Babycham Night

Source: Philip Norman, Babycham Night (London: Macmillan, 2003), pp. 98-100

Text: Mine was a universe completely without culture as it was defined in the early fifties. No one ever took me to an art gallery or classical music concert; the only music I ever heard was from the radio and our arcade jukebox, the only humour from seaside comedians and the saucy postcards in Mr Vernon’s outdoor rack. My attitudes became the cheerfully philistine ones of Grandma Norman – that opera was ‘a lot of fat women screeching’, that ballet was ‘all ballyhoo’. I realize now that I had a strong aesthetic sense even when I was no more than a toddler. In the late forties, you still saw pony-drawn Victorian milk-carts from which the deliveryman ladled milk straight from the churn. I remember, aged three or four, seeing one of those carts, with its fancily fretworked wooden sides, and thinking to myself that I liked the way it looked. Even to today’s over-attentive adults, a child would have difficulty in articulating pure visual pleasure; in the fifties, even had I the confidence or willing listeners, such a thing was unimaginable.

The only place where I could gratify such nascent, inexpressible impulses was the cinema. At Ryde’s three picture-houses (the sumptuous Commodore, the historic Theatre Royal, the fleapit Scala – pronounced ‘Scaler’), programmes changed at midweek, with an additional one-off show on Sunday nights. I saw every film I legally could, which is to say those with a ‘U’ certificate (‘Suitable for Universal Exhibition’) or an ‘A’, which children could see provided they were accompanied by an adult. If no grown-up in the family were available, it was common for children to stand outside the cinema and ask total strangers to take them in. The usherettes were up with this dodge, and during the performance conducted frequent checks to ensure that children were still seated with adults they had hijacked. One afternoon, I persuaded a young couple to act as my passport into a gripping ‘A’ Western, then unwisely moved several rows away from them. The film had reached its most exciting moment – some US cavarlymen, trapped in a Mexican pueblo village, tensely awaiting an Apache night-attack – when an usherette’s torch beam triumphantly illuminated me and an officious female voice ordered me out into the street.

The reason I loved Westerns so passionately was not the incessant violence between cavalry and Indians or rival gunfighters, but the sheer stylishness of everything – the huge white Stetsons, the black leather waistcoats, the neat, small Winchester rifles, the shiny-spurred boots, the long-barrelled Navy Colts. Hollywood musicals came next in my affection, with the richness of colour and texture that existed nowhere in Britain then. I saw Show Boat, with Howard Keel and Ava Gardner, five or six times: at the end, as the great paddle-boat dwindled down the Mississippi to the strains of ‘Ol’ Man River’, I felt I had passed through a profound and draining experience. I sat just entranced through black-and-white American films of modern times, detective and love dramas, despite having only the haziest understanding of their plots. It was enough to be in that parallel world where people lived in long, low white houses, and drove long, low white cars, and drank black coffee (pronounced ‘cor-fee’) with meals, and said, ‘I object, Your Honour,’ and spent half their lives in night-clubs, and where so many darkly handsome but unpredictable heroes bore such a striking resemblance to my own father. No feeling was quite so dreary as coming out of the cinema at five or so in the afternoon; leaving behind that magic, smoke-filled darkness for the bright sunshine and mundane slow motion of reality.

Comments: Philip Norman (born 1943) is a British novelist, biographer and journalist. He was brought up in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Babycham Night is an account of his 1950s childhood. He had film industry relatives – his maternal grandfather was a Pathé newsreel cameraman, Frank Bassill.

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