Stately pleasure-domes

Source: Mike Leigh, contribution to David Thomson, ‘Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably)’, The Independent, 17 April 1994, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/film–stately-pleasuredomes-the-first-cinema-opened-100-years-ago-arguably-david-thomson-shows-you-to-your-seat-while-other-film-fans-name-their-favourite-picture-palaces-1370670.html

Text: The Tolmer, in Tolmers Square, close to Euston Station. It’s been dead for some time. I suppose it lasted until the mid-Seventies. It was in fact an old church, which was apparently haunted. It was the cheapest cinema in London. The last time I went it was two shillings to get in. It was grotty. The seats were very tightly packed together. Certain sections you couldn’t sit in because it was where the tramps sat. It smelt of urine. But for the film student it was a brilliant place. It was fantastically cheap and you could catch up on all sorts of films there. They’d grab anything and show it – epics, westerns, anything and everything. Architecturally it was early-to mid-19th-century. But the spire had been chopped off and it had been painted in gloss. It was horrid. It was an old shit-hole actually. It was a joy. There was and is nothing like it. In terms of movie-going, for a serious film-buff, it was brilliant.

Comments: Mike Leigh (born 1943) is a British film and theatre writer and director. The Tolmer Cinema was in Tolmer Square, Hampstead Road, close to Euston Station, London. It closed in 1972. This is one of a series of memories of favourite cinemas published in an article to mark the centenary of film exhibition (in the USA).

Report from a Chinese Village

Source: Chang Chung-liang, interviewed for Jan Myrdal, Report from a Chinese Village (London: Picador, 1975, orig. Rapport från kinesisk, pub 1963), trans. Maurice Michael, p. 99

Text: I can now read the newspaper and write letters. I can also read simpler books of fiction. I stick most to serial stories in parts with lots of pictures and a few simple characters on each page. The pictures make it possible to understand the characters I don’t know.

I am very fond of films. Opera and that sort of things doesn’t appeal to me so much. Opera is a bit old-fashioned. Films have much more variety, more themes, more reality, and much more that is funny and makes you laugh. I usually go to the cinema or opera once every ten days. We often have films in Liu Ling; but mostly I take myself into the town. Sometimes I go with my wife and my eight -year-old son, my other children are far too small to appreciate going to the cinema. But, sometimes, when we have finished work for the day, someone will say: ‘Come on, let’s ride into town and go to the cinema.’ Then we jump on our bicycles and ride off.

Comments: Chang Chung-liang (c.1928-?) was a thirty-three-year old book-keeper from the North Chinese village of Liu Ling, near Yenan (the town referred to here). He was interviewed and profiled in a study by Swedish sociologist Jan Myrdal during a month’s study of the village undertaken in 1961, which resulted in his Report from a Chinese Village. Opera here refers to Chinese opera.

Stately pleasure-domes

Source: Steve Woolley, contribution to David Thomson, ‘Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably)’, The Independent, 17 April 1994, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/film–stately-pleasuredomes-the-first-cinema-opened-100-years-ago-arguably-david-thomson-shows-you-to-your-seat-while-other-film-fans-name-their-favourite-picture-palaces-1370670.html

Text: I was fortunate to grow up in Islington when most of the cinemas were still running. I was mad about films. I’d go to the Odeon Angel and the Rex, which is now the Screen on the Green. My dad or uncles would take me to the ABC in the evenings. I became highly attuned to audiences and the environment a film was shown in. I rate it as highly as the movie itself. If you see Performance, as I did, at three in the morning at the Classic in Victoria, it’s not the same as seeing it on the box. It was one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and coming out and walking from Victoria to Notting Hill Gate afterwards was extraordinary.

There are no character cinemas in London now. Places like the Biograph in Victoria. It was 28p to get in and a huge gay pick-up. It was great, like watching a film in a Baghdad market. The toilet door kept crashing into you. They showed films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Then there was the Starlight, which just showed Thirties and Forties doubles. They used to serve cucumber sandwiches with the corners cut off – I’d never had them before.

