Yesterday's Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, but did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

An Autobiography

Source: Hymie Fagan, An Autobiography, n.d. [typescript] (Brunel University Library, 2-261), pp. 18-20, 41-42

Text: The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.

The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.

There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.

Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.

To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went

My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
You’re the queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a Pearl of a girl like you …

… Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.

Comment: Hymie Fagan was born in Stepney, 1903 of a Jewish working class family. This is two extracts from his unpublished autobiography, the manuscript for which is held by Brunel University Library. The first section describes the pre-WWI period, second covers the war years.

The Cinema Audience

Source: ‘The Cinema Audience’, The Evening Telegraph [Dundee], 11 September 1919, p. 4

Text: The Cinema Audience. Screengazers Under An Observant Eye. “Potting the Picturegoer” a Fascinating Sport. (Special to Telegraph and Post.)

“Potting the picturegoer” can be quite a fascinating sport. There is no necessity to don loud tweeds and light brogues or flannel trousers and white shoes. You enter the arena in everyday costume and arm yourself with the only weapon required — the observant eye. Of course, you are merely courting trouble if, when caught at the game in the entrance hall of a picture house, you call yourself a “practical psychologist.” The gold-braided gentleman who is the presiding genius of the place will rightly resent and suspect such language, and probably propel you streetwards. Rather tell him with disarming frankness that you are studying the “screengazer” in his native haunts and that you propose presently to inside and continue your investigations.

Ten minutes near the pay-box will convince you that your “victims” are drawn from every class of society. You soon understand why Mary Pickford can claim to be the “world’s sweetheart.” It this mingling of all sorts and conditions of people that makes the observer’s game worth while. Notice particularly the mood that prevails in the queue. It contrasts strangely with that of the audience passing through a theatre “foyer.”

There no ceremony about picture-going, no air of attending a function. The “pictures” are free and easy in spirit, and the audience is similarly affected. It largely this “come and go as you please” atmosphere that maintains the popularity of the cinema.

Inside the house, you come to close quarters with your “quarry.” Before long you discover that the shrewdest judge of a picture is the audience. You will find, of course, that criticism changes character you pass from back to front of the hall, but really good picture will be recognised and praised by all, while the faults of a film will be unerringly detected.

If a comedy is screened will be interesting to watch the effect on various members of the audience. Not every screen comedy is really humorous, and you may be surprised to find a friend who prides himself on his subtle and refined sense of humour taking advantage of the darkness to grin broadly at what is actually silly horseplay.

He may be comfortably placed in the best seats the house affords, while an occupant of the benches near the screen is only bored by the film. You therefore conclude that appreciation of real humour is not necessarily conferred by the ability, to pay for a “tip-up.”

Things That Annoy.

The “star” film flickers on to the screen. If it is a well-constructed picture the interest of the audience is maintained, but you need not a profound observer to note the sign of impatience when the story “drags. “Padding out” a picture irritates, and a player who takes thirty feet of film to accomplish what could reasonably be done in ten annoys the audience.

Your picture-goer is credulous, although he hates to be asked to swallow too much, He will stand absurd situations which no playwright would dream of foisting on theatre audience. But he is gradually coming to demand from the screen some approach to the happenings of real life, and to reject as impossible many situations that have hitherto passed muster. He likes what is novel, but refuses the wholly improbable.

Suppose that the film is of American production. The fact may account for a mystified and almost angry audience. You watch it vainly trying to grasp the meaning of tho letterpress or “leaders” between the scenes, for the American has entirely forgotten that the British audience, while capable understanding English, makes little of New York Bowery slang. Some of these Americanisms have an undeniable piquancy, but most are unintelligible, and only succeed in annoying the picture goer.

Comment: This curious article was published in Scotland by the Dundee-based Evening Telegraph newspaper. It addresses itself to an audience with seemingly little knowledge of cinema at all, at a time when cinema-going throughout the UK was coming to be adopted widely across the UK and no longer seen as a largely working class entertainment. The audience reported on was presumably in Dundee.

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 198-201

Text: [Three South London schoolgirls were examined together].

