Journal of Queen Victoria

Source: Journal of Queen Victoria, 23 November 1896

Text: After tea went to the Red drawing-room, where so-called “animated pictures” were shown off, including the groups taken in September [sic] at Balmoral. It is a very wonderful process, representing people, their movements and actions as if they were alive.

Comment: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was filmed at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, by the photographic firm W. & D. Downey on 3 October 1896, in the company of her guests Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. This account from her journal records the screening of the film by Downey, among a selection of other films, at Windsor Castle the following month. The film was billed by Downey as Her Majesty the Queen and TIMs the Emperor and Empress of Russia, TRHs the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, HRH Princess of Battenberg and Royal Children at Balmoral.

The Romance of the Movies

Source: Leslie Wood, The Romance of the Movies (London: William Heinemann, 1937), pp. 69-72

Text: Showmen were convinced that despite public apathy there was nothing wrong with the show. What they had to contend with was ignorance. The public was simply unaware of the nature of the entertainment offered. The term ‘Animated Pictures’ did not hold sufficient allure. Several of the hardier spirits persevered, and the ‘barker’, borrowed from the fairground and circus, became an integral part of the early picture shows. His duties were to extol the wonders of the show, attract attention by whacking the billboards with a penny swagger cane and explain the nature of the entertainment as best he could. His descendants are, of course, the immaculate commissionaires who strut before the super-cinemas of to-day.

Then – stroke of genius! – some unknown showman coined the phrase ‘Electric Theatre’ to describe the show. The draughty shops and railway arches which housed these shows were of course in no sense ‘theatres’, but the word indicated the theatrical nature of the entertainment. Neither had electricity much bearing on the subject, but ‘Electric Theatre’ was curiosity-arousing and that was what the movies badly needed.

Before the century was out the converted shop had become the home of the despised flickers. The projector was usually placed in the window and pointed to the far end of the shop, on the end wall of which a sheet was stretched, the window itself being pasted up with bills advertising the show. The seating arrangements consisted of any odd chairs or forms the proprietor could lay hands on, or, when these were not available, up-ended boxes did duty as seats. There was no pay-box, a dingy curtain being the only barrier between the pavement and the auditorium. There were no fixed times for the performances; only when, by the ‘barker’s’ endeavours, the show was full would the films be shown. The admission charge was anything from a penny to threepence, according to the quality of the show or the wealth and gullibility of the neighbourhood. There was no differentiation between front and back seats. Before the programme began, a man would go round with an empty tin or cigar-box and collect the money, and if the collector were not the actual proprietor of the show, a good number of pennies usually found their way into his pockets instead of the box. It was not unusual to hear the proprietor admonishing: “didn’t ’ear the chink of that one going into the box, Albert!” Whereat Albert would look suitably aggrieved and take care to give the collecting-box a rattle next time he concealed a penny in his palm.

I remember one such show at Hackney that was housed in an unusually long shop. The projector was quite unable to ‘throw’ the pictures the whole length of the premises, so the astute proprietor suspended the sheet half-way down the hall. By constantly spraying the latter with oil, it was rendered sufficiently transparent to enable persons sitting behind it, as well as in front, to see the picture. For the front half of the auditorium a penny was charged, and for the rear a halfpenny, this reduction being in the nature of compensation for seeing the pictures reversed! Imagine, then, a hall in which the audience was divided in halves, each facing the other and with only a thin sheet intervening, and those in the rear portion unable to read the reversed explanatory matter shown on the screen. When the hero wrote a note to the heroine, those seated behind the sheet were unable to read it and set up a clamour for those on the opposite side to tell them what it was about, whereupon all those seated in front would chant with one voice: “Dear Agnes, meet me at the railroad depot at three – Jack”.

This was all very well up to a point, but when the action on the screen became particularly exciting, the audience sitting in front could not be bothered to help out their less wealthy neighbours at the other end. Consequently the ‘halfpenny patrons’ would give vent to their annoyance by uncomplimentary remarks, booing, stamping, and other signs of displeasure. Finally an emissary would crawl stealthily over the line of demarcation to take a peep at the screen from the ‘right’ side and report, until such time as he was discovered by the proprietor and chivvied back into the halfpenny fold.

