Manager Gunther (aka James Michael Tyler) shows us around Central Perk
By Stephen Robb
BBC News, in Central Perk, London
Five years after Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey stopped entertaining millions worldwide with their tangled love lives and flawless complexions, the sitcom and its devoted fans remain the best of friends.
In 1994, Friends opened in a New York coffee shop where five twenty-somethings were hanging out, when Rachel burst in wearing a wedding dress, having jilted her fiance and seeking the support of her childhood friend Monica.
Familiar place, different faces
While the characters' apartments would become hugely familiar settings during 10 hit seasons of Friends, it was the coffee shop, Central Perk, where all six gathered each week, that would become the show's defining location.
"It's the heart of it," says David Brownlie-Marshall, at the front of a queue of excited fans for the opening of a replica Central Perk in Broadwick Street, central London.
The venue, open for just two weeks to mark the 15th anniversary of the show's start, expects to welcome about 900 visitors a day - but with a limit of 50 at one time for space reasons.
It serves only coffee, free with a voucher downloaded online, and available in five varieties faithful to the original Central Perk menu board.
But the 150 or so people who make their way through Central Perk's doors in the first hour of opening are not there for refreshments.
CENTRAL PERK CLASSIC SCENES
After more than a season of 'will they, won't they?', and some difficulty unlocking the doors, Ross and Rachel share their first kiss
After Ross starts, the friends join in humming The Odd Couple theme; Ross's attempt at an encore is quickly silenced by Chandler
Phoebe splits from a boyfriend with a quick word and a hug, as Chandler records "the worst break-up in the history of the world" with Janice
A flashbacks episode shows a bar due to become "some kinda coffee place", where Ross and Phoebe share a clinch on the pool table
Friends' final scene sees them deciding to get a coffee before Chandler and Monica leave the city for their new home; "Where?" quips Chandler
"I don't even like coffee," says 22-year-old Katie Walker, from Surrey, giving her free drink away to her friend.
"I was big fan of the TV show and it's just a nice novelty thing to do. It looks pretty authentic," she adds.
The most desirable seat in the place is the iconic orange sofa, which was perpetually free to be sat in by the main characters.
But in the replica Central Perk there is no possibility of getting comfortable there, due to the constant disruption of people wanting their photographs taken on it.
"I just had a moment when we were sitting on the sofa and I thought, 'We're in Friends,'" says Mr Brownlie-Marshall, a 25-year-old press officer from London.
"I felt like I was in it - everybody was sitting around on the stools. It's really quite surreal."
"I think it's recreated it really, really well," says his friend, Claire Chin-Sue. "It's good to see all the memorabilia, especially the Geller Cup - I love that episode."
Fans cannot wait to be "in" Friends
There are other props displayed alongside the disgustingly ugly trophy contested by Ross and Monica as children.
There is the equally ugly bridesmaid dress Rachel was forced to wear to her ex-fiance's wedding, the turkey that two characters manage to get on their heads, and "The List" Ross composed to help him choose between Rachel and Julie.
"It's brought back all the memories," says Miss Chin-Sue, a 28-year-old editor from London.
"We are sad that it ended, to be honest. Everyone watched it; all my friends watched it. We all watched Friends together as friends."
Tracey Evans, 39, and Sophie Atkinson, 31, are incorporating a Central Perk visit into their London honeymoon.
"At university we used to get the videos out and watch all the episodes back-to-back with a few glasses of wine generally," says Miss Atkinson.
Gone but not forgotten
Miss Walker says: "The only other show is Sex and the City, I went to some of those locations in New York, but I wouldn't for any other shows."
"It kind of had a different cultural significance," Miss Atkinson adds. "Everyone went out and got the Rachel haircut; it kind of set fashions and trends.
"I didn't get the highlights, but I did have the choppy thing going on," she admits. "It's sad, isn't it?"
While other sitcoms during Friends' lifetime also won critical acclaim and vast global audiences, fans' relationship to Friends seems unusually personal and affectionate.
Dr Brett Mills, senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia and author of books on television sitcom, considers Friends the key sitcom of its era.
It is distinguished, he says, by successfully engaging viewers' emotions as well as making them laugh.
"The first cliffhanger we were given was, will Ross and Rachel get together? So the programme says to you from the outset, this is a romantic comedy," Dr Mills says.
"You feel as an audience an emotional attachment to the characters - I feel like I have lived through the relationship of Ross and Rachel for 10 years."
CENTRAL PERK TRIVIA
It was reportedly based on a coffee shop at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, where the show's creators studied
Insomnia Cafe was among other titles considered for the show (with contenders including Friends Like Us, Six of Us and Across the Hall)
Manhattan's West Village is the setting of the coffee house and main apartment building, although filming was in Los Angeles
The artwork in Central Perk changed every three episodes
The Central Perk set was dismantled once to make way for a Caesar's Palace set seen in episodes based in Las Vegas
The pre-credits sequence after Ross and Rachel kiss for the first time in the doorway of Central Perk typifies the show's skilful juggling act.
Rachel describes the kiss in the minutest detail to a rapt Monica and Phoebe; "They started on my waist. And then they slid up, and then they were in my hair," she says, recalling Ross's hand movements, to gasps from her friends.
The show then cuts to the three men eating pizza: "Then I kissed her," says Ross; "Tongue?" queries Joey; "Yeah," says Ross; "Cool."
Dr Mills says: "Men and women watch it together and they might be watching for completely different reasons, but it's managed to straddle those two sides."
Paul McNeilage, a 22-year-old graphic designer visiting the replica Central Perk, talks of feeling "part of the Friends family".
"We followed them each week; not only did you identify with the characters, you are looking forward to seeing them the next week."
"People felt like they belonged to the show," he adds. "That must be one of the reasons why the majority of people coming here will be here.
"A lot of Londoners haven't had the occasion of going to California and going to the set. It's a way of belonging to the whole thing."
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