Enter the Dream-House

Source: Mo Heard, interviewed in Margaret O’Brien and Allen Eyles (eds.), Enter the Dream-House: Memories of Cinemas in South London from the Twenties to the Sixties (London: Museum of the Moving Image, 1993), pp. 63-66

Text: We lived in Catford, the edge of Catford, in Lewisham in South-East London. My Mum went to Taunton to have me because it was during the Blitz in 1940. I’m the only child. I have no brothers or sisters and my dad was away in the army. My mother went to the pictures twice a week and I’m sure she took me. My earliest memories are going to all the cinemas in that area: there were three in Catford and there were three in Lewisham and I went to all of them. My mother took me to “A” films – Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and all those. I think my earliest memories are round about 1945, 1946. I remember seeing It Always Rains on Sunday and all those British films. We used to go after nursery school. What I do remember is my mother used to buy the ice-cream in the Co-op, so it must have been at a period when you couldn’t get ice-creams in the cinemas or they were cheaper outside, and we used to take those with us.

About ice-creams in cinemas, we used to get tubs and they were very, very hard and you used to peel round the top of the cardboard tubs until it was halfway down and the ice-cream inside was so hard you could hold the tub and lick it like an ice-cream cone. And I always remember the tops – you never had wooden spoons in those days, you took the top off and folded it in half and used that as a spoon.

I remember coming out and it was dark and we used to walk home and always stop at the fish and chip shop and but threepenneth of chips. I was completely hooked by all those films.

Did any films frighten you as a child?

I remember very vividly certain frightening scenes but I do not remember what films they were from. They must have been “A” films but obviously, because I was so young, I would not know what the title was. I remember there was a woman in a bedroom and she heard the glass breaking downstairs and she went down the staircase and her silhouette was against the wall and she had a flowing nightgown on. I don’t know who it was. And she came down the stairs and I think whoever it was at the bottom reached up and murdered her or something. And there was another film where some woman was walking down a crunchy gravel path in a park or a garden at night and there were footsteps following her in this crunchy gravel. And then she stopped and they stopped.

In those days it was continuous performance, so you’d go in and move along the row and then you’d plonk down and you might be in the middle of a B picture. How at the age of four or five could you pick up a story like that? And then you’d go through the newsreels and the ads and the rest of it and then you’d get the A picture and then you’d come to the B picture. And the moment it got to the point where we came in, my mother would nudge me and say “This is where we came in.” And up you’d get and walk out. We didn’t have to leave but I suppose she didn’t want to sit there any longer.

Did you go to children’s shows on Saturday mornings?

I went to Saturday morning pictures at the Prince of Wales [Lewisham] and the Plaza [Catford]. I became an ABC Minor – “We’re Minors of the ABC and every Saturday we go there … and shout aloud with glee”, etc., etc. I remember when the manager – or whoever used to get up before the films on stage and get us to sing bouncing ball songs – asked if there were children who wanted to get up and do tap dances and things, I got up with a friend and we sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. I think I must have been only about seven. It must have been painful.

And, of course, the terrible noise that all the yobby kids made! And my friend and I used to sit near the back and we were terribly classy because we knew about cinema and we watched the films. Every time in the films they came to the dialogue, suddenly mayhem, pandemonium broke out, and we would sit there and we’d go “Shut up! Be quiet!” and tell off these kids around us. Once we obviously chose the wrong people to tell off, because they chased us afterwards down the High Street and were going to beat us up.

When I was older I would say I was brought up on the American musical and I just dreamt and fantasised about being Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Mitzi Gaynor – all those actresses with their very tight waists and their big belts and their dresses and skirts that went out and there were all those petticoats. When someone like Mitzi Gaynor did a twirl and the skirts sort of rose up, they had about six miles of thick petticoats on underneath.

Did you ever try and copy hairstyles and make-up?

