“ Independent cinema featuring arthouse films / Location: Victoria Hall, Rye Road, (opposite Colonnade), Hawkhurst, Kent TN18 4ET / Tel: 01580 754321 „
From the outside you wouldn't guess that the Kino is a cinema. A village hall, perhaps, or school building, even a nonconformist chapel. It has that worthy late-Victorian look: solid red brick, leaded windows, black-and-white paint. Indeed, if you look closely you will spot the carved panel in the brickwork that proclaims it to be a 'lecture hall' and the adjacent blue plaque that explains that it was built for this purpose by some 19th century philanthropist and was later acquired by the village of Hawkhurst. I have been unable to discover when it was finally adapted for its current use.
Entering, you still don't think 'cinema', not even cinema foyer, more café or pub. The ticket counter doubles as the bar and, whilst there are in theory two queues, in practice there is often overlap between the two. It's patient, good-natured overlap, though. Many people will have booked their tickets in advance, and have no need to wait at that particular till. Others arrive early to have a drink, cup of tea or snack before the show, thus staggering arrivals, so there is hardly ever a last-minute rush and definitely no panic. The people of Hawkhurst, a prosperous, mainly rural community on the borders of Kent and Sussex, are not much given to rush and panic in any case.
Some people take their drinks into the auditorium with them, especially if space is short in the café, or if the weather's too cold to go out onto the terrace at the rear. There are cup/glass-holders built into the armrests of the comfortable seats. The Kino may be a tiny independent cinema housed in a former Victorian lecture hall, but the actual auditorium is as up-to-date and well-equipped as any modern multiplex. In a way, the Kino is a curious combination of the archaic and the futuristic, embracing cinema as it must have been in its earliest days - little local 'picture houses' springing up in every town and village wherever space could be found for them - and cinema as it has become - small plushy, high-tech 'screens' suited to compact audiences - but leaving out the era of cavernous hangers catering for mass attendances that flourished and then fell from favour in between.
* Auditorium and seating *
The auditorium at the Kino is tiny, accommodating just ninety-one seats arranged in nine rows. The front five rows are only slightly raked, but in them one is close enough to the screen for this not to be an obstacle to obtaining a clear view. However, many people do find the front rows too close to the screen, and prefer to sit towards the back. The rear four rows are quite steeply raked, so again obtaining a clear view presents no difficulty.
The seats themselves are new and well-upholstered, though finished somewhat garishly in orange, brown and purple, which together with green seem to be the theme colours for the Kino brand. Aircraft-style, the seats look a touch narrow at first glance, but they are well-padded and recline back ever so slightly when one sits in them, making them very relaxing. Despite the tightness of the space overall available, there is quite enough legroom; I am on the tall side and do not have a problem.
Altogether, the ambience is of clean modernity. The background décor is predominantly sombre, with dark walls and carpet, though the wall-lighting is again somewhat garish with orange and red illuminated panels. Fortunately, they are switched off once the performance is under way.
* Viewing experience *
The Kino prides itself on being more modern that most, claiming that it is the UK's first all-digital cinema. What precisely is meant by that, and how big an advantage it may or may not be technically, I've no idea, being thoroughly ignorant about cinematic technology. But I can vouch for the fact that the picture and audio clarity always seem to be first class. If the mere notion of a village cinema has you envisaging a creaky old projector casting flickering images onto a stained screen, envisage again. For image and sound, the Kino is as good a place to watch a film as anywhere.
* What's on *
The Kino predominantly shows new releases, four or five in any given week. This week, for example, I see that it is showing Archipelago, Rango, Chalet Girl, Submarine and The Company Men. Since only one film can be shown at a time, the viewing times are rotated day by day, so that different films fill different timeslots, enabling people who cannot attend during particular hours to pick a day that will suit them. There are five timeslots daily, from morning through to late evening. Movies most suited to children, of course, tend not to be shown during the last timeslot.
Unlike many small independent cinemas, the Kino does not show many 'classic' revivals nor obscure 'art house' offerings. Nor, so far as I am aware, any Bollywood. Presumably, the owners have found that there is little demand for such genres locally. They do, however, cater for one minority taste, regularly screening specialist Opera and Ballet features. Personally, I've never attended any of these, but if you're an opera or ballet fan doubtless it's a plus.
Each individual programme is kept minimal: just one trailer and a commercial break that is limited to a quick sequence of about a dozen still advertisements for local businesses. In merciful contrast to what one endures at some cinemas, here the hors d'oeuvre is quickly over and the main feature up on screen.
* Café and terrace *
The café/bar is definitely one of the Kino's most attractive features. It's not a lavish affair, its furnishings being essentially functional, although there is a leather sofa and one or two armchairs too. It is, however, quite comfortable enough for pre- or post-performance refreshment, and whilst it can become crowded it is seldom crammed, especially in warm weather when the customers can also spill out onto the terrace behind the cinema.