22. THE CHAIRMAN. How often do you go to the cinema? — I don’t go very often, as it is very injurious to my eyes when I go.
23. Do you sit right in the front? — Well, if they put you there you have to go there.
24. What do you pay generally? — Fourpence.
25. Do you go only for entertainments which are for children? — Not always.
26. Are you a great cinema-goer? — Yes.
27. How often do you go? — Once a week. Sometimes I go once a week for six months and then have a rest, and then start all over again.
28. What seats do you go in; what do you pay? — Sevenpence.
29. You sit right in the front? — No, it is all according to how much you pay. If you pay a low price you go into the front.
30. With your sevenpence, is that not a first-rate seat? — Just about in the middle of the cinema, and I can see all right there.
31. And you don’t find your eyes hurt? — When I go out it generally gives me a headache.
32. How long do you sit in the cinema? — Two and a half or three hours.
33. Do you go very much ? — About once every three weeks.
34. What do you like best? Comic things? — I like pretty pictures about dancing and horses.
35. Do you like seeing people breaking into rooms and taking things? — Not very much.
36. It never gives any of you an idea that what you see you want to go and do yourself? — No.
37. How about your eyes? Do you get a headache? — No.
38. Where do you sit? — I pay fourpence and sit about two or three seats away from the front.
39. What part of London do you come from? — We are all from the middle of South London.
40. Have you any particular picture palace which appeals to you? — I used to go to the Oval Cinema, but now I go to the Queen’s Hall, Newington Butts.
41. Where do you go? — To the Palladium, Brixton, and the Arcadia, Brixton.
42. What kind of things do you have at the Arcadia? — They generally have very good pictures, and I went once and saw “___ ______ __ __ .” It is not a very good picture to go to.
43. Why, what was the matter? — Because I do not like the way they used the crucifix. They used the crucifix to hit one another with, and it might make children think less of religion.
44. That was the principal thing, and you did not notice anything else? — No.
45. Where do you go? — I go to the Queen’s Hall, Newington Butts.
46. Did you see “___ _______ __ __ ” ? — No.
47. Do the girls sit amongst the boys? — Yes, all mixed up, and the attendant comes round, and if the boys start whistling about and do that again he turns them out.
48. I suppose girls never do that sort of thing? — That all depends.
49. Do you go to the late entertainment? — No, mother won’t let me.
50. Do you go late? — I get out about 9 or 9.30. Very often it is 9.30. If I go to Brixton by myself and my sisters are that way they meet me, otherwise I come home by myself.
51. Do you feel the influence next day? — I do not feel any bad effects.
52. SIR JOHN KIRK. Is the place very dark? — Yes, very dark. You can see over it while the performance goes on.
53. What would happen if the boys started fighting? — They would not start fighting, because they are always too anxious to see the pictures.
54. MR. LAMERT. Have you any other amusement to go to beside the cinema? — Sometimes a theatre.
55. Do you pay to go to the theatre ? — Sometimes mother lets us go into the pit, as she doesn’t like us to go up the stairs to the gallery. The price is one shilling and twopence tax.
56. When you go to the theatre what do you see? — Pantomimes, and if there is a revue mother thinks we will understand she will take us to it.
57. At the picture palaces do you take any steps to find out what is on? — No, we take our chance.
58. MONSIGNOR BROWN. What sort of picture do the children like best? — When the cowboys and Indians come on they clap very loudly.
