for stuff to do in cinemas, and they were just totally fine with it. I had rabbits shagging in the cinema and a whole platoon of Coldstream Guards with incredibly tall Busby hats came and sat in front of punters. There was an old-school cinema ad warning about pickpockets with a cartoon of a snake that would go ‘Shh! Thieves about!’. We played it before a film, and I dressed as a very large snake and slithered around the audience.

2000: The Sound of Music sparks a sing-a-long

A culture of interactive film events was born out of regular screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the ’90s. But it was a certain Alpine musical that really got the ball rolling on the PCC’s infamous singalong screenings. 

Freedman: In 1999, somebody came to me and asked if we’d be interested in showing this thing called sing-a-long-a Sound of Music, which had been shown originally at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. They didn’t have the rights or money to hire the cinema, so we agreed to co-produce it with them. 

Priestley: Sing-a-long Sound of Music was at 7.30pm on a Friday, and then at 11.30pm they’d do Rocky Horror Picture Show. And it was this wonderful clash of cultures, with drunk hen nights and then a mob of Rocky Horror fans who would turn up and act stuff out on stage. 

Freedman: I went to see the second or third [Sound of Music] show and the compère was Graham Norton. He was very enthusiastic.

Priestley: The funniest one was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Donny Osmond came along, and the audience of 50-year-old women were unable to control themselves. We needed crowd control to hold them back.

Ralph Bogard (show host, 2007-present; Unicorn Nights programmer, 2016-2021): When we did the first The Greatest Showman sing-a-long screening, I went out as the bearded lady — and one of the audience sent [footage] to Rebecca Ferguson, who then sent it to Hugh Jackman, who then posted about it. And then it just went haywire.

Outside prince charles
Photograph: Courtesy of Prince Charles CinemaVintage film season, 2010

Freedman: We’ve done about 14 or 15 [sing-a-long-a] titles over the years. Frozen, Matilda, Dirty Dancing, Grease… We even showed odd performances of Moulin Rouge until the lawyers from Moulin Rouge in Paris threatened to sue us for IP infringement.

The sing-a-long-a spectacle went way beyond the traditional ‘musical’ at the Prince Charles, too, with the phenomenon later proliferating via Mean Girls quote-a-longs, South Park swear-a-longs, and other unlikely variations…

Michael Leader (programmer, Ghibliotheque, 2021-present): [I attended] the battered, bright-pink print of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan back in 2009, which really should have been branded as a ‘Khaaaaan-along’ screening.

Vickery: We used to hand out a sheet with ‘the rules of The Room’ with things like ‘when a spoon is in the photo, throw a spoon’. As ‘the best of bad movies’, the film was very heavily aligned with what we were as the house of cult cinema — and when [director Tommy Wiseau] came, it just blew the roof off. He absolutely loved the environments that were being fostered around his movie. 

2011 Wayne’s World screening
Image: Courtesy of Prince Charles Cinema2011 Wayne’s World screening

Bogard: We had to provide him with a crate of Red Bull every day and he just survived on necking that, constantly. It got very, very out of control. We were sweeping up tons of plastic spoons — and then metal cutlery was getting lobbed at the screen.

Jake Cunningham (programmer, Ghibliotheque, 2021-present): Even when Michael and I do intros there, I can see the plastic spoons that have landed by the screen – artefacts from The Room screenings past that have been thrown by a rowdy crowd – which always makes me smile.

2008: Screen Two: Electric Boogaloo

The Prince Charles incorporated a second screen in 2008, which sits upstairs where there was once a great balcony. The move would mark one of the venue’s most notable physical makeovers in the 21st century – and enabled the cinema to show twice as many movies as before. This was handy, considering how diverse the programming was becoming…

Priestley: We’d pepper the programme to make sure there was something for everyone. And so there was always a mix of trash pop Hollywood, and then a weird Korean horror movie, and then some banned film from the ’70s.

Bogard: In the days of streaming, you can access arthouse and foreign films from all different parts of the world. But in the early ’00s you still had to search them out. One of the reasons I thought [the Prince Charles] was great was that I could watch old black-and-white films, silent films, and strange horror films by Dario Argento…  

Sci-fi film season, 2010
Photograph: Courtesy of Prince Charles CinemaSci-fi season, 2010

Joey Leung (founder, Terracotta Distribution; Far East Film Festival): We started Far East Film Festival in 2009 with a mixture of new Korean, Japanese and Hong Kong films. We’d also go off the beaten track with films from Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand and do all-nighters with things like The Eye or The Ring. We even screened a film called Red Light Revolution, which claimed to be ‘China’s first sex-shop comedy.’ We wanted to highlight films and territories that were less known in the UK. 

