The Growth of the Silent Drama

Source: Walter Anthony, extract from ‘The Growth of the Silent Drama’, The San Francisco Call, 30 April 1911, p. 29


Insert from the illustration that accompanies this article, showing nickelodeon audience types, drawn by the theatre’s manager, Art Hickman

Text: A matinee audience at a nickelodeon is interesting. I noticed at the Garrick five baby buggies, three of them occupied by pretty youngsters sound asleep, and over in a dark corner the mother of another was rendering such substantial consolation as infants cry for. An invalid chair was at the end of the aisle set so that the wan occupant, while not in the way of the passerby, could still see the pictures. Hickman said, “he comes every other day.” The “audience” was quiet and well behaved. It applauded its favorites, laughed at John Bunny, was curious at the exhibition of a picture showing what a drop of water contains – mightily magnified bugs of nightmare forms. It traveled to India for 15 minutes and watched a tragedy develop to a conclusion. “Strangely enough,” said Hickman, “a nickelodeon audience doesn’t necessarily want a play to end happily. It wants it to end logically, and it doesn’t especially care for spectacles involving hundreds of supers, but is content with a quick story told plainly and with a point to it, well worked out. Travel scenes are popular; outdoor cowboy pictures go well, but mostly the people seem to want stories, and so the nickelodeon has given a new lease of life to popular plays of 15 years ago, like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘The Octoroon,’ which are put on in tabloid form and explained, here and there, with a flash paragraph which puts the observer in touch with the action.”

Comments: Walter Anthony (1872-1945) was an American journalist who went on to become a screenwriter and film title writer (The Man Who Laughs, The Cat and the Canary, The Phantom of the Opera). Art Hickman (1886-1930) was manager of the Garrick Theatre, San Francisco. He went on to become a big band leader. John Bunny was a highly popular American film comedian. This is an extract from a longer article which also covers motion picture history, production and the cinema business.

Links: Copy at Chronicling America

At the Drive-in

Source: Terry Gallacher, ‘At the Drive-in’, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film,, published 24 September 1913

Text: From 1956 to 1961, I worked in Melbourne, Australia. I was Senior Film Editor with GTV9 (General Television Corporation) and Supervising Film Editor with ABV2 (Australian Broadcasting Commission).

In 1956 I lodged with an English family at Frankston. This was some months before the start of television in Melbourne and there was no cinema in Frankston, our nearest town. However, I was told that there was a Drive-in Cinema which had opened at Dandenong on May 4th 1956. I was curious as to what it would be like watching a film from inside a car.

It was decided that we should go. We got there quite early, long before show time. We got on to the end of a long queue. The queue was slow moving as each car stopped at the toll-gate for the drivers to pay their dues. I cannot recall the price of entry, but it would have been modest, maybe as little as $A1 or in Sterling about 10/- and that was for the car load.

It was called the Panoramic Drive-in and had room for 650 cars. After paying to get in, you found your own way to a parking spot. Parking attendants only came on the scene when the place was nearly full and they would guide each car to what spaces were let.

The cars were parked alongside a post on which hung a speaker. The driver would wind down the window half way, hook the speaker on to the glass and then close the window. On the speaker was a volume control and a button which, when pushed, would summon a waiter or waitress who would come and collect your order for food. On offer were Burgers, grills, fish grills, and chips. These were brought back to the car.

A building which also housed the Projector was a food bar. Some people would arrive very early and go to the food bar for a meal before the performance began.

The cars were parked with an eight-foot gap between them. The parking area for each car was sloped so that the front of the car was higher than the back. This enabled the people in the car to get a good view of the screen. The gap between each row was about fifteen feet. To include 650 cars and the screen area needed some six or seven acres of land.

The screen was huge. It was about thirty feet above the ground and about 70 feet long. The aspect ratio would have been 2.35: 1 which would accommodate CinemaScope as well as other widescreen forms.

The front row of the cars was about 40 yards from the screen.