59. Do you like flowers? — No, not very much.
60. Birds’ nests? — No, they don’t like those.
61. Charlie Chaplin? — They like those.
62. Do you get tired when they begin to show views and landscapes? — Sometimes some of them do.
63. Are they short films? — Yes, and sometimes they are the topical budget, and then a lot of them go out.
64. Do they like a long drama? — Yes.
65. How many minutes do the dramas last? — Sometimes one and a half hours.
66. Do they like dramas with a lot of love mixed up? — We don’t care for them very much; some like them and some don’t.
67. Would many like them ? — I should not think many of them would like them. I think they would prefer other pictures.
68. How many different picture houses have you been to? — Sixteen.
69. How many have you been to? — Eight.
70. How many you? — Six in London and Manchester.
71. DR. MARIE STOPES. Have you seen any picture which you thought at the time was bad to see? — No, but I saw a picture once which I thought was vulgar. It was called “_____”
72. Supposing you went into a picture house and you met a fairy at the door who told you you could see any picture you
liked, what kind would you like to see? — I should like to see a picture about a circus.
73. What sort of picture would you like best? — I should like a good drama, but not a love drama. A drama like “Little Miss Nobody,” which I thought was very nice.
74. Why don’t you like love dramas? — There is too much fooling about in them, and there is always a hatred between two men and two women.
75. You don’t like to see two men hating each other? — Well, it is a lot of silliness. I do not think it would happen in real life.
76. You never got any disease at the cinema? — No, but once I got scarlet fever, but not in a cinema.
77. Did you ever get anything? — No, I did not catch my disease there.
78. DR. KIMMINS. What is the, nicest picture you have seen in the cinema? — I think it was “Cleopatra.”
79. And you? — “Little Miss Nobody.”
80. And you? — “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “Rupert of Hentzau.”
MR. NEWBOULD. These three were of British manufacture.
81. Do you like serials? — I have seen “The Broken Coin,” but I did not like that, although I liked the acting.
82. COMMISSIONER ADELAIDE COX. Did you see anything that frightened you? — I saw one picture where a man was in the cell, and he was supposed to have an apparition, which breaks through the wall, and the wall falls over. It was in “Monte Cristo.”
83. And when you went to bed, did you think about these things ? — No, I went to sleep.
84. What do you like the least? — I do not like the topical budget.
85. And you? — Love stories.
86. And you ? — I think the same — love stories.
87. Mr. Graves. Have you seen any pictures which help you at school? — I have seen the picture about Nero.
88. Would you like some singing in between? — I should like to have some singing.
89. MR. NEWBOULD. Are you quite sure it was a crucifix you saw in “___ ______ __ __”? — Yes.
90. Have you any idea why she hit the man with the crucifix? — She was a servant in his father’s house, and he wanted to be in love with her, and he started cuddling and kissing her, and she gets up the crucifix quite unconsciously and hits him with it.
91. Have you ever seen films you do not understand? — Yes, I can never understand pictures on general plays.
92. MR. CROOK. Have you ever had a man who wanted to pay for you at night? — No.
93. PRINCIPAL GARVIE. Have the boys ever been rude to you in the cinema? — No, but they have pulled our hair and taken our hats off.
94. THE CHAIRMAN. Do they only do that in the cinema? — No, and if the attendant is about he puts them outside.

