Kiddar's Luck

Source: Jack Common, Kiddar’s Luck (Glasgow/London: Blackie & Son, 1974 – originally published by Turnstile Press, 1951), pp. 104-107

Text: Our enthusiasms were kindled or quenched often enough by the accident of possession. It was the devil’s own job for us to get hold of any equipment that cost more than a few coppers. We were likely to hunger a very long time for anything we needed before chance threw something like it our way. For instance, we were regular cinema-goers and also ex-magic-lantern manipulators; each of us had spent long periods at shop windows looking at home cinematographs so impossibly expensive you could only dream of ever owning one. Well, long-continued desire is apt to produce not its true object, but an approximation of it. One day I found myself embarked on a mighty feat of barter which in the end denuded me of my best cigarette-card sets and a ball-bearing skate, but enthroned me in the possession of a workable cinematograph projector of a sort. It wasn’t any great shakes, really: a tin cabinet bearing a curved chimney and holding an oil-lamp and its glass; then a gate and handle standing separate, which carried a barely-adjustable lens. With this illumination, the throw was limited to five feet. All the same, it was pretty terrific, we thought; and it would have been very much better if we’d had more films to show. The machine could take ordinary 35-mm. stuff, and what we had were mainly bits and snippets from news-reels. One of the big lads from our corner, actually, he was smaller than me by a lump all round, but as he was working, he rated as ‘big,’ had a job with Pathé, delivering news-reels on a tricycle, I think. Tich didn’t get the sort of salary later current in the world of films, in fact he was often hard put to it to keep himself in Woodbines. He was one of that great tribe of Briton who considered life a fair thing as long as the supply of Woods didn’t run out, and when it did would have parted with his grandmother and his only shirt so as to see once again the lovely white cylinder alight in his lips. When we were able to knock off some Woods, we used to waylay him as he came home from work to get lengths of film in exchange.

Thus we built up a collection of snippets. The best was a sequence from an Italian film showing a fire at sea. What made it so good was that it was in colour – not Technicolor, then still a belly-ache in the womb of time, but some kind of dye. It showed a bluish, moonlit sea, across which crept a two-masted schooner (probably a model, but the loyalty to the Battle-axe still latent in me continues to protest that it was genuine). The ship looked so ghostly against the ambience of blue as it bore upon the dark waves you felt that it was doomed, it and the crew we never saw since we were without benefit of close-up still, and sure enough the sign of calamity came upon it. There was a sudden puff of smoke amidships. ‘Fire!’ said a caption on a blue background, as I turned the handle faster because we all knew that. ‘Fire at Sea!’ said a caption on a red background, and I slowed down ready for the reappearance of the ship now being licked by red flames and a pretty lurid sight, I can tell you. ‘Ooh,’ said my audience. I turned more and more slowly in order to make it last, which it wouldn’t do for long, because that was all we had of that. There was no proper end to it. When last seen that ghost ship still bore its blossom of flame across the hopeless empty seas and left us with that slight after-yearning which is the sign of perfect pleasure.

Well, that was our best piece. Now for our worst. One tremendously wet night I was out buying that week’s Gem on the windy corner where Geeling, the newsagent’s, was. Lord, it was wet. There was such a wind about, too, that you could see the rain coming at you, flung in whole sheets all the way across the Junction, shawls of it, ropes of it, lashing round your legs, clapping down like a watery cloche over your bent head, and flattening in liquid running veils on the lit shop windows. There were few about, you bet. The shops stayed undisturbed behind the wet gaslight they showed outside. Even the fish-and-chip was so blinded and sealed up in this flat rain, you couldn’t taste a smell from it. But in the dark doorway next to it, there stood a small figure who gave me a hail. I swung the peak of my dripping cap around. It was Tich, the big lad from Pathés. He was broke and hungry; he wanted some chips. What’s more, he had on him the biggest roll of film I’d yet encountered – oh, there must have been two hundred feet of it. Of course, I’d only the penny for my Gem, but there wasn’t going to be anybody else about on such a night – Tich reckoned it would have to be a deal.

So it was, indeed, but what a disappointment. The whole film showed nothing but a visit of the King and Queen to a Tyneside shipyard. At least that is what a caption said. You see, it is a well-known fact that whenever any distinguished visitors are due on the Tyne, you reach for your mack; if they are going to a shipyard, reach for two macks because if there is any place wetter than a shipyard on a rainy day, it must be in Davy Jones’s province. Not that you could see any rain in this picture; all you could see was a soup-plate, Queen Mary, stalking a saucer, King George. Sometimes other pieces of china strolled across or retreated into the murk, but they were just flashes of pans, you might safely say. Just at the end, a ghostly motor-car wrapped itself round the crockery, and a line of washing waved to it. That was all this immense footage gave one. Whenever I showed it to younger audiences they yelled that my lamp was going out; and they never asked to have it run through again.