I don’t think so. I used to draw ladies with dresses like that on my school books and all over the place. I do remember in Catford there was a shoe shop on the corner of Wildfell Road and Rushey Green and it was called Vyners of Hollywood. And in the windows, literally stacked from floor to ceiling, were thousands of shoes, and they were all glamour shoes. And they had sort of twelve-inch wedge heels and they were made of snake skin. And they had peep toes and high ankle things. And I used to drool over that shop. I never ever met anyone in the street who ever wore anything like that. And I really wanted shoes like that. By the time I got to the age of being able to wear shoes like that, they’d disappeared.

I used to go to matinees in the holidays with friends. And I remember my friend and I, we must have been about ten, queuing up for hours to see this wonderful film at the Queens in Rushey Green. It was next to the Lewisham Hippodrome. It was the most beautiful cinema. It was very tiny. There were a few marble steps up to these gold-handled glass doors and then there was a central paybox. I think you went in either side. I remember low ceilings, very narrow inside, and lots of brass. There was a brass rail halfway down with a red plush curtain and presumably the expensive seats were behind and the cheaper ones in front. On the left-hand side, there were only three or four seats against the wall before the aisle, just a few seats down the side. I can see it now: it was quite narrow but tall and arched, so it was definitely a mini electric palace.

And I remember queuing for hours to see this film with my friend and when we finally got in and were sitting there watching this film, the usherette came up with a torch and shone it one me. And there was my dad who was terribly cross because he’d obviously got very worried that I hadn’t come home. He knew that I’d gone to the pictures and he’d come to find me and fetch me out.

Talk about being shown up in the cinema, I remember going to the Gaumont at Lewisham with my mum and my aunt and it was in the afternoon and just a few people in there, and they’d bought the cheaper seats at the front. And I remember my aunt, who was always a bit of a girl, she said, “Come on, there are loads of seats – let’s move back.” And we moved back and, of course, the usherette came and told us off and made us move forward again. There was no one sitting at the front at all and I was very embarrassed by that.

What was the Gaumont like as a building?

The Gaumont at Lewisham was a palace. We never, ever went in the circle at the Gaumont. It was obviously far too expensive for my mum. We always went in the stalls. And what I do remember is queuing to get into a film that everybody wanted to go and see. And once you’d bought your ticket, on each side of the foyer they had these “corrals” and you would go into this corral which had a brass rail and you would queue inside that. And then they would let you into the back of the stalls where they had more corrals, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. The cinema was enormous – I think it must have had about six aisles. Right at the back, you had the low wall on the back seats and then you had this step up away from the back aisle and that had the brass rails round it. So you were let into one of these corrals where you stood and you were higher than the seats so you could watch the film. And then they would gradually get you out and seat you.

And one other thing: some B picture star, Faith Domergue, had appeared at the Gaumont and there she was coming down the stairs and my mother said, “Go on, go and ask her for an autograph.” And she got my diary out and I went up and this film star used my back to write her autograph, and there was a flash, a photographer, and my mother discovered it was the local paper. And she said, “You’re going to be in the local paper.” But I never was.

Comments: Mo Heard has been an actress, publisher, writer, usherette at the National Film Theatre, and at the time of this interview in 1993 she was manager of the Actors’ Company at the Museum of the Moving Image in London. The Queen’s Hall at Rushey Green opened in 1913 and closed in 1959. The Gaumont Palace in Lewisham opened in 1932 and seated 3,050. It finally closed as a cinema in 1981. My grateful thanks to Mo Heard for permission to reproduce this interview.

Into China

Source: Claude Roy, Into China (London: McKibbon & Kee, 1955), pp. 283-284, trans. Mervyn Savill from Clefs pour la Chine (Paris, 1953), reproduced in Jay Leyda, Dianying: An Acount of Films and the Film Audience in China (Cambridge, Mass./London: The MIT Press, 1972), p. 187