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. It includes several passages taken from interviews with children where commission members asked them questions about their cinema-going habits. Here three girls (ages not given) from South London are interview. A.E. Newbould, who speaks up for British films, was one of the British cinema industry representatives on the Commission; one of its members was the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes. Topical Budget was the name of a British newsreel, though ‘topical budget’ is here being used as a generic name for newsreels. Filmed mentioned are The Count of Monte Cristo (USA 1913), The Prisoner of Zenda (UK 1915), Rupert of Hentzau (UK 1915) and Little Miss Nobody (USA 1916), all features. ‘Cleopatra’ is possibly Marcantonio e Cleopatra (Italy 1913) (it is not the Theda Bara film Cleopatra, which was released after these interviews took place). The film with a crucifix has not been identified. The Broken Coin (USA 1915) was a popular serial, mentioned by other interviewees.

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 209-201

Text:
23. THE CHAIRMAN. What do you like best at the cinema? — All about thieves.
24. The next best? — Charlie Chaplin.
25. And you? — Mysteries; and then Charlie Chaplin.
26. And you? — Mysteries, and Charlie Chaplin.
27. What do you mean by mysteries? — Where stolen goods are hidden away in vaults so that the police can’t get them.
28. And you? — Cowboys; and then Charlie Chaplin second.
29. When you have seen these pieces showing thieving and people catching the thief, has it ever made you wish to go and do the same thing? — Yes.
30. Do you think the fellow who steals, then, a fine man? — No.
31. But you would like to do it yourself? — Yes.
32. Do you like the adventure or what? — I like the adventure.
33. You have no desire, then, to steal in order to get things for yourself, but you like the dashing about and getting up drain-pipes and that sort of thing? Yes.
34. And you? — No, I don’t like that, I should not like to do that.
35. Do you like pictures where you see flowers growing? — No.
36. Do you like ships coming in and bringing things from distant lands? — (One boy replied “No,” and the other three “Yes.”)
37. You like to have a consistent programme of detective stories and Charlie Chaplin, and you don’t want any more? — Yes.
38. Do you sit amongst the girls ? — Sometimes.
39. What do you pay? — 1d. and 2d.
40. Do you ever have to sit on the ground? — No, we always have a seat.
41. Have you ever seen the boys behave roughly to the girls? — Yes.
42. What do they do? — Aim orange peel at them.
43. Do they pull the girls about? — Yes, their hair.
44. And do the girls pull back again? — No; they seem to enjoy it.
45. Do your sisters go? — I take baby every night; it is four and a half years old.
46. Does baby like it and laugh? — Yes.
47. She likes Charlie Chaplin best? — Yes.
48. Is your father at the war? — (One boy here stated his father was on the Midland Railway; another one on war work; the third, a sailor; and the fourth, working at Woolwich Arsenal.)
49. Then your fathers are away a great deal, and you don’t see much of them? — No.
50. And mother? — Mother looks after us at home.
51. I suppose mother is very busy on Saturday night, and she gives you the baby to take to the pictures? — Yes.
52. Do you pay for the baby? — Yes, a penny.
53. Do you go to Sunday School? — (One boy stated he went to Sunday School, but the other three said they did not.)
54. Are you able to sleep long on Sunday morning after going to the pictures? — I do not feel tired.
55. PRINCIPAL GARVIE. Can you tell me the film you like best? — (One boy liked “The Broken Coin,” and three boys preferred “Red Circle.”)
56. Can you tell us the story of the “Red Circle”? — A man has a red circle on his hand and it forces him to do crime.
57. MR. KING. If there were no picture palaces what would you do? — Stop at home; but sometimes we go out and play football.
58. Why do you like the cowboy films? — Because they are exciting.
59. DR. KIMMINS. What other films do you like besides the “Red Circle” and “The Broken Coin”? — Tragedy.
60. What is the nicest one you have ever seen? — A picture about the death of a boy’s mother and he revenges her.
61. Do you care about love stories at all? — No.
62. MONSIGNOR BROWN. If there were two picture houses together, and one was showing flowers and geography films, and
the other one Charlie Chaplin films, which would you go to? — The one showing Charlie Chaplin.
63. Supposing they put on some of the films you do not like, what would the boys do? — They would grumble and shout “Chuck it off.”
64. MR. LAMERT. Did you ever on a film see a man do anything with any apparatus or things which you could get hold
of? — No.
65. Would you know how to get any of these things? — No.

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. It includes several passages taken from interviews with children where commission members asked them questions about their cinema-going habits. Here four schoolboys from Bethnal Green, London were questioned. Two were aged eleven, two thirteen. Two attended cinemas on Saturday night and two on Saturday afternoon, each going once a week. The Red Circle (USA 1915) was a serial starring Ruth Roland as a woman with a birthmark which compelled her to steal in times of stress. The Broken Coin (USA 1915) was another serial, directed by Francis Ford.

Ben's Limehouse

Source: Ben Thomas, Ben’s Limehouse: Recollections by Ben Thomas (London: Ragged School Books, 1987), p. 43

Text: The first moving film I saw was of a man being chased, who kept falling over and tripping over things. I thought it very funny, and there were roars of laughter from the children. The other picture was a sad one with a woman holding a little girl’s hand going through the snow. This was at the Brunswick Chapel, and they charged ½d to go in. The next moving picture I went to see, was at a little cinema in the High Street Poplar, called the Star, and it also cost ½d to go in. I saw John Bunny, Pearl White, and a lot of big stars of them days. We used to see two comics, two dramas and slides about what was being shown next week. The other cinemas I was taken to by my youngest sister, these were the Kinema, or Fleapit (its nickname) in Whitehorse Street, also the Ben Hur in Whitehorse Street.

Whitehorse Street was a busy market then, near the Church, and nicknamed the ‘Old Road’. The other cinema was the Majestic, which was in a cul de sac and near a school in Ben Jonson Road.

I remember people reading aloud in the days of the silent films. In them days a lot of people, especially the elderly, couldn’t read owing to little schooling or bad eyesight. So while you would be looking at the picture being shown, as soon as the captions or wording came on someone would read it aloud to the person they were with. It might be a man reading to his wife, or vice versa, or a couple of women, or some woman would have one of her kids read to her. So there was always a good deal of mumbling going on and if the cinema wasn’t too packed, you kept away from them. Jews done a lot of this reading aloud, for there were a lot of Russian, Polish and German Jews in the East End who couldn’t read or speak English.

