A North London Childhood

Source: Louise M. Blundell, A North London Childhood 1910-1924 (Islington Libraries, 1985), p. 21

Text: I was now eleven and something wonderful happened. The cinema came! Two were opened in archway Road, the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire. Opposite the Archway Tavern was the Electric Palace. It had an eastern look about it and had an arch with rows of electric lights and when they were switched on it looked like an Arabian palace in the fairy tale books that I read. An hour before the first performance crowds of children came, with their twopence-halfpennies clutched tightly in their hands. Nell and I were among them. We danced and played around the entrance hall until an attendant dressed in a smart uniform opened the doors for the cashier to take our money at the kiosk. We pushed and shoved and at last with tickets held tightly in our hands we rushed in – past the gilt mirrors and glossy photographs of famous stars, down the aisles to find the best seats and to wait for the magic to begin. We stared in wonderment at the ceiling which was covered in paintings of angels and cherubs with garlands of flowers and lovely ladies disporting themselves all over the ceiling. At last the pianist arrived to play as the film was shown … We were carried along on a wave of music and emotion … The cinema was really the only colourful thing in our world. North London was so drab and ugly, everyone wore such dark clothes in those days. It all seemed black and grey to me. I felt starved for colour.

Comment: In terms of the chronology of her memoir Louise Blundell is writing about the pre-WWI period of her London childhood, but the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire were both built post-1914, and some of the memories seem to relate to the early 1920s. Blundell lived in Willesden, then Archway Road; her memoir was published by the local library.

I Was a Walworth Boy

Source: H.J. Bennett, I Was a Walworth Boy (Peckham Publishing Project, 1980), p.20

Text: If one turned to the left at the top of East Street the first pub was the Roundhouse. Here too was a little cinema where I saw my first silent films with a woman playing what was [sic] considered appropriate tunes on the piano. Among the films I saw here were ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ and the early Chaplin comedies.

Comment: H.J. Bennett was born in East Street, Walworth, London, in 1902. The Exploits of Elaine was a 1914 American serial, starring Pearl White.

Nice Work

Source: Adrian Brunel, Nice Work: The Story of Thirty Years in British Film Production (London: Forbes Robertson, 1949), p. 16

Text: In 1912 my mother and I were film fans. We lived in Brighton where there were at least half-a-dozen bioscopes, as cinemas were usually called, although my mother’s maid always referred to them as “the fumes”. Many of them were converted shops, with hard, noisy, tip-up seats and bare boards, but they were cheap, the price of seats ranging from threepence to ninepence, and in some cases one shilling, and the programme varied in length between three and four-and-a-half hours. Threepence was our price; we generally managed to afford two or three shows a week, and if my mother went to town or I was on my own, my meagre savings quickly diminished while I went to as many as three shows in a day, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at eleven at night.

Comment: Adrian Brunel (1892-1958) was a British film director and editor, as well as a writer of guides to film production. His films includes The Man Without Desire (1923), The Constant Nymph (1928) and The Vortex (1928). Nice Work is his autobiography.

The East End Years

Source: Fermin Rocker, The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood (London: Freedom Press, 1998), pp. 60, 62. Freedom Press uses the Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Text: High on my list of favourites were the Indians of North America, a people for whom I had an unusual degree of admiration and sympathy. Their picturesque appearance as well as their skill and bravery as hunters and warriors greatly impressed me. Coupled with this regard and affection was a strong feeling of outrage aroused by my father’s stories of the deceit and treachery practised upon them by the white man. I dearly wished that some day the redskins would be able to turn the tables on their white oppressors and drive them from the continent which their cunning and duplicity had helped them conquer …

… My partiality for the redskin was to have some unhappy consequences when I received my first exposure to the cinema. The Westerns, which featured rather prominently in the repertory of those days, invariably had the Indians getting the worst of it in their encounters with the white man, a headlong rout of the redskins being the usual outcome. I found it quite impossible to look on calmly while my friends were being massacred on the screen. Not being nearly so stoical as my Indian idols, I would raise a tremendous commotion and have to be taken out of the theatre to prevent things from getting completely out of hand. After a few experiences of this kind, it was decided not to take me to the “pictures” any more, a resolution I did not in the least regret.

Comment: Fermin Rocker (1907-2004) was the son of anarchist theorist Rudolf Rocker and became an artist and illustrator. His memoir recalls a heavily-politicised upbringing in Stepney. His father was German, his mother a Russian Jew. He writes that he much preferred Punch and Judy to cinema.

Yesteryears

Source: Evelyn Jones, in Sylvia Bond (ed.), Yesteryears – School, Work and Leisure Remembered by Highgate Residents (London: Sylvia Bond, 1979)

Text: Then I went to the cinema. They were all silent films in those days and they had little captions underneath. We saw Lillian Gish, and one serial was very exciting yet; they’d stop at the most exciting part and it made you come the next week. But we weren’t all that regular. If it was a serial we used to like to go, but apart from that we weren’t a family that went just for the sake of going. There was a cinema down the bottom of Highgate Hill called the Electra Palace. People used to call it the Flea Pit. It was very small compared with the cinemas we get now and in those days there used to be queues of people. You’d go inside and they’d have a rope, or a piece of string or something, stuck across the bottom and you had to all stand behind before you got your seat. We used to hate that. There wasn’t much else to attract people – just concerts and cinema, so a lot of people used to go and you often had to wait a long time before you got a seat. Then there was a Plaza at Crouch End, a similar sort of place. There was a Marlborough Theatre, that was a theatre in my youth; they used to give pantomimes at Christmas time. Some years after it was turned into a cinema.