Text: In China I saw an amazing film whose beauty seemed to challenge all the esthetic rules of the game between film stock and light. For the first quarter hour in this long documentary on prostitution and its suppression, the camera did not move away from the ordinary and very distressing face of a young woman who only told her life story. A french audience probably would have been annoyed by this fifteen-minute-long passage in which the camera remains immobile and where nothing happens – except the reflection on one face of a whole destiny of humiliation and servility. I can imagine how a French audience would have sought release either in laughter, no matter how tense and nervous, or in flight from the theater. What was most moving for me in this film showing was not merely the nakedness and authenticity of the woman’s testimony, it was the attitude of the audience. The hundreds of spectators in this Chinese cinema did not give the usual impression of being spectators, of being on the other side of a mirror that stretched across this great space of a face and a life. An almost concrete link was established between them and the screen – nor was this merely uneasy curiosity or pharisaical hostility. No fear of ridicule, no enjoyment of indiscretion, no contemptuous withdrawal broke the equality between the woman who laid her burden before all of us and the “spectators” who received it without irony and without scorn – I might even say, without pity. At least without that pity which is already a judgment in its condescension. Each one felt that it could have happened to him. That is all. That is enormous.

Comments: Claude Roy (1915-1997) was a French poet, autobiographer and travel writer. The film described here is Stand up, Sisters! aka Peking Prostitutes Liberated (China 1950 d. Shih Hui).

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)

The Picturegoers

Source: David Lodge, The Picturegoers (London: Penguin, 1993 [orig. pub. 1960]), pp. 18-20

The Picturegoers (from Wikipedia) Text: ‘Take us in, Mister?’

The question startled him.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he said politely, and peered down through his spectacles at the group of rough dirty children who surrounded him.

‘G’orn, guv, take’s in.’

Father Kipling smiled uncertainly, and decided on an I’m-in-the-same-boat-as-you-fellows approach.

‘Well, really, you know, I don’t think that I can afford it.’ Things had come to a pretty pass when children begged unashamedly on the streets for money to indulge in luxuries such as the cinema. He glanced meaningfully at his companions, and began to explain.

‘We don’t want you to pay for us, Mister. We just want you to take us in.’

‘Jus’ say we’re wiv yer,’ backed up another.

”Ere’s the money, Guv.’ A grimy, shrivelled paw held up some silver coins.

‘But why?’ asked Father Kipling, bewildered.

The leader took a deep breath.

‘Well yer see, Mister, it’s an “A” and you can’t get into an “A”….’

Father Kipling listened carefully to the explanation. At the end of it he said:

‘The really, you’re not allowed to see this film unless accompanied by a parent or guardian?’

‘That’s right, Mister.’

‘Well then, I’m afraid I can’t help you, because I’m certainly not your parent, and I can’t honestly say I’m your guardian. Can I now?’ He smiled nervously at the chief urchin, who turned away in disgust, and formed up his entourage to petition another cinema-goer. Father Kipling stared after them for a moment, the hurriedly made good his escape.

Inside the foyer he was faced with a difficult decision: the choice of seats. The prices all seemed excessively high, and he was conscious of a certain moral obligation to go in the cheapest. On the other hand, this was a rare, if not unique occasion, and as he had few enough treats, he was perhaps entitled to indulge himself to the extent of a comfortable seat. He couldn’t choose the middle price, because there were four. As he hesitated he caught the eye of the commissionaire staring at him, and he hastily purchased a ticket for the second most expensive seat.

For the next few minutes he seemed to be in the grip of a nightmare. When the young woman at the swing door had rudely snatched the ticket from his hand, and just as rudely thrust a severed portion of it back again, he was propelled into a pit of almost total darkness and stifling heat. A torch was shone on his ticket, and a listless voice intoned:

‘Over to your left.’

In the far recesses of the place another torch flickered like a distant lighthouse, and he set out towards it. When he couldn’t see it he stopped; then it would flicker impatiently again, and he would set off once more. Beneath his feet he crunched what appeared to be seashells; he gasped in an atmosphere reeking of tobacco and human perspiration. Dominating all, the screen boomed and shifted. At last he reached the young woman with the torch. But his ordeal was not over. She indicated a seat in the middle of a full row. The gesture was treacherously familiar. Horror of horrors! He had genuflected! The usherette stared. Blushing furiously he forced his way into the row, stumbled, panicked, threshed, kicked his way to the empty seat, leaving a trail of execration and protest in his wake. He wanted to die, to melt away. Never again would he come to the cinema. Never again.