Another thing at the Ben Hur cinema was women doing their potato peeling, during the 1914-1918 War and on until the late 1920’s. The ‘Old Road’ was a very cheap market, so what some women used to do, was to do their bit of shopping just before 2 o’clock, then queue up at Ben Hur’s which opened at 2 o’clock. While watching the films the women would peel their spuds or when the film changing was on, for the lights would go up then. So the cleaners, besides nut shells and orange peelings to clear up, had potato peelings as well, some women peeled carrots, swedes and parsnips as well.

Comment: Ben Thomas was born in London’s East End 1907, youngest in a lighterman’s family of seven. The cinema he refers to was the Palaceadium, 137 Whitehorse Street, which was run by a local businessman nicknamed ‘Ben Hur’.

Ben’s Limehouse

Source: Ben Thomas, Ben’s Limehouse: Recollections by Ben Thomas (London: Ragged School Books, 1987), p. 43

Text: The first moving film I saw was of a man being chased, who kept falling over and tripping over things. I thought it very funny, and there were roars of laughter from the children. The other picture was a sad one with a woman holding a little girl’s hand going through the snow. This was at the Brunswick Chapel, and they charged ½d to go in. The next moving picture I went to see, was at a little cinema in the High Street Poplar, called the Star, and it also cost ½d to go in. I saw John Bunny, Pearl White, and a lot of big stars of them days. We used to see two comics, two dramas and slides about what was being shown next week. The other cinemas I was taken to by my youngest sister, these were the Kinema, or Fleapit (its nickname) in Whitehorse Street, also the Ben Hur in Whitehorse Street.

Whitehorse Street was a busy market then, near the Church, and nicknamed the ‘Old Road’. The other cinema was the Majestic, which was in a cul de sac and near a school in Ben Jonson Road.

I remember people reading aloud in the days of the silent films. In them days a lot of people, especially the elderly, couldn’t read owing to little schooling or bad eyesight. So while you would be looking at the picture being shown, as soon as the captions or wording came on someone would read it aloud to the person they were with. It might be a man reading to his wife, or vice versa, or a couple of women, or some woman would have one of her kids read to her. So there was always a good deal of mumbling going on and if the cinema wasn’t too packed, you kept away from them. Jews done a lot of this reading aloud, for there were a lot of Russian, Polish and German Jews in the East End who couldn’t read or speak English.

Another thing at the Ben Hur cinema was women doing their potato peeling, during the 1914-1918 War and on until the late 1920’s. The ‘Old Road’ was a very cheap market, so what some women used to do, was to do their bit of shopping just before 2 o’clock, then queue up at Ben Hur’s which opened at 2 o’clock. While watching the films the women would peel their spuds or when the film changing was on, for the lights would go up then. So the cleaners, besides nut shells and orange peelings to clear up, had potato peelings as well, some women peeled carrots, swedes and parsnips as well.

Comment: Ben Thomas was born in London’s East End 1907, youngest in a lighterman’s family of seven. The cinema he refers to was the Palaceadium, 137 Whitehorse Street, which was run by a local businessman nicknamed ‘Ben Hur’.

Going to the Pictures

Source: Ben Moakes, ‘Going to the Pictures’, in The Time of our Lives (Peckham Publishing Project, 1983), pp. 96-97

Text: All those people who, like me, were born in the early years of this century have grown up with the cinema, reached their prime with the cinema and are now declining with the cinema.

The early films had just a novelty value and were shown wherever a suitable hall could be rented. Music halls would feature ‘the bioscope’ as an added attraction.

No film lasted more than half an hour and was usually accompanied by a piano tinkling out appropriate music.

We children had plenty of choice between cinemas that catered for youngsters. There was one in Walworth Road, near Liverpool Grove, and the halls that stands behind the Visionhire premises nearby was called ‘The Electric’ cinema. There was also ‘The Gem’ in Carter Street opposite the Beehive Public House.

My elder brother and I were given a penny each for our weekly visit to the pictures. We favoured the little cinema near Liverpool Grove.

The procedure was to buy a penny ticket each at the paybox outside; then, on entering, half the ticket would be taken by an usher, the other half being retained.

The seating consisted of rows of wooden forms. After two or three short films had been shown, the lights were switched on and the remaining half tickets were collected from us. The children who had arrived earlier and seen their full pennyworth would have to leave.

At the end of the next part of the programme once more the lights went on and we, having no ticket, would go out.

