The Pictures

Source: D.J. Enright, ‘The Pictures’, in The Terrible Shears: Scenes from a Twenties Childhood (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973), p. 52

Text:
Threepence on Saturday afternoons,
A bench along the side of the hall –
We looked like Egyptian paintings,
Bue less composed.

Sometimes a film that frightened us
And returned at nights.
Once Noah’s Ark, an early talkie
We took for non-fiction.

Cheapest was the home kino.
Lying in bed, you pressed on your eyes,
Strange happenings ensued.

But the story was hard to follow
And your eyeballs might fall in.
Fatigued, you fell asleep.

Comments: Dennis Joseph Enright (1920-2002) was a British poet, novelist, essayist and academic. The Terrible Shears is a collection of poems about his 1920s childhood, which was spent in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. Noah’s Ark was an American film, directed by Michael Curtiz, and an early talking picture.

Strength of the Hills

Source: George Ewart Evans, Strength of the Hills: An Autobiography (London: Faber, 1983), pp. 162-164

Text: During this year I met a remarkable woman, Mary Field, who was head of a film company producing children’s films. In the constant search to increase my earnings I had submitted to her the synopsis of a children’s story that I judged had visual possibilities. During my wanderings with the two girls I had come across an old mound in Tunstall Forest. It was obviously a burial mound, probably of the Sutton Hoo period. It was quite near Blaxhall Heath, not far from Snape, and completely surrounded by trees. Mary Field liked the idea of the film that was about three or four children who foiled a gang who planned to dig into the mound and rob the grave. She commissioned me to write the treatment for the film. The film was called The Ship in the Forest and was made in the area where the story was set. It had its first showing in the Aldeburgh cinema and we managed to get all the children in Blaxhall school, along with the Tunstall children, over to see it. I very much enjoyed working with Mary Field who was a master of her craft of film-making. In an hour or so’s conversation with her, I learned more about films than I could have learned in a lifetime of film watching and reading about them. She had thought deeply about films, and her Carnegie Report on children’s films illustrates the thoroughness of her methods.

This report revolutionized the making of children’s films. It arose out of her observation that it was possible to gauge a group of children’s reactions to a film simply by watching their physical responses. Restlessness and constant shifting of their position on the seats were obvious signs that their interest was not fully engaged, while a marked increase in the number of children leaving to go to the lavatory was a devastating criticism of the film itself. The technique she used in compiling her Carnegie Report was merely an extension of her commonsense observations. She did her studies in Saturday morning matinées, filming the children’s full physical reactions while the film was being shown. She used infra-red film that made filming possible in the dark. She was therefore able to study a film she had made, scientifically matching the children’s facial expressions and movements with the relevant passages in the film.

She had also made a study of various dramatists to improve her approach to film-making, and she recognized that her main problem was identical with that of the early dramatists, who had a milling crowd before or around the action on the stage, as much bent on having a holiday as on seeing a play. The playwright had to capture the composite audience of the pit right at the beginning with an arresting first scene, as Shakespeare did in Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and some of the historical plays. He knew that he had to win over the groundlings or else the players would have difficulties. We had a perfect example of this in the London première of our Suffolk film. It was held in the King’s Road, Chelsea, in a huge cinema at a Saturday morning matinée. I took Florence and our four children to see it. We were given seats in the upstairs circle, and below us was a real ‘pit’ audience of turbulent young Cockneys. They were supposed to be watching the climax of an American film that was supporting the Mary Field film, but most of them were doing everything bu watching the film; they were writhing about, and from above it looked like a free-for-all encounter rather than an audience. The film’s action had been designed as an exciting climax: the rescue of the heroine, an attractive, barely clad young girl who had been tied by the villains to a post in a rapidly burning building. Most of the children, however, were unconcerned and the noise was uproarious. We wondered how they would ever be able to show the Suffolk film in this bear garden. Yet as soon as the first shots were shown on the screen the children were captured. It was a pure triumph by a master of children’s film-making. The opening shots were a couple of children – a boy and a girl – and an old man, as far as I remember, an old fisherman. Immediately the audience identified with the children, and strangely enough, with the old man: the film had their full interest instantly and retained it to the end. It was one of Mary Field’s discoveries that young children are not interested in middle-aged adults but are naturally interested in children of their own age on whom they can easily project their own feelings; also in people old enough to be their grandparents.