One of the big troubles with a drive-in is when it rains. Not that that happened very often in the summers in the State of Victoria. In those days, some cars could not operate a windscreen wiper without running the engine. The screen could mist up and one had to run the engine to get the fan to clear the screen, that is if you had one. It was hardly worthwhile trying to watch a film under these circumstances and fortunately for us, the only time we had rain was for a short while during the “B” movie.

The performance was impressive. It started off with a “B” Movie and, after an interval, to allow people to collect more food, the main attraction would be shown. It was a long night.

After the show there was the problem of getting out.

Here is an extract from my memoirs:

Janet (my fiancé at the time and then my wife) and I would regularly go to the drive-in theatre at Dandenong. We saw some good movies and some bad ones. At that time I had a Holden sedan which was large and comfortable. We used to vacate the front seats and go into the back where the seating was something like a settee. It was better than the back row.

On one occasion, we were involved in an accident on the way out. One can imagine a drive-in audience which had arrived in several hundred cars. When the show was over, and sometimes a bit before, cars started to move away and make a dash for the only exit. he exit would only take a single file of cars, so that the last car out was probably over thirty minutes behind the first.

The exit led to a small country lane which then opened out on to a main road, Cranborne Road. (Now known as The South Gippsland Highway) which was around 200 yards down the lane. Each car on arrival at the busy main road would have to wait to get out. We were in the crawl in the country lane when we heard a large bang behind us. In typical fashion, I got out of the car to see if my car was damaged. It was not, but the car behind which was very old seemed to have lost some parts. The owner had got out of his car, doing the same as me. He said “I’ve lost me front bumper”, his mate at the back of the car said, “She’ll be right, it’s back here”. The driver made his way to the back and said “That’s not the front bumper, that’s the back bumper”. The front bumper was still underneath the car.

Meanwhile the driver of the vehicle behind them was out on the road swearing at the driver of the car behind me for having stopped. (We were moving at less than walking pace when we were moving). His was a brand new ute (Utility) looking like something we would now call a 4 x 4. The front was all stoved in from its collision with the old car. The problem for the driver of the truck was that he did not own it and had borrowed it from his father. All this came out in a matter of moments during the hustle and bustle of the occasion.

There was another car involved which had been behind the truck and, in fact, was responsible for the whole problem. He was shouting “It wasn’t my fault that I put me foot on the accelerator instead of the brake”. Well, that explained everything.

Drive-in theatres lost their popularity, like the cinemas, in the sixties and seventies. Today, I am told, that the drive-in theatre has expanded to provide three screens. It must be popular again. The sound of the film no longer comes via a speaker handing on the window, you can pick up the sound on your FM car radio. I wonder how one orders a burger.

It was quite an experience going to the Panoramic – I loved the drive-in.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author. The Panoramic is still in operation and is now known as the Lunar.

Links: Lunar Drive-in

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Florence Kate Johnson, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000,

Text: Q: Did you go to any cinemas?

A: There weren’t any. No. There was a thing called the Bioscope but I didn’t go to it, but I did go to Kensington and – you – sat in a coach – and thought you were tearing around, and seeing the scenery. I don’t know what – what it was. Paid about fourpence I think. That was before cinema anyway. The first cinema I think I went to was when – a King died. Now when was that? Oh I can’t remember when the cinema came, perhaps it was a bit earlier than I thought. Might have been. But of course we didn’t go much anyway.

Comments: Florence Kate Johnson was born in Battersea in 1892. The entertainment she half-remembers was Hale’s Tours of the World, in which motion pictures taken from the front of a train were projected inside a mock railway carriage which rocked to and fro as the audience inside viewed the films. The first Hale’s Tours in the UK opened in London’s Oxford Street in May 1906 and there was a Hale’s Tours located in Kensington High Street. The king dying was Edward VII, who died in 1910. She was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

Diaries and Letters 1930-39

Source: Harold Nicolson (ed. Nigel Nicolson), Diaries and Letters 1930-39 (London: Collins, 1971), p. 72

Text: 4th May, 1931
Go with Leonard and Virginia Woolf to see the French talking-film, Le Million. The theatre is crowded with intellectuals, from which it is evident that this form of intelligent talkie has a great future before it. The French talent for amusing dialogue finds an enormous scope in this rapid motion and will render American films completely old-fashioned.