At the Scala I strove to create an atmosphere, because that’s how I saw films when I was young. People say the Scala wasn’t great because not all the seats worked and the trains ran underneath, but who else would show Kenneth Anger films, or do proper late shows? It’s because of videos. People don’t seem to get it any more, they don’t want to see a film on a big screen. There was hardly a ripple when the Scala closed. It’s kind of sad.

The Screen on the Green has a really big place in my heart. I remember it as the Rex, a fleapit. I was forbidden by my parents to go there. Working as an usher there in 1976 was definitely the most exciting time. We put the Sex Pistols on – it was the summer of punk. And there were all-night Marx Brothers films. It would show Duck Soup at four in the morning. The first weekend I worked there the double bill was Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I’m being paid to watch these films three nights a week, I must be the luckiest person alive’.

There was an atmosphere in London then rivalling France and New York – movies were suddenly hip. I was going to the cinema on my own, thinking I was mad. As I was about to enter my twenties, I realised that all these other people were obsessed too. It was a great time. It was pre-Channel 4 and before BBC 2 got its act together. You really had to search the films out.

Comments: Steve Woolley (born 1956) is a British film producer, who was programmer at The Screen on the Green in Islington, London and managed the Scala at King’s Cross, London, before establishing Palace Video and then moving into film production (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game etc). This is one of a series of memories of favourite cinemas published in an article to mark the centenary of film exhibition (in the USA).

Spain was indeed different

Source: Christopher Clark, contributed by the author.

Text: During the 1960s I often used to spend summer holidays with the Nadal family in Cadaques. My father and Angel Nadal collaborated at the time on the Buster comic strip: Dad wrote the storyboard and dialogue and posted the sketches to Angel who applied the artwork at a desk on the balcony of his apartment, fishing rod to hand. His eldest children, David and Ana were a little younger than me and had a large circle of friends whose families typically resided in Gerona or Barcelona for most of the year but escaped to the Costa Brava villages during the summer months. Talk between us kids was mostly about pop, heard intermittently over the radio: I taught them ‘A hard day’s night’ and the English words to ‘Amarillo el submarino es’ (Yellow Submarine). But we also talked about cinema.

General Franco and the Church ensured that censorship remained tight. The Spanish children could sense that things were different and more exciting across the Pyrenees. A few years later this translated into queues at the border to see ‘Love Story’ while it was being shown in Perpignan. I was quizzed about the supposedly lurid details and caused them immense disappointment, and even more surprise, when I told them I hadn’t seen it and was not inclined to do so either.

Cadaques is a very special place, isolated for decades by the surrounding mountains from the interior. Artists loved it: Dali had a house in neighbouring Port Lligat. Film makers loved it too and I remember witnessing a scene being shot that I was told included James Mason, though I only saw the large car that brought him there. Social life revolved around the beaches during the day and the bars and casino during the evening: dancing sardanas on Sundays. Children largely made their own entertainment, fishing, playing games of tag or going on late afternoon hikes up the mountain. Spanish TV in the 60s was uniformly dreadful, replete with overdubbed American and British movies from previous decades.

So I was surprised one evening (in 1966 or 1968) when David and Ana said we were going to the cinema. They didn’t say which film: I was just curious about where the cinema might be. I have failed to remember exactly where it was but it was close to the imposing church and may have been in the church hall. The noise was unbelievable as we went in: a bare room, concrete floor and metal-legged chairs scraping or falling by the dozen as throngs of kids (I don’t recall seeing many adults present) joked, poked and generally misbehaved at the tops of their voices – illegally in Catalan. As soon as the lights were turned off and the projector warmed up the noise level dropped but then the fingers and occasional head silhouettes started to appear on the blank screen and the hubbub resumed.

The film was Las Minas del Rey Salomon (King Solomon’s Mines, 1950) with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. I’d pretended to read the book at school so didn’t really know the story but was cross that the Spanish couldn’t get the King’s name right.