Comments: George Ewart Evans (1909-1988) was a British folklorist and oral historian. At the time recalled here, he was a schoolteacher in Suffolk. Mary Field (1896-1968) was an educationalist, historian and filmmaker who became head of the Rank Organisation’s Children’s Entertainment Division in 1944. In 1951 she became executive officer of the Children’s Film Foundation, a pan-industry body which produced films for children. Her experiments with infra-red still photography of children in cinemas began in 1948 and took place in particular 1951-52. The photographs are reproduced in her book Children and films: A study of boys and girls in the cinema (Dunfermline Fife Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, 1954). The Ship in the Forest was released as the 60-minute CFF film The Secret of the Forest (UK 1956).

Links: The Secret of the Forest (from the East Anglian Film Archive)

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

If I Don't Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

Life

Source: Keith Richards, Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010), pp. 52-53

Text: Dimashio’s was the ice cream parlor-coffee shop. Old Dimashio’s son went to school with us, big fat Italian boy. But he could always make plenty of friends by bringing them down to his Dad’s joint. There was a jukebox there, so it was a hang. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, apart from a load of schlock. It was the one little bit of Americana in Dartford. Just a little store, counter down the left side, jukebox, some seats and tables, the ice cream machine. At least once a week, I went to the cinema and usually to the Saturday morning pictures, either at the Gem or the Granada. Like Captain Marvel. SHAZAM! If you said it right, it might actually happen. Me and my mates in the middle of the field, going “SHAZAM! We’re not saying it right!” Other blokes laughing behind our heads. “Yeah, you’re not going to laugh when I get it right. SHAZAM!” Flash Gordon, those little puffs of smoke. He had bleached-blond hair. Captain Marvel. You could never remember what it was about, it was more about the transformation, about just a regular guy who says one word and suddenly he’s gone. “I want to get that down,” you’d think. “I want to get out of this place.”

Comments: Keith Richards (born 1943) is a British rock musician and songwriter, guitarist with the Rolling Stones. He was born and brought up in Dartford, Kent. Captain Marvel was an American comic character, also known as ‘Shazam’, which was the magic word spoken by radio news reporter Billy Batson which transformed him into the superhero. The character featured in the 1941 serial Adventures of Captain Marvel. The anecdote could refer to the films or to reading the comic.

The Front Rows

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Peformance VII: The Front Rows’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, January 1928, pp. 59-64

Text: As the heavy drops fell and the first cannonade rumbled through the upper layers of the heatwave I saw close at hand garish placards and wide open doors. Entering, following the torch on and on through the darkness until we could go no further was for retreating and spending the hour elsewhere. But as the torch-bearer stood aside for me to pass to a seat, the light of the screen fell full upon the occupants of the front row: three small boys, one collapsed in the attitude of sleep, and indeed, I saw as I sat down, soundly sleeping, propped against the shoulder of my neighbour whose thin face, sheened by nervous excitement, lifted a foolish gaze towards the glare. Here was the worst. Here indeed was “the pictures” as black villainy. I remembered all I had heard and tried to forget on the subject of the evils of the cinema, as it is, for small children and especially for the children in the front rows. All the week these boys were penned in stuffy class-rooms. And this was their Saturday afternoon, their time to reverse engines and go full steam backwards into savagery, make their street a jungle and learn from each other the lessons of the jungle. Or perhaps their time for becoming boy scouts. And here they were, “ruining nerves and eyesight and breathing stifling air” and learning either less than nothing or more than was good.