Comments: David Lodge (born 1935) is a British novelist and academic, who often writes on Roman Catholic themes. The Picturegoers is his first novel. The novel follows the visits to a London cinema in the late 1950s of a group of characters, using their thoughts and experiences to comment on religion and a changing society, reflected in the decline of cinema itself. Father Kipling has gone to the cinema under the misapprehension that he is to see The Song of Bernadette. Children asking adults to accompany them into the cinema so that they could see ‘A’ certificate films was a common activity in the 1950s.

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.

Wake Up Little Susie

Source: Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, song recorded by the Everly Brothers, 1957. Lyrics reproduced from http://www.metrolyrics.com/wake-up-little-susie-lyrics-everly-brothers.html

Text: Wake up little Susie, wake up
Wake up little Susie, wake up
We both fell sound asleep
Wake up little Susie and weep
The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock
And we’re in trouble deep

Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends
When they say “Ooh la la”?

Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
Well I told your mama that we’d be in by ten
Well Susie baby looks like we goofed again
Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
We gotta go home

Wake up little Susie, wake up
Wake up little Susie, wake up
The movie wasn’t so hot
It didn’t have much of a plot
We fell asleep, our goose is cooked
Our reputation is shot

Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends
When they say “Ooh la la”?

Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie

Comments: Felice (1925-2003) and Boudleaux Bryant (1920-1987) were an American husband and wife song-writing team. ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ was recorded by the Everly Brothers and topped the US Billboard pop and country charts, and reached number 2 in the UK pop charts. The lyrics refer to two teenagers falling asleep at an American drive-in and breaking a ten o’clock curfew. Phil Everly died on 3 January 2014, aged 74.

This is a movie that ends in the middle…

Source: Terry Gallacher, “This is a movie that ends in the middle…”, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/”this-is-a-movie-that-ends-in-the-middle-“/, published 29 December 2010

Text: In the thirties, forties and fifties, there was always visual entertainment available in the cinemas. In Tottenham and Edmonton in London, we had a number of cinemas at our disposal.

There was the Tottenham Palace, which was almost opposite Chestnut Road, Tottenham, which had, originally, been a theatre from 1908 and a cinema from 1926. There was the Bruce Grove Cinema which was just up Bruce Grove Road on the right hand side past the railway bridge. This was built in 1921 as a cinema, then, of course running silent movies.

Then there was the Pavilion which was a very old single story cinema and was situated opposite Argyle Road next to what was Charrington’s Brewery, in Tottenham.

The cinema was partially demolished around 1937 and rebuilt as the Florida, a bright new cinema which opened in 1938. It held 529 people. However, it, too, has been demolished. In Edmonton at the junction of Fore Street, Silver Street (now called Sterling Way) and Angel Road, there were three cinemas. The Regal Edmonton, was opened in 1934 and was extremely well designed. It was to operate as a theatre as well as a cinema. It had sixteen dressing rooms and the largest revolving stage in Europe. It had an audience capacity of almost 3,000.

In contrast to that was the Hippodrome which was just up Angel Road on the right. It was very old, run down and known as the “flea-pit” or “The Hip”. An original theatre , it would have opened for the movies at a very early stage. It was an extremely awful place which had not been given any attention since the silent days. Then there was the Alcazar, another of the exotic names used for cinemas in those days. It would take me forty years to discover what it meant. Al Casr is Arabic for “The Castle”. This was a medium sized cinema located in Fore Street, just north of the Silver Street junction. The frontage was built in the style of an Arab fort. It had glass doors all along its forty yard frontage. The foyer ran the full width of the building and on the dividing wall between the foyer and the auditorium were huge mirrors about six feet wide and from ceiling to floor.

The Alcazar was destroyed by a bomb in August 1940. Two days before War was declared, I was evacuated to Mildenhall in Suffolk with my elder brother. The local cinema in Mildenhall was the Comet and it only showed old films. We returned home for Christmas 1939. While we were away, the Tottenham cinemas were showing the latest films. My brother and I missed them, particularly Gunga Din and The Four Feathers.