About ten minutes into the film the audience noise had subsided enough to be able to hear the dialogue, breathlessly dubbed in Spanish. Then the projector broke down, which it was prone to do regularly during that screening. The light went back on, the shouting and yelling resumed, this time levelled at the hapless projectionist.

I honestly cannot remember a single scene from that film: all I can bring to mind is the audience behaviour and the sonorous bareness of the venue. That was the only time I went to the cinema in Cadaques.

Several years later, just before and while studying Spanish at university, I went to several cinemas in Barcelona. The cinemas in central Barcelona were then, as you’d expect in a cosmopolitan centre, high class establishments and the experience was similar to an evening out in London or Paris. But out in the suburbs the experience could be closer to that evening in Cadaques. People came in and went out of the cinema when they felt like it: our group of about six lads arrived late for El Graduado (extensively cut, I later realised) and so we sat through part of the next showing to catch the opening scenes we’d missed. I decided I needed to see it again so took the bus down the hill to a small cinema next to Plaza Lesseps, which was more bar than cinema. The film was shown in two parts, so after more booze the audience was even more prone to participate during the second part than in the first. I had to wait a couple more years before I could see it properly, in the original, uncut version, on the telly back home.

Comments: Christopher Clark (born 1952) is a musician and former sound archivist at the British Library. His father was cartoonist and film animator Ron ‘Nobby’ Clark. He adds: “I’ve always enjoyed going to the cinema, ever since my Dad took me to the cartoons at Victoria Station to fill in time before our train departed. I knew from matinees in my home town of Horsham that a cinema full of kids was prone to occasional disturbances but in all my childhood years of half-term Disney first releases and westerns I can’t remember any noise above the occasional rustle of sweet papers intruding on the film’s progress. Spain was indeed different.” The films mentioned are Love Story (USA 1970), King’s Solomon’s Mines (USA 1950) and The Graduate (USA 1967).

The London Nobody Knows

biograph

Saturday afternoon at the Biograph, Victoria [book illustration]

Source: Geoffrey Fletcher, The London Nobody Knows (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) [orig. pub. 1962], pp. 112-114

Text: Early cinemas of the Edwardian period and up to the Great War occurred in all the London suburbs; these, often family owned, have been less able to stand up to the competition of television than the larger circuits, and consequently many have disappeared or else been modernized and spoiled like the Classic in King’s Road, Chelsea. Many of these cinemas were of a delightfully ham-fisted Baroque, with fat Tuscan columns that appeared to be in danger of being squashed by the loads that they supported. This exaggerated entasis was equalled by an exaggerated abundant decorations – swags, festoons, and the like carried out in stucco or terracotta. I have never been fortunate enough to find a Gothic cinema, though Tudor-style ones occurred. Cinemas followed the pattern of shapes evolved by the theatre and were naturally built in the prevailing style of the day, i.e. Edwardian Baroque, redolent of Imperial expansion and big cigars. Fortunately the earliest cinema in London – the earliest in the country, in fact – still survives in Wilton Road, Victoria – the Biograph, originally the Bioscope. My drawing of it is reproduced on p. 113. Pimlico people have been ‘going to the Bio’ since it was built in 1905 by an American, George Washington Grant. The Bio still has its classical façade, and apart from changes in the equipment, the only alteration was when the auditorium was enlarged, the new wall being a replica of the old. But the gas jets have gone and the commissionaires with heavy moustaches – gone like the horse buses that used to run along the Vauxhall Bridge Road. When my drawing was made, the customers were watching The Fiend from Outer Space instead of Mary Pickford as the little slavey with a heart of gold.