But the air was not stifling. In spite of the weather the place had a certain coolness and when I raised my eyes to the screen I had no sense of blinding glare or effort to focus. There was indeed no possibility of focussing a scene so immense that one could only move about in it from point to point and realise that the business of the expert front-rower is to find the centre of action and follow it as best he can. Of the whole: as something to hold in the eye he can have no more idea than has the proverbial fly of the statue over which he crawls. But at least as far as I could tell there was no feeling of glare or of eyestrain. Though it may be that the interest of making discoveries put the censor off guard. It seemed at any rate that unless it be bad for young eyes to gaze for three hours at a large mild brilliance close at hand, the eye-strain alarmists were disposed of. And if indeed it is bad, it is for the public health people to legislate for an increase of the distance between the screen and the front rows. But supposing the worst to exist only in the imaginations of the officiously fussy, what I wanted if possible to discover was just what it was these three boys got from the discreet immensity so closely confronting us. The one nearest to me certainly nothing more than unhealthy excitement, but he poor soul whether pent in school or ramping in alley, called for special help before he could get anything anywhere and was therefore disqualified to act as a test. Left to himself the poor moth was fated merely to gravitate.

The enormous bears moved in foolish gravity upon their cliffs in a scene too dispersed to be impressive. But they were of course bears, real bears. Bears in movement. They passed and soon we were looking at the deck of a ship in mid-ocean. Crew, deeds, drama, a centre of action moving from point to point. Suddenly, before the weight of a funny man in difficulties and at bay, a portion of the gunwale swung round in the manner of a gate upon its hinges and held him dangling in mid-air above the seething main. From the endmost boy, the one beyond the sleeper, came a shriek I can never forget. It filled the silent hall, one pure full high note that curved swiftly up to the next and ceased staccato; blissful terror in a single abrupt sound. People behind craned forward hoping for a happy glimpse of the face of a child in transport. The man on the ship swung back to safety and out again and again the cry pealed forth. This time I caught sight of the blood-thirsty little villain. A perfect gamin, rotund. Clear-eyed, clean-skinned, bolt upright with pudgy fists on knees to watch the event. We had that yell four times, the outflung utterly unselfconscious being of a child attained, the kind of sound Chaplin listens for when he is testing a film.

It changed the direction of my meditation on the front rows.

Since that far-off incident I have seen and heard a good deal of the front rows and much as I should like to see widened the gap between them and the screen I no longer desire to send the juvenile front rowers to amuse or bore themselves elsewhere. Thinking them back into a filmless world and particularly into filmless winters, I am glad of their presence on the easy terms that are compensation for their inconveniences. Presently no doubt there will be children’s cinemas with films provided by the good folks who like to believe they know both what children need and what they like. Before this prospect I hesitate thinking of the children’s hour upon the wireless. But such films, any films put together for children regarded as dear little darlings, inviting their own fate will have their little day and cease to be. Most children unless forcibly excluded from all other films, will refuse to sit them out. There are plenty of people about whose love for children is tinctured with a decent respect. Let us hope that some of them are even now meditating possible films.

