A guy who looks like a refugee from Guns N' Roses bursts in waving a sawn-off shotgun. With him are three groupies dressed like sci-fi vampires: leather jackets, ripped stockings, huge gold fake lashes, drugged-out eyes. They're knocking off a pharmacy. Bottles of prescription pills roll off metallic shelves and onto the tiled floor. The Guns N' Roses dude picks one up. OxyContin. He nods, impressed. Just then another bloke enters carrying a machine gun and starts spraying bullets everywhere. The girls scream and scatter – the Guns N' Roses guy falls dead to the floor.
The sound of gunfire upsets the customary mid-afternoon languor of Club 487, London's newest – and only – porn cinema, based in an outwardly unremarkable premises between Deptford and New Cross in the south of the city. The perpetual onanistic motions that normally animate the place, flicking in one's peripheral vision, cease momentarily. It's Sunday. The regulars, more accustomed to the gentle delights of Hannah Does Her Sisters and Night of the Giving Head, weren't expecting extreme violence. The club's decision to screen Nikita XXX at 3PM feels subversive, like when a DJ drops a particularly experimental track right in the middle of a crowd-pleasing upfront house set.
The movie is an unusual departure, but as it transitions into a more conventional girl-on-girl scene, things settle down. George, a Tunisian guy who's lived in London for over 20 years and is a regular here, sits and eats rice and peas from a Tupperware container at the quaintly formal table (complete with white cloth) in the entrance hall. Mervin, a greying lone Roy Orbison lookalike complete with shades and sideburns, chills out in one of the private cabins. A fat, probable World of Warcraft enthusiast in a curry-stained T-shirt sleeps in the front row. A man in a jockstrap stands in the hidden alcove just behind the main screening room waiting to see if anyone takes an interest. Two rotund blokes with their shirts unbuttoned sleep next to one another on a leather couch like a porn-addicted Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
A perception of so-called "sleazy" establishments is that they are merely centres for disreputable behaviour and nothing else. What is perhaps overlooked – largely because those who comment are poorly-informed – is that cinemas like Club 487 are in effect social clubs that members attend regularly, forming acquaintanceships and friendships over long periods of time.
George greets incoming punters like long-lost family members as he chows down. Like many who come here, he is a former member of Mr B's, the previous incarnation of the business based in Islington that was closed down by the council last year.
"It takes me over an hour to get here from North London," he says. "It's worth it, though. All the old regulars are starting to come down now that word's getting out. It's like a family reuniting at Christmas."
Certainly, this sense of the familial is present when I overhear two Scottish gentlemen in their seventies chatting in one of the alcoves. One has the soft face of a regional weather reporter; the other is tall and awkward in a wax jacket. He has a large collection of carrier bags with him.
"How long have you known about this place?"
"A couple of weeks. I read about it online. I was happy. I thought it was gone for good."
"Is Christine any better?"
"She's OK. Well, not so good, actually. She stays indoors a lot. Sometimes I just need to take a break, clear my head."
Given that porn cinemas have been a part of the capital's fabric for decades, it's likely that these men have been hanging out in them for many years. For all their supposed tawdriness, the cinemas offered a third space outside the pubs where men (and women) could sit and while away the time and socialise with like-minded folk outside the home. Their slow eradication, along with the demise of local boozers, is arguably a blow to a former element of urban life that had real value – to its participants, at least.
The punters in Club 487 are friendly – perhaps not surprising given that this is effectively a secret club. One guy, a youngish, well-dressed Italian, turns to chat after a particularly athletic scene involving a cute ingénue in Glad He Ate Her. He introduces himself as Paolo. He works in Canary Wharf for a well-known bank. He looks slightly wired.
"Hot, isn't she?"
"Yeah, not bad," I reply.
"Shame – I've got to go soon. I've got an escort booked for an hour's time."
"Viktoria from Adult Stunners. She's amazing. Wait."
He pulls out a Samsung smartphone and starts scrolling through pictures of lingerie-clad women on its generous screen.
"Here – look."
I observe Viktoria, a severe Eastern European blonde reclining on a brown leather couch, wearing a bright pink bra and crotchless panties.
"It's a great agency. All the girls there are beautiful. Watch this."
Before I have a chance to protest, Paolo pulls up a video and clicks on it. The clip shows him butt-naked, shagging a girl from behind in what looks like a down-at-heel suburban bedroom.
I'm uncertain of the etiquette in this particular situation. When you're sitting in a porn cinema kicking up a fuss about an unsolicited glimpse of someone else's wank-bank is a tad churlish. At the same time it seems a bit TMI, but perhaps that's just my British reserve kicking in. Maybe that's why institutions like Club 487 still thrive in some cities on the continent while in London they are an endangered species.
Suddenly the DVD playing on-screen shudders to a halt. There is the sound of loud swearing from upstairs. Something's gone wrong on the technical side. A huge bloke in the front row who's fallen asleep fondling his own nipples stirs, wakes momentarily and then nods off again. There are moans of consternation from the rest of the audience: men drinking lager from cans in plastic bags at the back grumble. Then an FBI warning certificate about piracy flashes up on screen, heralding the start of Assablanca. There's a palpable release of tension. Now everyone can relax again.
This is Club 487 where the monkey-spank material – like the patrons – just keeps coming.
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