Behind the Silver Screen Scenes: Dan Walden

Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey prophesied a lot for a future we’ve now all lived through. Do you think, amidst dreaming of trips to Jupiter, far-flung adventures and evil supercomputers, he ever foresaw the end of the medium that made his visions possible?

Watching a film, on film, is now a rarity. It would have seemed science fiction to tell you that in a not-so-distant past. But then again, if I told you in a not-so-distant past that we went on to live with a lot of Kubrick’s ideas, it would seem science fiction all the same. 

Whilst supercomputers take over the world, and analogue film falls further out of favour with cinemas, one place still hangs on to the old way…

The Prince Charles Cinema is a haven. Loved by London punters, as well as the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, its eclectic screenings keep audiences returning. In a sultry back room, Dan Walden, one of the last remaining commercial analogue projectionists in London, prepares for action. ‘I feel like a pizza man when I do this,’ Dan laughs as he lugs 12,000 feet of film onto a spindle. One could only dream of a pizza this big and weighing this much. Ive had a hernia from lifting the reels actually!’ 

Dan Walden sets up for a screening of 'The Thin Red Line'. Photo by Charlie Holland

Machinery clatters all around whilst he threads endless lengths of film through an old projector. ‘It really wasn’t that long ago that you’d have a full projection team and not just one person like me’ Dan explains. ‘Youd have a rewind boy. Youd have the senior projectionist, then you’d have the chief. It’s quite shocking how many projectionists lost their jobs when everything went over to digital. The industry just thought we didn’t need analogue anymore.’ 

Dan laughs as he lugs 12,000 feet of film onto a spindle. 

Looking out of a grubby window from Dan’s projection room I see tides of tourists rolling between Leicester Square and Soho. Still navigating the film leader through a labyrinth of spools, teeth and ratchets he chuckles about the community that sprung up in the area. ‘At the end of the day the rewind boy was the only one left working. The rest of us, from all over the West End, would meet at The Crooked Surgeon and get trollied. None of those people are around anymore… it’s really weird.’

All this is not to say that Dan and the Prince Charles exist as a relic. Post-Covid he tells me that the cinema is busier than ever. And new experiences keep heading Dan’s way. ‘When the film festivals are on there are huge screenings. It gets crazy. I had to go up on stage with a microphone recently and ask people to take their seats so I could begin the film. There was this guy who was taking his time so I had to command him a bit. He turned around and I thought oops that’s Matt Damon.’

35mm film leader. Photo by Charlie Holland

Squeezed under an uninspiring block, the Prince Charles with its bygone Hollywood-era facade, tiny basement bar and adequately dive atmosphere certainly doesnt hint at any celebrity status. But that’s the enchantment of the place: these mildly squalid features create an artistic charm. Dan laughs about all his run-ins with cinema royalty, and says he just likes to get on with his job. ‘It’s funny, most projectionists hate anybody knowing what’s going on behind the screen. Were all quite secretive. We don’t really want recognition for what we do, otherwise we’d be on the screen. This is our perfect place. We get to hide from people, and still entertain them.’

It’s funny, most projectionists hate anybody knowing what’s going on behind the screen.

Excitement builds in the room as mechanics whir up to speed and the film Dan has been preparing flickers into life. Today it’s The Thin Red Line. He says: ‘My CV must look ridiculous. Some days start off setting up a piano in the morning – thats for 30 minutes lounge music by a live player. Then it’s time for Casablanca. Then I have to swap all that out to do a sing-a-long Frozen. Then, I have to swap that out and do a 35mm showing… Knowing that by the end of the day youve had all successful showings is a great feeling.’

Loading 'The Thin Red Line'. Photo by Charlie Holland

But this is providing no problems arise in the screenings. ‘There was a moth in the porthole during a screening recently, and I had to catch it. There I was just waving down like, its all ok, its all fine, it’s just a moth!’ He laughs enthusiastically and follows up, ‘I mean it’s better than setting up for a sing-a-long and accidentally screening The Evil Dead. Again.’

‘I mean it’s better than setting up for a sing-a-long and accidentally screening The Evil Dead. Again.’

All is well with today’s schedule however, so we wander down into another screen to look at the pride and joy of The Prince Charles Cinema. ‘This projector is from around 1949! Its beautiful – I love it.’ We both gawp at it momentarily. In the same room as the projector are huge canisters I just have to ask about. ‘Oh these,’ Dan grins. ‘These are canisters for 70mm. This is 2001: A Space Odyssey.’ He doesn’t lift these, as they look about the same weight and size as the space station in the film. 

‘I just thought it was one of those nerdy things – to like films on 70mm analogue – but because it’s a big format it looks much better on a big screen,’ Dan points out. And it’s true. If you’ve never seen a large format projection, then maybe now is your time. After all, they might not be here forever.

‘It’s really strange,’ Dan looks at the reels, musing: ‘A lot of these reels I taped together years ago when I was starting out in the trade. I never thought I’d see them again. Yet here I am, 25 years later with them coming back to me from all over the world.’ 

If I told you our supercomputer future feels no need for Dan’s craft in this world, would you think I was speaking science fiction?

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