column

Inside, two Corinthian columns (illustrated at the head of this page), wallpapered with Anaglypta below, support the projection box, the width of which is that of the cinema in 1905. Below the ‘ceiling’ formed by the box runs and Edwardian egg and dart moulding – a typical early cinema decorations. In the foyer a framed copy of the Biograph Weekly News, distributed gratis. This forms rich reading at the present day. The issue in the frame is that for the week commencing 16 September 1929, and has the headline: ‘Talkies Coming Here!!’ A letter from the manager announces ‘our first talking picture’ – Show Boat on 30 September. Elsewhere in the paper a newsy item states that ‘workmen were labouring day and night to bring you the greater talkies as soon as possible’. Other forthcoming attractions of that period included William Boyd in The Cop and a supporting film called The Mystery of the Louvre. Betty Balfour was to appear in Paradise and Rin Tin Tin in The Million Dollar Collar. Prices were 2s., 1s. 3d., and 9d., children at reduced rates, ‘special children’s matinee 4d.’ (I remember those children’s 4d. matinees; how noisy they were and the way the films rained! And those serials, ending each installment on a fantastic note of drama – the heroine hanging by her finger-tips over a well of crocodiles. The week which had to elapse before her fate could be known was unendurable, but next time she simply had got out, one never knew how, and we were building up to a new crisis even more hair-raising than last week’s dilemma.)

Comments: Geoffrey Fletcher (1923-2004) was a British artist and illustrator, best know for his elegiac 1962 book The London Nobody Knows which was turned into a documentary film in 1967. However, the Biograph was not London’s oldest cinema, nor the country’s oldest, nor was it founded in 1905 – and it was never known as the Bioscope. It was founded in June 1909 as one of the Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd chain. It changed its name from the Electric Theatre to Biograph at some point in the 1910s. As Allen Eyles and Keith Skone point out, in their London’s West End Cinemas (1984), the mistake comes from a wholly erroneous plaque displayed in its foyer. The Biograph closed on 4 August 1983. There was no film entitled The Fiend from Outer Space (possibly he may be thinking of the 1958 film Fiend Without a Face).

Movie-Going

Source: John Hollander, extract from ‘Movie-Going’, in Movie-Going, and Other Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1962)

Text: … Always go in the morning if you can; it will
Be something more than habit if you do. Keep well
Away from most French farces. Try to see a set
Of old blue movies every so often, that the sight
Of animal doings out of the clothes of ‘thirty-five
May remind you that even the natural act is phrased
In the terms and shapes of particular times and places.
Finally, remember always to honour the martyred dead.
The forces of darkness spread everywhere now, and the best
And brightest screens fade out, while many-antennaed beasts
Perch on the house-tops, and along the grandest streets
Palaces crumble, one by one. The dimming starts
Slowly at first; the signs are few, as ‘Movies are
Better than Ever,’ ‘Get More out of Life. See a Movie’ Or
Else there’s no warning at all and, Whoosh! the theater falls,
Alas, transmogrified: no double-feature fills
A gleaming marquee with promises, now only lit
With ‘Pike and Whitefish Fresh Today ‘Drano’ and ‘Light
Or Dark Brown Sugar, Special.’ Try never to patronize
Such places (or pass them by one day a year). The noise
Of movie mansions changing form, caught in the toils
Of our lives’ withering, rumbles, resounds and tolls
The knell of neighborhoods. Do not forget the old
Places, for everyone’s home has been a battlefield.

I remember: the RKO COLONIAL; the cheap
ARDEN and ALDEN both; LOEW’S LINCOLN SQUARE’S bright shape;
The NEWSREEL; the mandarin BEACON, resplendently arrays
The tiny SEVENTY-SEVENTH STREET, whose demise I rued
So long ago; the eighty-first street, sunrise-hued,
RKO; and then LOWE’S at eighty-third, which had
The colder pinks of sunset on it; and then, back
Across Broadway again, and up, you disembarked
At the YORKTOWN and then the STODDARD, with their dark
Marquees; the SYMPHONY had a decorative disk
With elongated ‘twenties nudes whirling in it;
(Around the corner the THALIA, daughter of memory! owed
Her life to Foreign Hits, in days when you piled your coat
High on your lap and sat, sweating and cramped, to catch
“La Kermesse Heroique” every third week, and watched
Fritz Lang from among an audience of refugees, bewitched
By the sense of Crisis on and off that tiny bit
Of screen) Then north again: the RIVERSIDE, the bright
RIVIERA rubbing elbows with it; and right
Smack on a hundredth street, the MIDTOWN; and the rest
Of them: the CARLTON, EDISON, LOWE’S OLYMPIA, and best
Because, of course, the last of all, its final burst
Anonymous, the NEMO! These were once the pearls
Of two-and-a-half miles of Broadway! How many have paled
Into a supermarket’s failure of the imagination?