Meanwhile the front rowers of all ages, the All-out responsive pit and gallery of the cinema are getting their education and preparing, are indeed already a little more than prepared for the films that are to come. Anyone visiting from time to time a local cinema whose audience is almost as unvarying as its films, cannot fail to have remarked the development of the front rowers, their growth in critical grace. Their audible running commentary is one of the many incidental interests of a poor film. It is not only that today the lingering close-up of the sweet girl with tragically staring tear-filled eyes is apt to be greeted with jeers, and the endless love-making of the endless lovers with groans. It is not only that today’s front rowers recognise all the stock characters at a glance and can predict developments. It is that the quality of the attention and collaboration that almost any stock drama can still command is changed. For although attention never wavers and collaboration is still hearty and still the sleek and sleekly-tailored malefactor is greeted at his first and innocent seeming entry as a wrong’un and the hero, racing life in hand through a hundred hairbreadth escapes to the rescue is still loudly applauded and applause breaks forth anew when the villain is flung over the cliff, the front rows are no longer thrilled quite as they were in their earlier silent days by all the hocus-pocus. They come level-headed and serenely talking through drama that a year ago would have held them dizzy and breathless. Even a novel situation does not too much disturb them. They attend, refuse to be puzzled, watch for the working out. And films “above their heads”, if the characters are fairly convincing, the acting fairly good and the whole fairly well-knit, do not bore them. They see, possibly not all that is intended, but if quality is there, they see and assist. It is never the goodish to good film that produces fidgets, giggles, audible yawns, waitings and gnashings of teeth. Only to the film that is halt maimed and blind, no matter what magnificence it may present, will these tributes be paid. In the film as in life, the what matters less than the how. All this of course within reasonable limits. There are certain films the front rows prefer above all others. And of some kinds they can apparently never have too much. Comics for instance. And family drama of all kinds. Family drama must be very feeble indeed to fail to capture. This is hardly surprising. There is very little about family life the front rows do not know. Animals too, tame or wild, are greatly beloved though there is no longer a thrill to be got from the seedy old lion trotting half-heartedly from room to room after prey known to be in no danger. And the American language. Once it was part of the puzzles and bewilderments of “the pictures”, but is there now a child in London who cannot at the right moment say: “Oh, boy” and read and delightedly understand each idiom, and grin through the Hollywood caption that is metaphor running amuk and crammed with facetiousness?

They are there in their millions, the front rowers, a vast audience born and made in the last few years, initiated, disciplined, and waiting.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. This entry has been posted to mark the very welcome addition of Close Up to the Internet Archive by the Media History Digital Library.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Percival Frederick Chambers , C707/145/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Ah now, the cinema. In West Norwood my parents had a shop. A sweetshop where she – t[h]ey – my mother used to make all her own sweets. She had the sweetshop. My father was still at work. When he came home he used to help her make the sweets by pulling the sugar over the hook on the door you see. And we – the – in return for the – showing the bills of this – of the – cinema or the movies or whatever you like to call them – they used to issue so many free tickets which I used to go with on the Saturday afternoon and in return for that we use[d] to get in for a penny. And that used to be in – in Brixton. Now I used to go every week and there was a serial. In Acre Lane Brixton, opposite the town hall, and there was series they were running, a pirate series and of course being – a boy like other boys, there was always a rush and we all wanted to see this series and we – we didn’t want to miss any, we had to see the lot to get the story. Well that to be penny on the tram to Brixton, go to the pictures and back again and do the whole lot for about tuppence. Yes.

Comments: Percival Chambers (1894-?) was born in Kettering before his family moved to Cambridge and then West Norwood in London. His father was a stonemason. At the time recalled here (early 1910s) there were two cinemas in Acre Lane: The Brixton Arch and the Theatre de Luxe. He 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).

All Pals Together

Source: Anonymous contribution to Terry Staples, All Pals Together: The Story of Children’s Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 25

Text: When I was at senior school in Kingston in the twenties we were drafted in to the Elite Cinema one Saturday to see a show which was probably organised in conjunction with the Empire Marketing Board. We were somewhat upset at having our morning taken away, and this feeling was compounded when it turned out that the reason for our being there was so that we could be shown a film about rice-growing. After the screening someone made a long speech, and I think we were supposed to write a competitive essay about what we had seen. By this time were were getting restless, and after someone else, probably the Mayor, had had his say, we were supposed to applaud. I never knew which school started it, but the applause gradually developed into a slow handclap. Very angrily, the officials left the stage; and, a bit earlier than planned, the National Anthem was played on the organ. We got a good wigging for our bad manners, but I don’t think any of us ever did write that essay on rice-growing.

Comments: All Pals Together is a history of British children’s cinema. It quotes from several memoirs gathered in the research for the book, unfortunately without identifying the contributors. This passage refers to the practice of some educational authorities organising screenings of instructional films for children on Saturday mornings.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Mrs Annely, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Cinemas, lantern slide shows, that kind of thing – was there anything like that you remember?