We discovered that The Ritz at Turnpike Lane were showing both films in one showing. Off we went. In April, we had returned home and when the bomb went off at the Alcazar, I was woken up. It was the next day that we found out where the bomb had struck. We went off to see the damage. All the glass was blown out of the front and the foyer looked in a very bad state. There was no doubt that it would be a long time before it would re-open. In fact, it never did. There was a theory that the German bomber crew mistook the junction of Fore Street, Silver Street and Angel Road, together with the three cinemas, Alcazar, Regal and Hippodrome, to be an airbase. The cinemas might have looked like hangers. However, such theories abounded in those days.

While attending the cinema, at that time, if there should there be an air raid warning, it would show on the screen that the siren had sounded. I do not recall anyone leaving the cinema as a result of that information.

In the Spring of 1946, my friends and I went to the site where they were clearing away the bomb damage. We knew that there were some good things to collect from there. At the time, we were building a canoe and raw materials were extremely hard to come by. In the Alcazar, the Foyer mirrors had been backed by half-inch laminated plywood. Such material had not been seen since before the War. We bought a complete sheet for 10/- (50 pence).

Finally, there was the Edmonton Empire which was on a hill which had been built to take a bridge over the railway which ran underneath and connected the Edmonton – Southbury line to the Angel Road – Ponders End line. Now the railway line, the hill, the bridge and the Empire are long gone and the site forms the South East corner of Edmonton Green.

There were advantages in having all these cinemas. The Palace, the Bruce Grove and the Pavilion (Florida) all showed different programmes, but the Regal showed the same as the Palace, the Alcazar the same as the Bruce Grove. The Edmonton Empire seemed to be different to all of them. As for the Hippodrome, it showed whatever the distributors would allow it to have. Probably a set of films they did not need to pass on to another cinema somewhere.

Programmes ran from Monday to Wednesday, Thursday to Saturday with another film, usually an old one, showing on Sunday. With the combination of the various cinemas, it was possible to go to a different cinema every night.

While visiting these cinemas, I was able to watch newsreels provided by a variety of producers, such as Gaumont British, Movietonews, Pathe News and Paramount News.

In those days, we had what was known as “continuous performance” which meant that the cinema would start showing a film at around one o’clock in the afternoon to be immediately followed by the main film, which was immediately followed by the first film and the shorts and newsreel. The screen was showing moving pictures from one o’clock until the close of programmes at ten-thirty at night. In effect this meant that people would come in whenever they could. They would pick up the story and see the programme through until they reached the point when they entered. They would then leave. Hence the amusing song by Danny Kaye which had a line which said “This is a movie that ends in the middle for the benefit of the people who came in the middle”.

I would not think these casual comings and goings were by complete choice, I imagine that the picture goers had a good reason to go into a cinemas to be confronted, on arrival, with a film that only had another ten minutes to run.

Of course the result was that throughout the performance, people were coming in and going out. Other disturbances occurred when the ice-cream girl came down the centre isles, in the circle and the stalls, to take up station prior to a short interval. She would arrive before the end of a film and would still be selling when the next film started. During the running of the films, she would still be walking up and down the aisles selling ice creams.

The system of “continuous performance” also allowed that a person could go in at the afternoon start and stay in the cinema until it closed, provided they were not discovered. People were only thrown out of the cinema if they misbehaved.

If a film was showing that had had good reports, it was quite common for the cinema to become full and there would be a queue formed outside. There would be a separate queue for each price range of ticket. We all became experts at judging whether it was worthwhile joining the queue or whether to come back another day.

From the late thirties, cinema entrance fees ranged from 1/3d (6 pence) to 1/9d (9 pence) and later from 2/6d (12.5 pence) to 3/6d (17 pence). In 1940, the price of a ticket to the Bruce Grove cinema was 1/9d, but, when they showed “Gone with the Wind”, which runs four hours, they put up the price of a ticket to 2/6d.

For a while, and from time to time, the Regal in Edmonton provided a live variety show. I remember seeing a Music Hall act called “The Seven Eliots” perform, they were musicians and, I think, acrobats. At the organ there would be Sidney Torch who would appear, playing, out of the depths. Later he made a name for himself as an all round musician, conductor and music arranger.