The fare is simple and limited in range, but of good quality and reasonably priced. For snacks, there are Panini (a choice of five or six fillings) at £3.95, or homemade soup-of-the-day at £4.40 with a big hunk of granary bread and butter. A variety of tea and coffee options is available, and home-made cake or cookies to go with them. Confectionary and savoury nibbles are also on sale, as is some rather delicious locally-sourced ice cream. If you're accustomed to munch away while watching, it's as easily done here as at any cinema, and on the whole much more tastily. Or you can enjoy a drink as you watch; the bar is licensed and serves a range of beers and wines by the glass at regular pub prices.
Or you can enjoy a drink without any intention of watching. The café seems to attract quite a few customers who are there for refreshment, to read the papers (several copies are left lying around) or a chat with friends rather than because they are going to the cinema. Even though this adds to the crowd it is no doubt to be welcomed as helping to pay for the continued existence of the place.
* Tickets - booking and prices *
The standard ticket price for all seats is £9.50 adult, or £7.50 for concessions. There is also a "Kids' Club" rate for the first showings on Saturdays and Sundays, where each child pays just £5.50 and can take an accompanying adult in free. Discounts are in any case also often available for early showings. Given the different discount structures, it's hard to make a direct comparison with competitors, but I observe that the standard Peak Time (after 5.00) rates at my local Odeon are £9.20 adult, £7.00 for OAPs and thus marginally cheaper, but only marginally.
Apart from simply rolling up at the cinema and taking your chance, you can reserve seats at the Kino online or by phone for collection on arrival. If you are a member of the Kino Club, you can also print your tickets out online. Membership costs £35 (single) or £45 (double) per year, and entitles you to 2 (single members) or 4 (double members) tickets per year, plus £1 a ticket discount thereafter for each member and any accompanying guests. Plus an emailed newsletter and invitations to occasional special members' events. Well worth it for any couple that plans to go regularly.
* Locality *
Hawkhurst is an attractive though rather sprawling village that has the advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you choose to regard it, of being quite remote by the over-crowded standards of south-eastern England. This is certainly an advantage for the Kino in that there are no other cinemas very close with which it has to compete, a disadvantage to it in drawing customers from a catchment area of relatively low population density. A disadvantage to prospective customers too, if they have to travel a long way to reach it. The nearest town of substance is Tunbridge Wells, about a dozen miles away. Maidstone and Hastings are each about seventeen miles, to the north and south respectively; Hawkhurst is on the A229 between the two. There are buses from all three, although none has a very frequent service, but no railway connection. Nearby attractions include Bodiam Castle and famous gardens at Sissinghurst, Scotney Castle and Great Dixter. My wife and I can combine a visit to one of the latter with a viewing at the Kino; this helps us justify the journey, to ourselves at least.
Parking at Hawkhurst is easy and mostly free. Watch out, though, if you park in the adjacent Jempsons' carpark during the day; the two hour limit on free parking is strictly enforced by CCTV cameras. There is plenty of truly free parking not much further away (Fowlers' carpark or any nearby side-street).
* The future of cinema *
The imminent death of the cinema has been frequently predicted for almost as long as I can remember, and always turns out to have been exaggerated, at least in its imminence. There has indeed been a long-term decline in attendances since the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, in the face of competition from ubiquitous television, videos, DVDs/Blu-Ray, and most recently direct downloads. But the decline has been gradual, and interspersed with periods of revival as the cinema has adapted and learned new tricks. Most commenters now assume the future, if cinemas have one, lies with the big chains of multiplexes, mainly located in out-of-town shopping centres, chains which can spread their overheads over many screens and flex their bargaining muscle with distributors. In the face of this predicted trend, little local cinemas like the Kino would seem a doomed anomaly, yet the Kino for one shows every sign of flourishing. At any rate, it always appears to be well-patronised, though it is hard to know how that translates in business terms. After all, even if it were full for every showing, which it isn't, it still only has ninety-one seats from which to derive revenue, and it presumably has little bargaining muscle with distributors. Financially, it might still be a marginal enterprise for all its popularity.
Whatever the wider future of cinema may prove to be, I personally shall continue to make a point of going to the Kino, despite the fact that it is about five times further from my home than the nearest Odeon multiplex in Maidstone. This is not just because it is a good cinema in itself, though it is, but also because I like to encourage unusual, independent institutions of its kind - for much the same reason, in fact, that I would always prefer to buy my fruit and veg at a farm shop than at a supermarket, and that I would prefer to stay at a privately-owned hotel or B&B, however eccentric, than at an identikit Holiday Inn or Travelodge. If we don't support such enterprises by making use of them they will disappear and we will be left with no alternative to - and therefore be at the mercy of - the bland mediocrity of the mass-market brands.
So do I recommend that you should all travel the length and breadth of Britain to see a film at the Kino? No, not really. If you happen to live locally - say, within twenty miles or so - and for some reason it hasn't registered on your radar, I would definitely recommend a visit for the experience. Or maybe if you happened in any case to be visiting the area, perhaps to see one of the nearby attractions mentioned above. But not otherwise. It's kind of special, but not that special. In a way, I wish it were less special; I wish that every town, village or suburb had its own local equivalent. Indeed, if you are lucky enough to have an equivalent cinema near where you live, I would urge you to support it with your custom.
© Also published with photographs under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2011