Comments: Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a British diplomat, politician and diarist. His wife Vita Sackville-West had an affair with Virginia Woolf. The musical comedy Le Million (France 1931) was directed by René Clair and starred Annabella and René Lefèvre.

At a Movie Theatre

Source: Christopher Morley, ‘At a Movie Theatre’, in Chimneysmoke (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1917), pp. 161-162

Text: How well he spoke who coined the phrase
The picture palace! Aye, in sooth
A palace, where men’s weary days
Are crowned with kingliness of youth.

Strange palace! Crowded, airless, dim,
Where toes are trod and strained eyes smart,
We watch a wand of brightness limn
The old heroics of the heart.

Romance again hath us in thrall
And Love is sweet and always true,
And in the darkness of the hall
Hands clasp — as they were meant to do.

Remote from peevish joys and ills
Our souls, pro tem, are purged and free:
We see the sun on western hills,
The crumbling tumult of the sea.

We are the blond that maidens crave,
Well balanced at a dozen banks;
By sleight of hand we haste to save
A brown-eyed life, nor stay for thanks.

Alas, perhaps our instinct feels
Life is not all it might have been,
So we applaud fantastic reels
Of shadow, cast upon a screen!

Comments: Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was an American journalist, novelist, poet and essayist of prolific output.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Maisie at the Movies

Source: Gertrude S. Walton, Maisie at the Movies (Philadelphia: The Penn Publishing Company, 1922)

Text: CHARACTER – A Shop-Girl. She is overdressed, wears her hair in extreme fashion and her nose is powdered white. She is chewing gum vigorously.

(Gropes way down aisle and pauses — addresses companion LILIAN.) S’awful dark in here, ain’t it, Lil? I think I see a coupla seats in here. Pardon me. (Climbs over two or three seats and settles self.) Y’gonna take yer hat off, Lilian? Let’s slink down in the seats and take a chance — our hats is so small anyhow; in fact I thought the very day I bought the hat that it would be so small that I wouldn’t hafta take it off in the movies.

I hope this ain’t a sad picture, Lilian, because I’m sure to cry over it. I’m so sympathetic, Lilian, and I’m worse ever since Joe and I had our falling out — I cry at the least thing — not that I care so much about Joe, y’understand, only it’s made me so sympathetic or somethin’. Ma says I’m a fool but I donno. Joe was a nice fella but it was his fault a’course.

(Looks frantically from left to right in an effort to see the picture.) Good-night, Lilian, that man certainly takes his time taking his coat off. You’d think it was glued to him, in fact you’d think any man with any sense would take his coat off before he gets in front of the whole show and makes you break your neck trying to see the picture, but then, I don’t care so much for these comedy things anyway.

(Turns to person behind her.) Did you speak to me? My hat — it’s in your way? Well, can you beat that, Lilian? Some people are mighty fussy, believe me.

Thank goodness this crazy comedy is over. What didja say the feature picture was ? Oo-o, The Haunted House-Boat! Why, Lilian, I’ve seen this picture. No, we won’t go out — it’s a swell picture — you’ll be crazy about it, Lilian, it has such an original plot — so different from anything you ever saw before. Y’see the fella that takes the part of the crook is the hero but he really isn’t a crook at all. You’ll love this picture, Lilian. Just wait now — look, that’s him. Ain’t he grand though? His eyes is just like Joe’s. In fact he reminds me terribly of Joe. And look there, see the butler? Well, he’s the one who really takes the jewels in the end and he plays so innocent all the time you’d never think it. Why, the first time I seen this picture I was so surprised. Yeh, that’s the heroine. She wears the swellest clothes you ever seen. Wait until you see the dress she wears in the ballroom scene — gee, it’s a dream — no back to it and only one strap to hold it up — I mean what there is of the waist to it — only one strap to hold it up besides her strength of will. The ballroom scene is where she loses the pearls and the diamond bracelet and every one thinks the hero done it, but it’s really the butler after all. The butler is the real crook, Lilian.