When I see, on television, some of the old films that we paid to go to see, and even queued up for, I often wonder what we saw in them, and yet we enjoyed them at the time. Unlike today’s television schedule, there was always something to look forward to.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.

Kiss Me Again, Stranger

Source: Daphne Du Maurier, extract from ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ in Kiss Me Again Stranger: A Collection of Eight Stories Long and Short (New York: Doubleday, 1953 [orig. pub. The Apple Tree, Gollancz, 1952]), pp. 9-12

Text: I’m one for routine. I like to get on with my job, and then when the day’s work’s over settle down to a paper and a smoke and a bit of music on the wireless, variety or something of the sort, and then turn in early. I never had much use for girls, not even when I was doing my time in the Army. I was out in the Middle East, too, Port Said and that.

No, I was happy enough living with the Thompsons, carrying on much the same day after day, until that one night, when it happened. Nothing’s been the same since. Nor ever will be. I don’t know …

The Thompsons had gone to see their married daughter up at Highgate. They asked me if I’d like to go along, but somehow I didn’t fancy barging in, so instead of staying home alone after leaving the garage I went down to the picture palace and, taking a look at the poster, saw it was cowboy and Indian stuff — there was a picture of a cowboy sticking a knife into the Indian’s guts. I like that — proper baby I am for westerns — so I paid my one and twopence and went inside. I handed my slip of paper to the usherette and said, “Back row, please,” because I like sitting far back and leaning my head against the board.

Well, then I saw her. They dress the girls up no end in some of these places, velvet tarns and all, making them proper guys. They hadn’t made a guy out of this one, though. She had copper hair, page-boy style I think they call it, and blue eyes, the kind that look short-sighted but see further than you think, and go dark by night, nearly black, and her mouth was sulky-looking, as if she was fed up, and it would take someone giving her the world to make her smile. She hadn’t freckles, nor a milky skin, but warmer than that, more like a peach, and natural too. She was small and slim, and her velvet coat — blue it was — fitted her close, and the cap on the back of her head showed up her copper hair.

I bought a programme — not that I wanted one, but to delay going in through the curtain — and I said to her, “What’s the picture like?”

She didn’t look at me. She just went on staring into nothing, at the opposite wall. “The knifing’s amateur,” she said, “but you can always sleep.”

I couldn’t help laughing. I could see she was serious though. She wasn’t trying to have me on or anything.

“That’s no advertisement,” I said. “What if the manager heard you?”

Then she looked at me. She turned those blue eyes in my direction; still fed-up they were, not interested, but there was something in them I’d not seen before, and I’ve never seen it since, a kind of laziness, like someone waking from a long dream and glad to find you there. Cats’ eyes have that gleam sometimes when you stroke them, and they purr and curl themselves into a ball and let you do anything you want. She looked at me this way a moment, and there was a smile lurking somewhere behind her mouth if you gave it a chance, and tearing my slip of paper in half, she said, “I’m not paid to advertise. I’m paid to look like this and lure you inside.”

She drew aside the curtains and flashed her torch in the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black, like it always is at first until you get used to it and begin to make out the shapes of the other people sitting there, but there were two great heads on the screen and some chap saying to the other, “If you don’t come clean I’ll put a bullet through you,” and somebody broke a pane of glass and a woman screamed.

“Looks all right to me,” I said, and began groping for somewhere to sit.

She said, “This isn’t the picture, it’s the trailer for next week,” and she flicked on her torch and showed me a seat in the back row, one away from the gangway.

I sat through the advertisements and the newsreel, and then some chap came and played the organ, and the colours of the curtains over the screen went purple and gold and green — funny, I suppose they think they have to give you your money’s worth — and looking around, I saw the house was half empty — and I guessed the girl had been right, the big picture wasn’t going to be much, and that’s why nobody much was there.

Just before the hall went dark again she came sauntering down the aisle. She had a tray of ice creams, but she didn’t even bother to call them out and try to sell them. She could have been walking in her sleep, so when she went up the other aisle I beckoned to her.

“Got a sixpenny one?” I said.