One night we got an idea for the salvaging of this wasted footage. Why not scrape the roll free of film and draw cartoons on it. You can imagine what we’d let ourselves in for. It isn’t easy to draw on celluloid, less so if you are rationed to the 35-mm. frame for space, and only two of us were any good at drawing anyway. After many hopeless attempts, we hit on a formula. Our characters would be match-stick men, so that any one of us could follow the master-drawing; and their adventures would be limited to what could be done with the simplest of props, a lamp-post, say, or a chamber-pot. This worked, you know. It enabled us to set up a sort of poor boy’s Hollywood of doorstep Disneys. We had script and production conferences properly controlled by the general awareness that anybody who thought he had a good idea would presently have to make it. A wearisome labour it was, too. Amazing what a perseverance boys will put into a task if nobody has told them to do it. Night after night with homework shelved and forgotten we struggled with spluttering pens over the celluloid coils. The result was a great success with our public. We hit Broadway to some extent when we were invited to put on a show at a rather posh girls’ party. After that we dreamed of greater ventures and performed none.

Comments: Jack Common (1903-1968) based his novel on his own working-class childhood in Heaton, an inner suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, covering the years 1903-1917. Common gained little recognition as a writer in his lifetime (George Orwell was a friend and admirer), but has more recently enjoyed critical acclaim. This passage from the book takes place during First World War period.

Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 152-153

Text: Not only did we shout on the roads, but we also sometimes made a noise in the cinema, too, and in the theatre – not, of course, in the Playhouse, which we rightly regarded with reverential awe, but in the old New Theatre, where the number one touring companies brought London’s big musical comedy successes. Here were gaiety and pretty girls, and lively dancing, and catchy tunes, and loudly did we cheer artists like the enchanting Cora Goffin (now Lady Littler) and the comedian Arthur Riscoe. There were then three cinemas in Oxford (perhaps there still are) – the Super near the top of Beaumont Street, the Electra in Queen Street, and the Scala at the wrong end of Walton Street. At the Electra we saw the first and most memorable Beau Geste with Ronald Colman; at the Scala Lubitsch’s Foolish Wives, then looked upon as the last word in daring sophistication: and I recall one evening at the Super when we seem constantly to have interrupted the opening film of the programme with cries of ‘We want Laura! We want Laura!’, Laura being the then much esteemed, but now totally forgotten, Laura La Plante. Strangely enough no one in the rest of the audience seems to have objected to our behaviour: perhaps, without knowing it, we were the voice of the people. Frequently as we went to the cinema we did nor go half as often as Henry Yorke, who is said to have gone to the films six times a week all his years in Oxford. It seems to have done him little harm, either in practical or aesthetic terms. For he became a highly successful businessman in Birmingham, and as a sideline to his main activities a celebrated novelist under the name of Henry Green: the only novelist of our age, said Evelyn Waugh, to possess undoubted genius.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned theatre critic. This part of his memoirs refers to his time at Oxford University. Foolish Wives (1922) was directed by Erich von Stroheim, not Lubitsch.

When the Viewing had to Stop

Source: Peter Ackroyd, ‘When the Viewing had to Stop’, in Peter Ackroyd (ed. Thomas Wright), The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), pp. 140-142 [orig. pub. The Spectator, 7 March 1987]

Text: There comes a time when Mr Pickwick, bewildered by the horrors of the Fleet Prison, announces that ‘I have seen enough … My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room.’ These are very much the sentiments of your film critic on abandonning his generally undistinguished and no doubt ineffective career; enough is enough. No more films set in what journalists call ‘Thatcher’s England’; no more tearful tributes to the elderly starring Katharine Hepburn; no more masterpieces with the subtitles in Americanese. And no more questions from the only mildly curious, on the lines of ‘What film is worth seeing?’ I never really knew. Yesterday I turned back to the pages of the Spectator in 1979 when I began to write film criticism, and I could recall nothing of the films I then either praised or damned. They had gone, vanished, disappeared. I usually find it difficult to recall even the film I saw in the previous week, so effortlessly to the images slip or slide away.

[…]

Perhaps more memorable than the films have been the cinemas themselves. There were ghastly places in north London, where health food was sold over the counter; there were dank crypts off the Tottenham Court Road which people used as refuges rather than as places of entertainment. But there were also some agreeable little spots, somehow removed from this world: the Minema is generally billed as the smallest cinema in London but it is also one of the most comfortable, and those who have a taste for macabre interiors should visit one of the auditoria of the Cannon Haymarket. And I regret the passing of the Academy, Oxford Street, which curiously resembled a toy theatre blown up out of all proportion.