A: Oh, of course we were allowed to go to the cinema. 2d. at one cinema and ld. at the other. As long as you sat on hard wooden forms in the Jeune Street Cinema. And the Cowley Road one we used to go to very often. That was one of the places where my brother used to have to take me when I was small. But my first memory of Cowley Road was that it was a small theatre and the people that lived next door to us, she used to put some of the actors and actresses up, so we used to get a free pass to go up there. She used to send us a free pass in so we three children used to go and see some of the variety acts that they had there.

Q: It was more a variety theatre was it?

A: Yes. Very much like a music hall type of place. I think there’s been quite a lot of news about it, in the Oxford Mail recently you know. Antony Wood has been following it up.

Q: About the old style music halls?

A: About the old style music halls, yes. Up Cowley Road, the Old Palace as it was called. He’s done quite a lot of work on that

Q: Used you to go quite often to that then?

A: I would say every Saturday.

Q: And what about the cinemas, were they on Saturdays, too?

A: Yes. Usually a children’s performance in the morning.

Q: Were there special children’s programmes that you went to when your brother took you, or was it adult films?

A: I would think that they were adult films, but of course, you didn’t get “X” films like you do today.

Q: Oh, no. No I was thinking about your mother with her very particular ideas about upbringing, I think it probably must have been quite suitable for her to let your brother…

A: Oh, yes. I don’t think we would have been allowed to see anything that wasn’t quite suitable.

Comments: Mrs Annelly was born in Oxford in 1905, the youngest of three children. Her father was a house painter and decorator. Her mother was a cook for a doctor before marriage. 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). The cinema referred to may be the Oxford Picture Palace, which was on the corner of Cowley Road and Jeune Street.

Unreliable Memoirs

Source: Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), pp. 43-47

Text: Every Saturday afternoon at the pictures there was a feature film, sixteen cartoons and an episode each from four different serials. The programme just went on and on like Bayreuth. The Margaret Street children would join up with the Irene Street children and the combined mass would add themselves unto the Sunbeam Avenue children and the aggregate would join the swarm from all the other areas all moving north along Rocky Point Road towards Rockdale, where the Odeon stood. In summer the concrete paths were hot. The asphalt footpaths were even hotter: bubbles of tar formed, to be squashed flat by our leathery bare feet. Running around on macadamised playgrounds throughout the spring, by summer we had feet that could tread on a drawing pin and hardly feel it.

When you got to the Odeon the first thing you did was stock up with lollies. Lollies was the word for what the English call sweets and the Americans call candy. Some of the more privileged children had upwards of five shillings each to dispose of, but in fact two bob was enough to buy you as much as you could eat. Everyone, without exception, bought at least one Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bar. It was a slab of dense, dry honeycomb coated with chocolate. So frangible was the honey comb that it would shatter when bitten, scattering bright yellow shrapnel. It was like trying to eat a Ming vase. The honeycomb would go soft only after a day’s exposure to direct sunlight. The chocolate surrounding it, however, would liquefy after only ten minutes in a dark cinema.

[…]

Everyone either ate steadily or raced up and down the aisles to and from the toilet, or all three. The uproar was continuous, like Niagara. Meanwhile the programme was unreeling in front of us. The feature film was usually a Tarzan, a Western, or the kind of Eastern Western in which George Macready played the grand vizier. At an even earlier stage I had been to the pictures with my mother and been continuously frightened without understanding what was going on – the mere use of music to reinforce tension, for example, was enough to drive me under the seat for the rest of the evening. At a later stage I accompanied my mother to every change of evening double bill both at Ramsgate and Rockdale – a total of four films a week, every week for at least a decade. But nothing before or since had the impact of those feature films at the Rockdale Saturday matinees.