She looked across at me. I might have been something dead under her feet, and then she must have recognised me, because that half smile came back again, and the lazy look in the eye, and she walked round the back of the seats to me.

“Wafer or cornet?” she said.

I didn’t want either, to tell the truth. I just wanted to buy something from her and keep her talking.

“Which do you recommend?” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Cornets last longer,” she said, and put one in my hand before I had time to give her my choice.

“How about one for you too?” I said.

“No, thanks,” she said, “I saw them made.”

And she walked off, and the place went dark, and there I was sitting with a great sixpenny cornet in my hand, looking a fool. The damn thing slopped all over the edge of the holder, spilling on to my shirt, and I had to ram the frozen stuff into my mouth as quick as I could for fear it would all go on my knees, and I turned sideways, because someone came and sat in the empty seat beside the gangway.

I finished it at last, and cleaned myself up with my pocket handkerchief, and then concentrated on the story flashing across the screen. It was a western all right, carts lumbering over prairies, and a train full of bullion being held to ransom, and the heroine in breeches one moment and full evening dress the next. That’s the way pictures should be, not a bit like real life at all; but as I watched the story I began to notice the whiff of scent in the air, and I didn’t know what it was or where it came from, but it was there just the same. There was a man to the right of me, and on my left were two empty seats, and it certainly wasn’t the people in front, and I couldn’t keep turning round and sniffing.

I’m not a great one for liking scent. It’s too often cheap and nasty, but this was different. There was nothing stale about it, or stuffy, or strong; it was like the flowers they sell up in the West End in the big flower shops before you get them on the barrows — three bob a bloom sort of touch, rich chaps buy them for actresses and such — and it was so darn good, the smell of it there in that murky old picture palace full of cigarette smoke, that it nearly drove me mad.

At last I turned right round in my seat, and I spotted where it came from. It came from the girl, the usherette; she was leaning on the back board behind me, her arms folded across it.

“Don’t fidget,” she said. “You’re wasting one and twopence. Watch the screen.”

But not out loud so that anyone could hear. In a whisper, for me alone. I couldn’t help laughing to myself. The cheek of it! I knew where the scent came from now, and somehow it made me enjoy the picture more. It was as though she was beside me in one of the empty seats and we were looking at the story together.

When it was over and the lights went on, I saw I’d sat through the last showing and it was nearly ten. Everyone was clearing off for the night. So I waited a bit, and then she came down with her torch and started squinting under the seats to see if anybody had dropped a glove or a purse, the way they do and only remember about afterwards when they get home, and she took no more notice of me than if I’d been a rag which no one would bother to pick up.

I stood up in the back row, alone — the house was clear now — and when she came to me she said, “Move over, you’re blocking the gangway,” and flashed about with her torch, but there was nothing there, only an empty packet of Player’s which the cleaners would throw away in the morning. Then she straightened herself and looked me up and down, and taking off the ridiculous cap from the back of her head that suited her so well, she fanned herself with it and said, “Sleeping here tonight?” and then went off, whistling under her breath, and disappeared through the curtains.

It was proper maddening. I’d never been taken so much with a girl in my life. I went into the vestibule after her, but she had gone through a door to the back, behind the box-office place, and the commissionaire chap was already getting the doors to and fixing them for the night. I went out and stood in the street and waited. I felt a bit of a fool, because the odds were that she would come out with a bunch of others, the way girls do. There was the one who had sold me my ticket, and I dare say there were other usherettes up in the balcony, and perhaps a cloakroom attendant too, and they’d all be giggling together, and I wouldn’t have the nerve to go up to her …

Comments: Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) was a British novelist, short story writer and playwright. Her collection of short stories, The Apple Tree was published in the USA under the title Kiss Me Again, Stranger, the title of the story from which the above extract is taken. The story is about a shy garage mechanic who falls for a mysterious usherette with a murderous secret. The same collection includes The Birds, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ has been made into a TV play in the USA on three occasions: 1953, 1958, and 1974, the latter made for Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love, starring Juliet Mills and Leonard Nimoy.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

At the Drive-in

Source: Terry Gallacher, ‘At the Drive-in’, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/at-the-drive-in/, 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 http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. 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

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.