This humble hall must surely have been the birthplace of the obnoxious practice of reading sub-titles aloud.

Comment: Leslie Wood wrote a number of anecdotal film histories including Romance of the Movies (1927) and Miracle of the Movies (1947).

Tell Me Grandpa

Source: Josef Morrell, Tell Me Grandpa (Easthill Brauton, Devon: Merlin Books, 1981), pp. 99-101

Text: However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

Comment: Josef Morrell was born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham. His evocatively-written memoirs cover the pre-war, war, and 1920s period. This section on his cinemagoing habits is especially eloquent, covering most of the key themes as they relate to children, including the different modes of behaviour for different kinds of audience. Pearl White was the star of the hugely popular Perils of Pauline serial. American actor Elmo Lincoln was cinema’s first Tarzan.

A North London Childhood

Source: Louise M. Blundell, A North London Childhood 1910-1924 (Islington Libraries, 1985), p. 21

Text: I was now eleven and something wonderful happened. The cinema came! Two were opened in archway Road, the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire. Opposite the Archway Tavern was the Electric Palace. It had an eastern look about it and had an arch with rows of electric lights and when they were switched on it looked like an Arabian palace in the fairy tale books that I read. An hour before the first performance crowds of children came, with their twopence-halfpennies clutched tightly in their hands. Nell and I were among them. We danced and played around the entrance hall until an attendant dressed in a smart uniform opened the doors for the cashier to take our money at the kiosk. We pushed and shoved and at last with tickets held tightly in our hands we rushed in – past the gilt mirrors and glossy photographs of famous stars, down the aisles to find the best seats and to wait for the magic to begin. We stared in wonderment at the ceiling which was covered in paintings of angels and cherubs with garlands of flowers and lovely ladies disporting themselves all over the ceiling. At last the pianist arrived to play as the film was shown … We were carried along on a wave of music and emotion … The cinema was really the only colourful thing in our world. North London was so drab and ugly, everyone wore such dark clothes in those days. It all seemed black and grey to me. I felt starved for colour.

Comment: In terms of the chronology of her memoir Louise Blundell is writing about the pre-WWI period of her London childhood, but the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire were both built post-1914, and some of the memories seem to relate to the early 1920s. Blundell lived in Willesden, then Archway Road; her memoir was published by the local library.

I Was a Walworth Boy

Source: H.J. Bennett, I Was a Walworth Boy (Peckham Publishing Project, 1980), p.20

Text: If one turned to the left at the top of East Street the first pub was the Roundhouse. Here too was a little cinema where I saw my first silent films with a woman playing what was [sic] considered appropriate tunes on the piano. Among the films I saw here were ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ and the early Chaplin comedies.

Comment: H.J. Bennett was born in East Street, Walworth, London, in 1902. The Exploits of Elaine was a 1914 American serial, starring Pearl White.

Nice Work

Source: Adrian Brunel, Nice Work: The Story of Thirty Years in British Film Production (London: Forbes Robertson, 1949), p. 16

Text: In 1912 my mother and I were film fans. We lived in Brighton where there were at least half-a-dozen bioscopes, as cinemas were usually called, although my mother’s maid always referred to them as “the fumes”. Many of them were converted shops, with hard, noisy, tip-up seats and bare boards, but they were cheap, the price of seats ranging from threepence to ninepence, and in some cases one shilling, and the programme varied in length between three and four-and-a-half hours. Threepence was our price; we generally managed to afford two or three shows a week, and if my mother went to town or I was on my own, my meagre savings quickly diminished while I went to as many as three shows in a day, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at eleven at night.

Comment: Adrian Brunel (1892-1958) was a British film director and editor, as well as a writer of guides to film production. His films includes The Man Without Desire (1923), The Constant Nymph (1928) and The Vortex (1928). Nice Work is his autobiography.