In those days Johnny Weissmuller was making his difficult transfer from Tarzan to Jungle Jim. As Tarzan he got fatter and fatter until finally he was too fat to be plausible, whereupon he was obliged to put on a safari suit and become Jungle Jim. I was glad to to learn subsequently that as Jungle Jim he had a piece of the action and was at last able to bank some money. At the time, his transmogrification looked to me like an unmitigated tragedy. His old Tarzan movies were screened again and again. Many times I dived with Tarz off Brooklyn Bridge during the climactic scene of Tarzan’s New York Adventure. In my mind I duplicated the back somersaults executed by Johnny’s double as he swung from vine to vine on his way to rescue the endangered Jane and Boy from the invading ivory hunters. In one of the Tarzan movies there is a terrible sequence where one lot of natives gives another lot an extremely thin time by arranging pairs of tree trunks so that they will fly apart and pull the victim to pieces. This scene stayed with me as a paradigm of evil. No doubt if I saw the same film today I would find the sequence as crudely done as everything else ever filmed on Poverty Row. But at the time it seemed a vision of cruelty too horrible even to think about.

I can remember having strong ideas about which cartoons were funny and which were not. Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, with their stylised backgrounds and elliptical animation, had not yet arrived on the scene. Cartoons were still in that hyper-realist phase which turns out in retrospect to have been their golden age. The standards of animation set by Walt Disney and MGM cost a lot of time, effort and money, but as so often happens the art reached it height at the moment of maximum resistance from the medium. Knowing nothing of these theoretical matters, I simply consumed the product. I knew straight away that the Tom and Jerry cartoons were the best. In fact I even knew straight away that some Tom and Jerry cartoons were better than others. There was an early period when Tom’s features were puffy and he ran with a lope, motion being indicated by the streaks that animators call speed lines. In the later period Tom’s features had an acute precision and his every move was made fully actual, with no stylisation at all. Meanwhile Jerry slimmed down and acquired more expressiveness. The two periods were clearly separated in my mind, where they were dubbed ‘old drawings’ and ‘new drawings’. I remember being able to tell which category a given Tom and Jerry cartoon fell into from seeing the first few frames. Eventually I could tell just from the logo. I remember clearly the feeling of disappointment if it was going to be old drawings and the feeling of elation if it was going to be new drawings.

But the serials were what caught my imagination most, especially the ones in which the hero was masked. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the producers, among whom Sam Katzman was the doyen, kept the heroes masked so that the leading actors could not ask for more money. At the time it just seemed logical to me that a hero should wear a masked. It didn’t have to be as elaborate as Batman’s mask. I admired Batman, despite the worrying wrinkles in the arms and legs of his costume, which attained a satisfactory tautness only in the region of his stomach. But Robin’s mask was easier to copy. So was the Black Commando’s. My favourite serials were those in which masked men went out at night and melted mysteriously into the urban landscape. Science fiction serials were less appealing at that stage, while white hunter epics like The Lost City of the Jungle merely seemed endless. I saw all fourteen episodes of The Lost City of the Jungle except the last. It would have made no difference if I had only seen the last episode and missed the thirteen leading up to it. The same things happened every week. Either two parties of white hunters in solar topees searched for each other in one part of the jungle, or else the same two parties of white hunters in solar topees sought to avoid each other in another part of the jungle. Meanwhile tribesmen from the Lost City either captured representatives of both parties and took them to the High Priestess for sacrifice, or else ran after them when they escaped. Sometimes white hunters escaping ran into other white hunters being captured, and were either recaptured or helped the others escape. It was obvious even to my unschooled eyes that there was only about half an acre of jungle, all of it composed of papier mâché. By the end of each episode it was beaten flat. The screen would do a spiral wipe around an image of the enthroned High Priestess, clad in a variety of tea-towels and gesturing obdurately with a collection of prop sceptres while one of the good white hunters – you could tell a good one from a bad one by the fact that a bad one always sported a very narrow moustache – was lowered upside down into a pit of limp scorpions.

Comments: Clive James (born 1939) is an Australian broadcaster, critic, poet and essayist. These extracts from his first volume of memoirs cover the period of the late 1940s. The films mentioned include Tarzan’s New York Adventure (USA 1942), Batman (1943, 15 episodes), The Secret Code (USA 1942, 15 episodes, featuring ‘The Black Commando’) and The Lost City of the Jungle (USA 1946, 13 episodes). There were numerous Jungle Jim films from 1948 onwards. Rockdale is a suburb of Sydney.