Then this House-Boat that’s supposed to be haunted all the time is really the hiding place for all these crooks. See, that’s the House-Boat now. Gee, Lil, I get so excited when I think about the awful fight they have on it at the end of the picture. That’s when you discover that the hero isn’t a crook at all — he’s from the Police Department and the butler is the real crook. Any minute you’d think the butler will kill him but he doesn’t.

See that fella with the black moustache — well, he’s another one of the crooks and he ties the girl to the railroad track just as the train is coming. No — I’m wrong, it isn’t him that ties her to the track, it’s the half-breed. Yeh, that’s who it is. I kinda forgot it. Y’see, the half-breed is really the brother of the butler, who isn’t a half-breed — he’s a whole-breed, or whatever you call it — I mean the half-breed is the whole-breed’s half-brother. I mean the half-breed had an Indian mother, y’see, so that made ’em only half-brothers — if you get what I mean.

The butler is the brains of the jewel-robbing gang and the half-breed’ll do anything he tells him because he hasn’t got so much brains on account of his being a half-breed, y’know.

This is the sad part, Lil — see, the hero’s mother is going to die now. Gee, I hope I don’t cry. (Blinks.) Don’t he look just like Joe now — look, Lil — ain’t he the picture of Joe? Yeh, you said it, why did we have a falling out? I suppose it was my fault a little bit, but you really couldn’t blame me for getting sore. Joe’s an awful nice fella though. Look, Lilian, she’s going to die now just as soon as she falls on the floor. Ain’t it sad? (Fumbles in pocket.) Lil, have you got a handkerchief ? Thanks, I didn’t bring none. (Dabs at eyes.) Gee, I wish I wasn’t so sympathetic.

Good-night, Lil, I dropped my hat. (Gropes about on floor, sits up and accepts hat from neighbor on opposite side.) Oh, thank you ever so (Opens mouth and stares in astonishment.) Joe — you been sitting here all the time? And I never knew it; I never knew you were there at all. Gee, you surprised me so I guess I swallowed my gum. Lilian, look what was sitting right here beside us and me none the wiser. Yeh, I remember I said I’d never speak to you again, Joe, but I’ve forgotten all about that now. I wasn’t really mad, Joe. I just met Lil this afternoon and we thought we would go to the movies but I’ve seen this picture before. Y’see the butler is really the crook and the hero is from the Police Department and this House-Boat is really the hiding place for (Turns to usher in aisle.) Whadja say? We gotta stop talking or leave? Can you beat that! Don’t worry, little Sunshine, we’ll leave all right. I’ve seen the picture anyway. Cmon, Joe. (Slams on hat, climbs out into aisle.) Now I ask you, Lil, have I said two words since we been in here? You said it — I ain’t said a word — not — a — word. Believe me, some nerve!

Comments: The existence of several comic monologues around this time which satirise the talkative member of a cinema audience (generally female) indicates a general perception of certain modes of movie audience behaviour, in particular talking about what you saw on the screen.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 117-118

Text: 7. Y.L.

I go to the films about once every fortnight, and I only go to it if it is worth while. I can’t bear sob-stuff. Another sort of film I loathe are jazz and swing films. For instance, I went to a news theatre about a month ago, and one of the short films showed a band, and one of the singers was so funny, that everyone was absolutely roaring with laughter. I laughed so much that I was nearly crying. A man in front of me choked from laughing, and he had to go out of the theatre.