The East End Years

Source: Fermin Rocker, The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood (London: Freedom Press, 1998), pp. 60, 62. Freedom Press uses the Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Text: High on my list of favourites were the Indians of North America, a people for whom I had an unusual degree of admiration and sympathy. Their picturesque appearance as well as their skill and bravery as hunters and warriors greatly impressed me. Coupled with this regard and affection was a strong feeling of outrage aroused by my father’s stories of the deceit and treachery practised upon them by the white man. I dearly wished that some day the redskins would be able to turn the tables on their white oppressors and drive them from the continent which their cunning and duplicity had helped them conquer …

… My partiality for the redskin was to have some unhappy consequences when I received my first exposure to the cinema. The Westerns, which featured rather prominently in the repertory of those days, invariably had the Indians getting the worst of it in their encounters with the white man, a headlong rout of the redskins being the usual outcome. I found it quite impossible to look on calmly while my friends were being massacred on the screen. Not being nearly so stoical as my Indian idols, I would raise a tremendous commotion and have to be taken out of the theatre to prevent things from getting completely out of hand. After a few experiences of this kind, it was decided not to take me to the “pictures” any more, a resolution I did not in the least regret.

Comment: Fermin Rocker (1907-2004) was the son of anarchist theorist Rudolf Rocker and became an artist and illustrator. His memoir recalls a heavily-politicised upbringing in Stepney. His father was German, his mother a Russian Jew. He writes that he much preferred Punch and Judy to cinema.

Yesteryears

Source: Evelyn Jones, in Sylvia Bond (ed.), Yesteryears – School, Work and Leisure Remembered by Highgate Residents (London: Sylvia Bond, 1979)

Text: Then I went to the cinema. They were all silent films in those days and they had little captions underneath. We saw Lillian Gish, and one serial was very exciting yet; they’d stop at the most exciting part and it made you come the next week. But we weren’t all that regular. If it was a serial we used to like to go, but apart from that we weren’t a family that went just for the sake of going. There was a cinema down the bottom of Highgate Hill called the Electra Palace. People used to call it the Flea Pit. It was very small compared with the cinemas we get now and in those days there used to be queues of people. You’d go inside and they’d have a rope, or a piece of string or something, stuck across the bottom and you had to all stand behind before you got your seat. We used to hate that. There wasn’t much else to attract people – just concerts and cinema, so a lot of people used to go and you often had to wait a long time before you got a seat. Then there was a Plaza at Crouch End, a similar sort of place. There was a Marlborough Theatre, that was a theatre in my youth; they used to give pantomimes at Christmas time. Some years after it was turned into a cinema.

Comment: Evelyn Jones was born in 1903, and lived all her life in Milton Park, London. The cinema to which she refers is possibly the Electric Palace, 17 Highgate Hill. There is a copy of Yesteryears in Holborn archives.

The Circle in the Square

Source: Postcard c.1908 of The Circle in the Square, 28 Leicester Square, London

circleinthesquare

Comment: The Circle in the Square was the first cinema (as opposed to variety theatres showing films as part of their programme) in London’s Leicester Square. Originally known as the Bioscopic Tea Rooms, it opened in June 1909 and in common with many cinemas at this time offered teas to its patrons, here in an adjoining room, though teas could be taken into the cinema itself. The cinema, which seated 192 with standing room for 42, was open daily 2pm to 11pm, with teas provided 2pm to 7pm. Today the same location is occupied by an Angus Steak House.

Seeing in the Dark

Source: Alan Garner, in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond (eds.), Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990), p. 9

Text: I was three years old. Nobody had told me what a cinema or a film was, and certainly nothing about the concept of an animated cartoon; and I was taken into the largest enclosed space I’d ever seen, into a crowd of strangers, put on a seat, and the lights went out. Figures fifteen feet high loomed over me. The film was Snow White; and I felt my sanity slipping until the moment when the queen metamorphosed into the witch. Then I screamed and screamed, and could not stop. My mother called an usherette to have me removed, and I was handed into strange-smelling arms behind a bright beam that dazzled me. The arms hugged my squirming form and carried me out, while my mother stayed to watch the rest of the film. But the exit was at the foot of the screen, and I was being borne up towards that great and drooling hag, away from safety, pinioned by someone I couldn’t see, and the witch was laughing.

When we got home I was thrashed for making mu mother ‘look a fool’. The nightmares began and have haunted me ever since. The witch has my mother’s face.

Comment: Alan Garner (born 1934) is a British novelist best-known for his ‘children’s’ novels such as The Weirdstone of Brisingame and The Owl Service. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937. Seeing in the Dark is a collection of commissioned reminiscences of cinemagoing.