And of course the cinema itself was always as important as any of the films being shown in it. The queuing, the buying of undrinkable coffee, the harridans bearing trays of ice-cream, the advertisements for Levi’s jeans and the Electricity Board, the warnings about one’s handbag, all furnished the slow and cosy passage into the filmic world. And yet even as I enjoyed these simple pleasures I was aware of the fact that they were essentially of an old-fashioned and even anachronistic sort – not ones, perhaps, which will survive the end of the century in their present form. I seemed to be participating in a social activity that was already past; I was still part of the audience that first went to the silent cinema in the twenties and I was certainly not part of that unimaginable future populace to whom the cinema will mean no more than the penny gaff or the diorama do to us.

Comments: Peter Ackroyd (1949 – ) is a British novelist, biographer and critic. He was film critic for the Spectator magazine from 1979 to 1987. The essay from which the above extracts are taken was written upon his giving up being a film critic.

Les Choses

Source: Georges Perec (trans. David Bellos), Things: A Story of the Sixties (London: Vintage, 2011) [orig. Les Choses, 1965], pp. 55-57

Text: Above all they had the cinema. And this was probably the only area where they had learned everything from their own sensibilities. They owed nothing to models. Their age and education made them members of that first generation for which the cinema was not so much an art as simply a given fact; they had always known the cinema not as a fledgling art form but, from their earliest acquaintance, as a domain having its own masterworks and its own mythology. Sometimes it seemed as if they had grown up with it, and that they understood it better than anyone before them had ever been able to understand it.

They were cinema buffs. Film was their primordial passion; they indulged it every evening. or nearly. They loved the pictures as long as they were beautiful, entrancing, charming, fascinating. They loved the mastery of space, time and movement, they loved the whirl of New York streets, the torpor of the Tropics, fights in saloon bars. They were not excessively sectarian, like those dull minds which swear only by a single Eisenstein, Buñuel or Antonioni, or even – as there’s no accounting for tastes – by Carné, Vidor, Aldrich or Hitchcock; nor were they too eclectic, like those infantile people who throw all critical sense to the winds and acclaim a director as a genius if he makes a blue sky look blue or if the pale red of Cyd Charisse’s dress is made to clash with the darker red of Robert Taylor’s sofa. They did not lack taste. They were highly suspicious of so-called art movies, with the result that when this term was not enough to spoil a film for them, they would find it even more beautiful (but they would say – quite rightly – that Marienbad was “all the same just a load of crap!”); they had an almost exaggerated feeling for Westerns, for thrillers, for American comedies and for those astonishing adventures full of lyrical flights, sumptuous images and dazzling, almost inexplicable beauties such as (the titles were imprinted on their minds for ever) Lola, Bhowani Junction, The Bad and the Beautiful, Written on the Wind.

They did not go to concerts at all often, and even less often to the theatre. But they would meet, by chance, at the Film Theatre, at the Passy Cinema, or the Napoleon, or in little local flea-pits – the Kursaal at Gobelins, the Texas at Montparnasse. the Bikini, the Mexico at Place Clichy, the Alcazar at Belleville, and others besides, around Bastille or in the XVth arrondissement, graceless, ill-equipped cinemas frequented by the unemployed, Algerians, ageing bachelors, and film buffs, where they would see, in atrociously dubbed French versions, those unknown masterpieces they remembered from when they were fifteen, or those reputed works of genius (they had memorised the entire list) which they had been trying in vain for years to see. They would always remember with wonderment the blessed evening when they had discovered, or rediscovered, almost by chance, The Crimson Pirate, The World in His Arms, Night and the City, My Sister Eileen, or The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T. Alas, quite often, to tell the truth, they were horribly let down. Films they had waited so long for, as they had thumbed almost feverishly through the new issues of the Entertainment Guide every Wednesday, films they had been told by almost everyone were magnificent, sometimes did finally turn out to be showing somewhere. They would turn up, every one of them, on the opening night. The screen would light up, they would feel a thrill of satisfaction. But the colours had faded with age, the picture wobbled on the screen, the women were of another age; they would come out; they would be sad. It was not the film they had dreamt of. It was not the total film each of them had inside himself, the perfect film they could have enjoyed for ever and ever. The film they would have liked to make. Or, more secretly, no doubt, the film they would have liked to live.

Comments: Georges Perec (1936-1982) was a French experimental novelist and essayist. Les Choses, his first novel, is a portrait of French life in the 1960s, seen more through things (choses) the characters own than the characters themselves.