As I have said before, I don’t like love and sob-stuff. It not only amuses me, but it also bores me stiff. When two people kiss each other and keep like it for about ten minutes, I think I have reason to be bored.

Once I went to the pictures on a Saturday afternoon, and there were two women behind me. One of them was telling the other one all about the film, and also keeping a running commentary going. It got to the pitch when I felt as if I wanted to tear her hair off. My mother, who had come with me got in such a temper that she had to tell the woman to be quiet (in I am afraid a rather rude way). I am interested in historical films, and also murders. I am afraid to say that I am very bloodthirsty. Murder films affect some people, so that they have nightmares. That has only happened to me once. I had been to see a film about a detective. While a man who was a dealer in gold, was sitting with his back to a window in his house, a pair of hands came through the open window, clutched him round the neck, and finally strangled him. The man let out the most awful shriek, which went right through me. That night I dreamt I saw someone sitting in front of the window, and a pair of hands came up behind him. I rushed up and clutched the hands. The man who had tried to strangle the other man chased me all through the woods and goodness knows what, and when he caught me up, and was just about to strangle me, I woke up. You could not imagine how very relieved I was, at that particular moment to wake up. I was very surprised with myself, as I had never had a real nightmare before. As you have gathered from this essay, I like historical and detective films, but not love.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘Children and Adolescents in the Cinema’ which reproduces essays obtained from a school in Hampstead, the contributors being “on the average not older than 12½ … their parents are probably mostly members of the middle class”. They were invited to write about the films that they liked.

Reg. v Alfred Jones and Samuel Gold

Source: Prosecution of Offences Acts, 1879 and 1884. Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 29 June 1900, 19th Century House of Commons Sessional Papers, vol. LXIX p. 247, no. 389 – Reg. v Alfred Jones and Samuel Gold

Text: These prisoners were “street showmen” and they were originally arrested for using bad language and causing a crowd to assemble in a public thoroughfare. On being brought before the magistrate, the police officer stated that her found the prisoners in the Southwark Bridge Road, a busy shopping thoroughfare, with a cinematograph machine, around which a large crowd had assembled, and that in consequence of the description they gave of the pictures to be exhibited therein her arrested them.

The magistrate, in view of the increasing number of cinematographs to be seen in the streets and at places of amusement, and of the danger which might arise if pictures such as those described by the officer were allowed to be exhibited, felt that his powers to deal summarily with the prisoners were insufficient, and he remanded the case in order that the Director might consider whether or not the prisoners should be indicted at the sessions for wilfully exposing to public view an obscene print or picture.

The Director caused inquiries to be made, and had the pictures in the cinematograph examined, when it appeared that the language used by the prisoners by no means exaggerated the obscene nature of the “film.” It also appeared that when inviting people to pay their pence and look into the machine one of the prisoners said that women and girls were not allowed to see it, as it was only for males. The Director thereupon took charge of the prosecution, and the prisoners were committed for trial at the quarter sessions. It was contended on their behalf that the exhibition was not an indecent one, and that similar pictures had been exhibited at a London music hall, and it was proposed to call the photographer who took them. In the end, however, defendants elected to reserve their defence. Subsequently they pleaded guilty at the South London Sessions in October 1899, and were sentenced, Jones to two, and Gold to three calendar months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

At the conclusion of the case the judge directed that inquiry should be made respecting the previous relationship between the prisoners, and as to when, how, and where they procured the films. These inquiries were made, and upon it being ascertained that no similar films existed, and that the photographers, in view of the conviction, did not propose to take any more of them the matter was allowed to drop.

Comments: The Street Cinematograph, which is possibly what was being used by Jones and Gold, was the invention of British manufacturer W.C. Hughes. It was a large peepshow comprising a film projector attached to nine-foot-long cabinet placed on trestles, with multiple viewing apertures so that several people could gather round and view the films on a screen at the far end of the cabinet. As the name indicates, it was exhibited in the open air and enjoyed a brief vogue 1898-99.

The London Nobody Knows


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.


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).

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.