Bogard: There didn’t seem to be a lot of queer programming going on at a lot of places in 2016, so I pitched Unicorn Nights. The first film that we decided to screen was Get Real — an LGBTQ+ film from the ’90s that had had a muted release because of the bombing of the Admiral Duncan in Soho. That had caused a real negative feeling socially, with people feeling unsafe going to LGBTQ+ identifying spaces.

I was like: let’s put it on. It sold out and it was brilliant. Later, we did a The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert party for Pride where people came and got glittered up. Tia Kofi, who is now the reigning queen of the world, came with her drag group The Vixens and performed.

There was an amazing double bill of Groundhog Day and Groundhog Day once

Leader (Ghibliotheque): With our first book launch in 2021, we had a special screening of the Studio Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. The PCC has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to anime, with regular screenings of Akira and Ghost in the Shell. When Paul asked if we’d like a regular slot at the cinema in 2023 to dig deeper into the world of Japanese animation, it was a chance to see what other gems would play well on their screens…

With so many strands of programming, it only made sense for the cinema to extend their viewings into the early hours — with Arnie all-nighters, midnight Muppets mayhem and teen movie pyjama parties.

Vickery: When I came to the venue [in 2008], all-nighters were private hires if ever they happened. HBO hired the cinema to show The Sopranos. CBS did it for Twin Peaks. So I was like… let’s do all-night movie marathons and triple features and expand on it. 

Priestley: There was an amazing double bill of Groundhog Day and Groundhog Day once. I also remember we screened every episode of Lost as a kind of endurance challenge. People were in there for three days watching seasons of it…

Cunningham (Ghibliotheque): I went to the LOTR extended edition marathon last year and it was brilliant. By Return of the King, this wonderful communal mania had settled in. Whoops and hollers and howls of disgust at Denethor's tomato-eating were being thrown around, as well as high-fives, celebratory hugs and, by the end, lots of tears (could’ve been the staring at a screen for 12 hours, could’ve been the film).

Marvel marathon
Image: Courtesy of Prince Charles CinemaMarvel marathon 2012

Wright: We did a Hot Fuzz-tival day where we showed four movies including Hot Fuzz, with most of the cast on stage for a Q&A after, and that was incredible. I [also] remember the theatre doing a marathon of my movies in 2013…

Vickery: It was 17 hours long [because] I wanted to show all of his movies, Spaced, his music videos, Don’t!

Wright: I did a Q&A at the start of the night… and then at the end, on Sunday morning, Nick Frost and I handed out Jaffa Cakes to everyone.

Vickery: Afterwards, Cornetto had sent us 500 free Cornettos [to give to the audience]. And then we did the gun thing from Spaced with 300 people on Lisle Street.

A history of special guests

The Prince Charles has attracted all kinds of unlikely patrons over the years. Pete Doherty worked there in 1999 and wrote in his diary that he was ‘quite charmed by the place’ despite ‘the staff being a tad aloof’. Gary Lineker showed up for the premiere of ‘Kicking Off’ in 2016. And director Paul Thomas Anderson would even pop in to check out dailies while shooting Phantom Thread in 2017.

Priestley: [Norwegian Wood author] Haruki Murakami did a reading in there once. It sold out in minutes. I’d never heard of him at the time, so from that moment on we were like: “let’s get him back every week!”. 

Another time, So Solid Crew did a launch for their ‘21 Seconds’ video there, bringing out VHS’s of it at the end. I remember the Sugababes came along to see it and were scared stiff in the corner as a bunch of hoodlums were knocking around. And we had to show the video about four times because it was only three minutes long and they’d booked the place out for an hour and a half.

Tarantino loved our coffee

Leung (Far East Film Festival): We’d get directors like Toshiaki Toyoda and Ryoo Seung-wan over to do workshops and Q&As. In keeping with the venue as a cool, DIY, lo-fi [space] we’d skip the glitz and glamour of the red carpet and all go to the Slug & Lettuce after to have a drink with the director — and they loved it.

Baker (Eastern Heroes): We brought John Woo to the Prince Charles for screenings of Hard-Boiled and, I think, The Killer. Nobody really knew who he was, though, so we put flyers out saying ‘John Who? is coming’. 

Vickery: William Friedkin was one of the best. He was just such a dude. He would ask me what movies I liked and then tell me my taste was shit. And then he walked into the cinema on the night we were doing To Live and Die in LA and went ‘Well look at this shithole!’

Double Bill Season poster
Image: Courtesy of Robin PriestleyDouble Bill Season poster

Zach Galligan (actor, Gremlins): In 2015, after seeing them post on Twitter about a double feature of Ghostbusters and Gremlins, I reached out to ask if they would be interested in having Gremlins Christmas screenings. They put it up for a Thursday and that sold out. And then they added Friday and Saturday, too. It ended up being a four-day event. I was posing with Gizmo for 200 pictures per screening.