Honor them all …

Comments: John Hollander (1929-2013) was an American poet and academic. He wrote several poems on cinema, of which the long poem ‘Movie-Going’ is the best known. A third of the poem is reproduced here. Most, if not all, of the New York cinemas mentioned can be found, described and mapped, on the Cinema Treasures site. La Kermesse Heroique (France 1935) was directed by Jacques Feyder.

Movie-Going

Source: John Hollander, extract from ‘Movie-Going’, in Movie-Going, and Other Poems (New York: Atheneum, 1962)

Text: … Always go in the morning if you can; it will
Be something more than habit if you do. Keep well
Away from most French farces. Try to see a set
Of old blue movies every so often, that the sight
Of animal doings out of the clothes of ‘thirty-five
May remind you that even the natural act is phrased
In the terms and shapes of particular times and places.
Finally, remember always to honour the martyred dead.
The forces of darkness spread everywhere now, and the best
And brightest screens fade out, while many-antennaed beasts
Perch on the house-tops, and along the grandest streets
Palaces crumble, one by one. The dimming starts
Slowly at first; the signs are few, as ‘Movies are
Better than Ever,’ ‘Get More out of Life. See a Movie’ Or
Else there’s no warning at all and, Whoosh! the theater falls,
Alas, transmogrified: no double-feature fills
A gleaming marquee with promises, now only lit
With ‘Pike and Whitefish Fresh Today ‘Drano’ and ‘Light
Or Dark Brown Sugar, Special.’ Try never to patronize
Such places (or pass them by one day a year). The noise
Of movie mansions changing form, caught in the toils
Of our lives’ withering, rumbles, resounds and tolls
The knell of neighborhoods. Do not forget the old
Places, for everyone’s home has been a battlefield.

I remember: the RKO COLONIAL; the cheap
ARDEN and ALDEN both; LOEW’S LINCOLN SQUARE’S bright shape;
The NEWSREEL; the mandarin BEACON, resplendently arrays
The tiny SEVENTY-SEVENTH STREET, whose demise I rued
So long ago; the eighty-first street, sunrise-hued,
RKO; and then LOWE’S at eighty-third, which had
The colder pinks of sunset on it; and then, back
Across Broadway again, and up, you disembarked
At the YORKTOWN and then the STODDARD, with their dark
Marquees; the SYMPHONY had a decorative disk
With elongated ‘twenties nudes whirling in it;
(Around the corner the THALIA, daughter of memory! owed
Her life to Foreign Hits, in days when you piled your coat
High on your lap and sat, sweating and cramped, to catch
“La Kermesse Heroique” every third week, and watched
Fritz Lang from among an audience of refugees, bewitched
By the sense of Crisis on and off that tiny bit
Of screen) Then north again: the RIVERSIDE, the bright
RIVIERA rubbing elbows with it; and right
Smack on a hundredth street, the MIDTOWN; and the rest
Of them: the CARLTON, EDISON, LOWE’S OLYMPIA, and best
Because, of course, the last of all, its final burst
Anonymous, the NEMO! These were once the pearls
Of two-and-a-half miles of Broadway! How many have paled
Into a supermarket’s failure of the imagination?

Honor them all …

Comments: John Hollander (1929-2013) was an American poet and academic. He wrote several poems on cinema, of which the long poem ‘Movie-Going’ is the best known. A third of the poem is reproduced here. Most, if not all, of the New York cinemas mentioned can be found, described and mapped, on the Cinema Treasures site. La Kermesse Heroique (France 1935) was directed by Jacques Feyder.