But my brother and I liked to have sweets to suck, so we spent a halfpenny on toffee before getting to the cinema, then bought one penny ticket and one halfpenny ticket. This meant that one of us, it was always me, had to leave after the first half was seen. So we planned a fiddle. I would lay full length under the form when the collector came, hidden by the legs of the other children. They also spread themselves along to cover the space I had occupied. As soon as the lights went out I climbed back on the form. But after a while they got wise to us. A man came in with a broom that had a long bamboo handle. “Hold up your feet”, he shouted, then plunged the broom under the forms to detect anybody lying there.

Eventually Mum gave us an extra halfpenny for our sweets.

Eddie Polo was one of our early film heroes. He had fights in every picture, getting his shirt ripped each time.

Two of our cowboy heroes were William S. Hart and Broncho Billy Anderson. Tom Mix came later. Charles Ray was the college boy heart-throb for the girls.

In the many fights we saw on the screen, our heroes always fought fairly. When they had knocked down their antagonist, they stood back to allow him to get up. But the villains would frequently kick the man who was on the ground.

After a few years we got the serials, with an exciting episode every week, the hero or heroine being left is a desperate situation each time. From this the word ‘cliff-hanger’ evolved.

‘The Shielding Shadow’ was a serial that intrigued us with its trick camera effects showing only the hands of an invisible man who foiled the villains every time. We all knew that Jerry Carson was The Shielding Shadow. He couldn’t be seen because he used a substance left in a jar by a scientist.

‘The Exploits of Elaine’, ‘The Hazards of Helen’ and ‘The Perils of Pauline’ were all serials and Pearl White was the blonde heroine who stole the hearts of growing lads – us!

Comment: Ben Moakes was born in 1904. His piece on cinemagoing is part of a local collection of memories of life in Peckham, London. The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine and The Hazards of Helen were all American serials that began in 1914, The American serial The Shielding Shadow was released in 1916.

Bernard Shaw on Cinema

Source: Letter from George Bernard Shaw to Mrs Patrick Campbell, 19 August 1912, reproduced in Bernard F. Dukore, Bernard Shaw on Cinema (Carbondale/Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997), pp. 5-6

Text: Do you ever study the cinema? I, who go to an ordinary theatre with effort and reluctance, cannot keep away from the cinema. The actor I know best is Max Linder, though I never heard his voice nor saw his actual body in my life. But the difficulty is that though good looks and grace are supremely important in the cinema, most of the films are still made from pictures of second, third and fourth rate actresses, whose delighted willingness and energy, far from making up for their commonness, make it harder to bear. There is one woman whom I should shoot if her photograph were vulnerable. At Strassburg, however, I saw a drama which had evidently been played by a first rate Danish (or otherwise Scandanavian) company, with a really attractive leading lady, very sympathetic and expressive, without classical features but with sympathetic good looks, like Kate Rorke in the best days of her youth. Here I saw a femme fatale who was a fine figure of a woman, but so hard that she wouldnt [sic] have been fatal to anything in my house except a black beetle if her foot happened upon it. Also a belle mère who was a little more fascinating – so much so, indeed, that the audience applauded loudly when her husband, on looking out of the window and seeing her squeezing lemon juice into the medicine of her stepdaughter (to whom acid was fatal) seized a gun and shot her sans phrase. It is something to have people care whether you are shot or not. But she was only £15 a week at the very outside. Now all these Dramas are dramas of Bella Donna in one version or another. Twice I have seen a version called The Judgment of Solomon, which would have pleased me better if the had mother hadnt [sic] been absurdly like Florence in her most maddeningly goodnatured aspect. Besides, the baby, in spite of all the efforts of the performers to stifle it half the time and hide its cavernous mouth the other half, was evidently howling all through; so that Solomon would have been jusitified in having it cut in two merely to stop the noise.

Now I ask myself why should those mediocre ladies be preserved to all posterity whilst nothing of you but a few portraits which cannot produce your living charm. Nobody who has not seen you move – seen you ‘live and move and have your being’ – has the faintest idea of your fascination. I could make prettier photographs of women who, in action, are grimacing kangaroos. It would well be worth Pathé’s while to pay you £5000 for a film, even if you do make it a condition (which I should by no means advise you to do) that it was not to be exhibited in London. Think of that immortality – of beauty imperishable! Suppose you learnt that Mrs Siddons had had the opportunity of doing this, and hadnt [sic] done it through some snobbish scruple or other, wouldnt [sic] you swear at such little-minded folly? Think of being a beautiful old lady with white hair, able at last to enter a room full of men without seeing them all coming on guard at once with the Almroth Wright terror of sex slavery in their souls, and yet able to see yourself at the height of your vigor and militant beauty! You say you want a job; why not this job, since Lubin is away and THE job must wait for him or some other Adonis capable of standing beside you without being ridiculous.

