When you think about the Southbank Centre arts complex, what springs to mind? Most likely it’s one of the huge, iconic buildings that loom over Waterloo Bridge – the gently curved facade of the Royal Festival Hall, or Sir Denys Lasdun’s striking, angular National Theatre. We love both, but we’re here to celebrate the forgotten sibling tucked under the bridge itself: BFI Southbank, the home of the British Film Institute. If four screens showing a range of vintage and arthouse cinema aren’t enough to get you through the door, here’s a list of other reasons we love it:
#1: The live scores
Naturally, an institution like the BFI shows its fair share of silent films. Some get a live piano accompaniment, just as they would have when they were originally screened. That’s great, but the real magic happens when the BFI gets artists to play original – sometimes specially commissioned – scores. Past highlights include the Dodge Brothers (featuring film critic Mark Kermode on double bass) playing their soundtrack to 1928 classic Beggars of Life, and experimental electronica duo Demdike Stare scoring Haxan, a pioneering drama-documentary on superstition in the Middle Ages. After something a bit different? Scour the What’s On pages for one of these – you won’t regret it.
#2: The Mediatheque
Just beside the ticket desk in the BFI foyer is something rather special: a small room full of TV screens that provide access, completely free of charge, to over 2,000 highlights from the institute’s catalogue. Some are full-length movies, some are classic British TV broadcasts, some are behind-the-scenes clips, documentaries or art projects. With loads of shorter pieces in the database, it’s a fantastic resource to browse for an hour or so – punch in a place or a topic that interests you and see what comes up. Screens can be booked in advance, but walk in on a weekday daytime or early on a weekend and you’ll usually find one available.
#3: The shop
It may be tucked away in a corner of the complex, but the BFI shop is a treasure trove. The range of arthouse and repertory DVDs and Blu-Rays – some from the organisation’s own range, which includes many formerly unavailable classics of British cinema – is an obvious draw, but there’s also a fantastic selection of books that ranges from theory and criticism to glossy coffee-table fare. If you’re serious about movies, or shopping for someone who is, you’ll love it.
#4: The bars
Giant sodas? Tasteless popcorn? Dodgy hot-dogs? Banish all thoughts of multiplex catering: the BFI’s two bars are different beasts entirely. Upstairs, Benugo Bar & Kitchen’s lounge area is full of mismatched sofas and comfy booths, and is screened off from the ticket hall by thread curtains; you’ll sometimes find DJs bringing the place to life after music-themed events. The neighbouring restaurant offers a more formal space, serving small plates of British food with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern accents. Downstairs is the rough-and-readier The Riverfront, serving pub grub and bar snacks – it’s less relaxed, but captures some of the buzz from the South Bank.
#5: The IMAX
A short walk from the BFI complex brings you to the biggest cinema screen in the country, at a vertigo-inducing 20 metres. It loses a little on the style front – the IMAX is owned by the BFI but operated by Odeon, so the in-cinema experience is more multiplex than arthouse – but see the right film here and you’ll be blown away. Everything is tuned to deliver great audiovisuals, from the 70mm projector to the 12,000 Watt soundsystem to the very architecture – the building was set on anti-vibration bearings to counter the effects of tube trains running beneath it. The film programme can be a mixed bag, but when a an all-guns-blazing 3D spectacle like Gravity or The Hobbit comes to town, no other screen will do.