Priestley: On one of the DVD extras of Kill Bill there’s an interview with Tarantino where he says: ‘the day that Kill Bill plays at the Princes Charles will be the day that Kill Bill truly comes home’. We dined out on that for years. 

Foster: Tarantino loved our coffee. Another day I was sitting there and Peter Dinklage just comes walking downstairs. Woody Harrelson’s come in quite a few times, too.

People at Wes Fest, 2012
Photograph: Courtesy of Prince Charles CinemaPeople at Wes Fest, 2012

Freitas: We’ve had Margot Robbie, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel… and Kevin Smith. He always makes an effort to come to the cinema when he’s in town, so we have a cubicle named after him in the ladies’. That’s less weird when you know that it used to be the gents’. I also got to meet Andrew Garfield at a screening of Under the Silver Lake. He hung out with us in the office brought the staff cake.

Vickery: The most famous person I’ve met here is Jackie Chan. [For Empire’s Q&A event,] we could have sold 50 tickets for every one we sold, I mean, we should have booked him in at Wembley Arena. It was absolutely absurd. And his aura was amazing. He smelled amazing! 

Freitas: It was like The Beatles landing at JFK. Chinatown was just rammed. 

Foster: Brendan Fraser popping in was absolutely amazing. We were showing The Mummy and The Mummy Returns as a double feature on 35mm, and he was doing a lot of publicity for The Whale in the lead-up to the Oscars. No-one knew he was going to be there, and the place just exploded. I’ve never heard that room so loud.

The Prince Charles has been known to host to some unwelcome guests, too…

Vickery: The building itself [may be] haunted. I came in to watch No Country For Old Men, and every 15-20 minutes the usher’s seat in the back corner would flap and the door would move every time a reel would change. 

We have a cubile named after Kevin Smith in the ladies’ loos

Priestley: One of the old projectionists had this story where she’d spent all night on her own changing the air-con filters, and she had gone out the room and then come back and found them in a neat little pile at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Foster: There is a blue boiler suit projectionist guy who hangs out upstairs, too, who people have seen out of the corner of their eye hanging out in the doorway.

2024: To infinity and beyond?

With its eclectic programming, passionate staff, and quirky culture still going strong, the Prince Charles retains the unique charm established back in the early ’90s (members can even wind back the clock from time to time and get in for £1 at special screenings). For some, the venue holds an even dearer place in the heart…

Priestley: I got married there. They shut down the cinema one Saturday afternoon and we had the wedding ceremony. It was like a film premiere: we had our names up on the readograph and instead of hymns we made singalong movies for cheesy love songs. And then we came out on the red carpet. 

Freitas: I got to make a film at the Prince Charles: about the building, the company, the staff. I spent three weeks of night shoots there a couple of years ago, filming until 7am when the cleaners came in. I’m taking it to festivals this year — it’s called The Regulars.

Outside cinema in the sun
Photograph: ShutterstockOutside cinema in the sun

Joly: I did my first live show there in 2011. The whole thing was like a long, sustained panic attack. It was awful on every level — and on top of that, I’d just broken my leg. But it was one of the proudest moments of my life because I had my name up on the iconic billboard outside. 

Ella Kemp (London editor, Letterboxd): There are lots of cinemas that I love to go to because the screen’s nice or the seats are comfy, but there’s such a specific atmosphere and community and personality to the Prince Charles. You know what kind of people you’re going to find there. 

Ariane Anantaputri (FOH; events host, 2017-2019): Everyone there has such a ferocious passion for film, storytelling, and connecting with one another. And we show 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, what more could you want?  

Zuza Korbal (projectionist, 2023-present): The Prince Charles is unique in almost every department. The most apparent one is just the sheer volume of films showing — especially on 35mm and 70mm. 

Vickery: We show like 180 films a month…

Kemp: Because there are only two screens, I just trust their programming a lot of the time. It’s so easy to go in blind because, even if I don’t know what it is, I know that there’s a reason why they’ve put it on.

Outside cinema in the sun
Photograph: ShutterstockOutside cinema in the sun

Cunningham (Ghibliotheque): The fact that the programming is willing to go down these alternative avenues is wonderful, not just because of the cinephiles who can notch up another film on Letterboxd, but because it can connect people outside of film circles and provide transportive nostalgia trips and super-niche celebrations. 

Wright: It’s a communal stomping ground for film fans in the West End… the beating heart of Leicester Square, to me, is the Prince Charles. It’s a little oasis of moviegoing that seems frozen in time in the best way possible. It’s the closest you can get to the cinematic experience I had as a kid and I hope that never changes.

Freedman: It’s nice after 34 years to still be going, and I look forward to it continuing for many years to come. I think it offers something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in London, and we’ll continue to live in fear of it not working… which drives us forward.

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