Your G.B.S.

Comment: The Irish playright Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) corresponded regularly with the London stage actress Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865-1940), who was the first Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion. Despite his pleas, she never appeared before motion picture cameras. The Scandanavian film actress to whom Shaw refers could be Asta Nielsen, though such was her fame that one would expect Shaw to have known her name, and she bears little resemblance to the young Kate Rorke, another London stage actress. Florence is Florence Farr, another stage actress. Sarah Siddons was a celebrated eighteenth century actress.

Memories of Old Poplar

Source: John Blake, Memories of Old Poplar (London: Stepney Books Publications, 1977), pp. 34-36

Text: Round about 1908 there appeared something new in the field of entertainment. This was during our childhood days, when after school hours the streets were poorly lit. Fogs were everywhere in the winter months, and naturally the youngsters, and their parents, were eagerly seeking anything that would brighten up their outlook in the drab surroundings of those days. On the scene, then, came a wonderful idea. The Reverend Tyldesley [sic], the pastor at the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle, in Brunswick Road, commenced showing pictures on Thursday evenings in the Chapel. These were Magic Lantern with still slides, or a very early model of a cinematograph show. Children were admitted to the first performance, and parents the second. A large sheet was hung on the rostrum, which could be pulled up and down, before and after the show. There was a gallery, running the length of the hall, and at the far end of the gallery, a projection box had been erected, which housed the cinematograph. During the summer months, the Reverend Gentleman had curtains installed in the windows, so that light could not penetrate, to spoil the view of the films. He always gave a speech before the show commenced, and went to great lengths to impress the children, of the tremendous expense that had been entailed to enable this to be done, so that they would still have their entertainment in the summer. He asked us not to kick the backs of the seats in front, in excitement at the adventures of Lt Rose, one of the prevailing heroes of the time. Their few coppers of admission would not allow for payments of any damage. For us children the excitement was intense and we were glad when the introductory prayers had been completed. For many years the Music Halls and Theatres enjoyed the popularity of the public with no opposition, but suddenly a rival entertainment appeared on the horizon. I refer to the silent films appearing at ‘Picture Palaces’. Some had a white sheet, suspended tightly, over which water was squirted before the show commenced, or even a white painted wall. The seating consisted of forms, and flooring all concrete. The first Picture Palace I remember was the ‘Empire’ in East India Dock Road, opposite Woolmore Street. Then there was ‘The Star’ in High Street Poplar. It was a case of lining up outside, where the attendant on duty was periodically shouting out at the top of his voice, ‘Standing only in the ha’pennies’. This form of entertainment was springing up everywhere such as ‘Grand Palace’, ‘Poplar Pavilion’, ‘The Gaiety’, all in East India Dock Road, and the interior decorations were improving rapidly. Better screens, improved fireproofed projection boxes, spring-backed covered seats, lady ushers with hand torch, to guide you to your seat, piano accompaniment to the silent film. Usually there were two feature films, and a News Reel and the performance was continuous. Chocolates and ices were sold by attendants from trays on wheels. The pianist had to operate in a curtained off enclosure. The music had to be adapted to the theme of the film, such as exciting, or sad and tearful passages, and the timing was important. As time went on, a violin was added, even a cello. In some of the sad moments of a film the musicians must have been crying their eyes out and too upset to eat or drink their lunch, during a break.

Comment: John Blake was born in 1899, one of seven children of a plumber’s mate. The Reverend Alfred Tildsley was Baptist pastor of the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle. Tildsley came to the Tabernacle in 1898, and turned round a debt-ridden and neglected mission through an energetic programme of activities, which included what he called the Pleasant Thursday Evening series. These weekly meetings combined music, stories, lantern slides, and – from 1900 onwards – films. See Dean R. Rapp, ‘A Baptist Pioneer: The exhibition of film to London’s East End working classes 1900-1918,’ Baptist Quarterly vol. 40 (2003), pp. 6-10. Lieutenant Rose was a character who featured in a series of films made by British film company Clarendon.