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One of the earliest of all British fantasy films is entitled A BIG SWALLOW. Made around 1901 by James Williamson, it shows a gentleman infuriated to find himself being photographed, who advances on the camera, opens his mouth as wide as the screen - and swallows both camera and operator whole. If cinema itself is a kind of consumption, hoovering up reality and feeding it to us in bite-sized chunks, then it seems strange that so little attention has been paid to the filming of the food process.

Not surprisingly, the young have one unanimous response - popcorn. Equally unsurprising is their amazement that popcorn is in fact a relatively recent staple of cinema-going in Britain. Thirty years ago, ice-cream still reigned supreme, sold by roving staff with trays, until a purposeful Americanisation of cinema-going brought in popcorn, along with new films starting on Fridays (instead of Sundays) and eventually the full panoply of multiplex theatres. It is hard to resist linking today's routinely massive buckets of popcorn and cola with a determined consumerism, which has certainly doubled attendance rates since 1986, but has also limited the range of films, especially non-American films, available in British cinemas.

When film shows started at the turn of the twentieth century, mainly in variety theatres, they followed the customs of the time, which included eating and drinking. As shops and even tea-rooms were pressed into service to cater for the new craze, the habit continued. George Pearson, an English film producer, recalled his first visit to a 'penny gaff' which smelt of 'stale cabbage leaves and dry mud' because it had until recently been a greengrocer's. In Russia, as Yuri Tsivian has revealed, chewing seeds and eating nuts and apples were common, as was spitting the husks and cores at fellow members of the audience. When the high-class luxury cinemas began to appear after 1910, seating was segregated to limit this skirmishing, and the foyer started to evolve as a cafe or bar, soon providing a social counterpart to the auditorium itself.

Watching people eat - how they eat, what they eat and who eats - offers a profound insight into what makes them tick. Abstracted from the mundane reality of nourishment - yet with cinema's very own fantasy food to hand, in the unlikely shape of popcorn - we are encouraged to speculate on the symbolism and meaning of our daily bread.

From 'Feasting in the Dark' by Ian Christie, Professor of Film Studies, University of Kent