Comment: Evelyn Jones was born in 1903, and lived all her life in Milton Park, London. The cinema to which she refers is possibly the Electric Palace, 17 Highgate Hill. There is a copy of Yesteryears in Holborn archives.

My Part of the River

Source: Grace Foakes, My Part of the River (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1974), p. 105

Text: One particular event stands out in my mind. It was a Sunday afternoon and I tried to persuade Kathleen to come with me to the Premierland Cinema in Backchurch Lane. She pointed out that it was a Sunday and that it was wicked to go to the pictures on Sunday. Wicked or not, I was not in the least worried by that. What did worry me was the possibility of my parents finding out. Eventually, after much argument, I had my way and we went. The entrance fee was twopence each. Where we obtained our money I cannot remember, but we had it and I was all set to enjoy the afternoon.

It was a silent film called ‘Broken Blossoms’, starring Lilian Gish. I sat enthralled, transported into another world. Presently I heard a sniff. Looking at Kathleen I saw she was crying bitterly. Surprised, I asked her what was the matter. ‘Oh, Grace, come out! It’s wicked and God will punish us,’ she cried. She made such a to-do that I very reluctantly came out in the middle of the most interesting part. I’m sorry to say I nagged poor Kathleen all the way home, for I had no conscience at all.

Comment: Grace Foakes wrote three memoirs of a childhood spent in poverty in pre-World War One London: Between High Walls, My Part of the River and My Life with Reuben. Premierland was located in Back Church Lane, Stepney. The American film Broken Blossoms, directed by D.W. Griffith (and set in London), was released in 1919.

A Cab at the Door

Source: V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door: An Autobiography: Early Years (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), p. 72

Text: London was dangerous. We had a girl to help my mother for a few weeks and her mind, like the mind of the one at Ealing, was brimming with crime. She took me to the Camberwell Bioscope to see a film of murder and explosions called The Anarchist’s Son, in which men with rifles in their hands crawled up a hill and shot at each other. When the shed in which one of them was living, blew up, the film turned silent, soft blood red and the lady pianist in front of the screen struck up a dramatic chord. In the Bioscope men walked about squirting the audience with a delicious scent like hair lotion that prickled our heads.

Comment: Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900-1997) was a British author and critic. This extract comes from his first volume of autobiography. the Pritchett family lived in a street off Coldharbour Lane, Camberwell. The cinema he refers to is possibly Burgoyne’s American Bioscope. I have not traced any film from this period with the title The Anarchist’s Son. Spraying the audience with disinfectant was common in cinemas in the pre-WWI period. The event recalled dates from the late 1900s.

Flashback

Source: George Pearson, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film-maker (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p. 14.

Text: With six pence to spend I had gone to a funny little shop in the Lambeth Walk where Pollock’s gory melodramas for his Toy Theatres were sold, sheets of characters for a penny plain, twopence coloured. Fourpence went rapturously on ‘Alone in the pirates’ lair’. With twopence jingling a farewell in my pocket, since the toffee-shop was near, I zig-zagged through the hurly-burly of the busy street, when presto! … the great adventure began. It was outside a derelict greengrocer’s shop. The hawk-eyed gentleman on a fruit-crate was bewildering a sceptical crowd. In that shuttered shop there was a miracle to be seen for a penny, but only twenty-four could enter at a time, there wasn’t room for more. His peroration was magnificent … ‘You’ve seen pictures of people in books, all frozen stiff … you’ve never seen pictures with people coming alive, moving about like you and me. Well, go inside and see for yourself, living pictures for a penny, and then tell me if I’m a liar!’

One of my pennies went suddenly; I joined twenty-three other sceptics inside. Stale cabbage leaves and a smell of dry mud gave atmosphere to a scene from Hogarth. A furtive youth did things to a tin oven on iron legs, and a white sheet swung from the ceiling. We grouped round that oven and wondered. Suddenly things happened, someone turned down a gas-jet, the tin apparatus burst into a fearful clatter, and an oblong picture slapped on to the sheet and began a violent dance. After a while I discerned it was a picture of a house, but a house on fire. Flames and smoke belched from the windows, and miracle of miracles, a fire-engine dashed in, someone mounted a fire escape, little human figures darted about below, and then … Bang! … the show was over. Exactly one minute … I had been to the cinema!

Comment: George Pearson (1875-1973) was a British film director. This eye-witness testimony, taken from his autobiography, is highly evocative, but also quite suspect, as Pearson was born in 1875 and would not have seen any sort of film show before he was twenty-one at the earliest. After an early career as a teacher, Pearson became a film director in 1914 and went on to direct A Study in Scarlet (1914), Ultus – The Man from the Dead (1918), Squibs (1921), Reveille (1924), The Little People (1926), Open All Night (1934) and many more. Flashback is an evocative account of British film production, filled with Pearson’s deep belief in the power of the medium.