Ben’s Limehouse

Source: Ben Thomas, Ben’s Limehouse: Recollections by Ben Thomas (London: Ragged School Books, 1987), p. 43

Text: The first moving film I saw was of a man being chased, who kept falling over and tripping over things. I thought it very funny, and there were roars of laughter from the children. The other picture was a sad one with a woman holding a little girl’s hand going through the snow. This was at the Brunswick Chapel, and they charged ½d to go in. The next moving picture I went to see, was at a little cinema in the High Street Poplar, called the Star, and it also cost ½d to go in. I saw John Bunny, Pearl White, and a lot of big stars of them days. We used to see two comics, two dramas and slides about what was being shown next week. The other cinemas I was taken to by my youngest sister, these were the Kinema, or Fleapit (its nickname) in Whitehorse Street, also the Ben Hur in Whitehorse Street.

Whitehorse Street was a busy market then, near the Church, and nicknamed the ‘Old Road’. The other cinema was the Majestic, which was in a cul de sac and near a school in Ben Jonson Road.

I remember people reading aloud in the days of the silent films. In them days a lot of people, especially the elderly, couldn’t read owing to little schooling or bad eyesight. So while you would be looking at the picture being shown, as soon as the captions or wording came on someone would read it aloud to the person they were with. It might be a man reading to his wife, or vice versa, or a couple of women, or some woman would have one of her kids read to her. So there was always a good deal of mumbling going on and if the cinema wasn’t too packed, you kept away from them. Jews done a lot of this reading aloud, for there were a lot of Russian, Polish and German Jews in the East End who couldn’t read or speak English.

Another thing at the Ben Hur cinema was women doing their potato peeling, during the 1914-1918 War and on until the late 1920’s. The ‘Old Road’ was a very cheap market, so what some women used to do, was to do their bit of shopping just before 2 o’clock, then queue up at Ben Hur’s which opened at 2 o’clock. While watching the films the women would peel their spuds or when the film changing was on, for the lights would go up then. So the cleaners, besides nut shells and orange peelings to clear up, had potato peelings as well, some women peeled carrots, swedes and parsnips as well.

Comment: Ben Thomas was born in London’s East End 1907, youngest in a lighterman’s family of seven. The cinema he refers to was the Palaceadium, 137 Whitehorse Street, which was run by a local businessman nicknamed ‘Ben Hur’.

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).

101 Jubilee Road

Source: Frederick Willis, 101 Jubilee Road: A Book of London Yesterdays (London: Phoenix House, 1948), pp. 185-186

Text: There was, of course, a film of the King’s funeral [Edward VII], and by this time London was becoming vaguely aware that there was such a thing as ‘Pictures’. This form of entertainment first impressed itself on public notice as the tail-end of a variety show. At the end of the programme there often appeared the item, ‘Ruffell’s Imperial Bioscope’. When the number went up for this turn the audience felt for their hats and coats and began leaving the theatre. As the pictures flickered on the screen people glanced at them carelessly and with little interest. The next step was the appearance all over London of cinema shows put on in derelict shops. The proprietor of the show simply disembowelled the shop, filled it with any old chairs, fitted up a screen at one end and a hissing projector at the other, and charged a penny for admission. The L.C.C., alive to the danger of these enterprises, introduced laws concerning fire precautions with which these early pioneers were unable to comply, and so they faded away and were replaced with more elaborate ‘Electric Theatres’, with tip-up seats and tasteful surroundings. This was where my old customer Mr Montague Pike [sic] came on the scene, with a group of cinemas known as ‘Pike’s Circuit’. Prices of admission were threepence and sixpence, with a cup of tea and a biscuit handed to you for nothing if you happened to be present between three and five in the afternoon. Sir Augustus Harris, the great man of Drury Lane Theatre, said the cinema was an amusing novelty that would soon be forgotten. I was of the same opinion, which goes to show how great men and small men can arrive at the same conclusion and both be wrong. Nevertheless, I am sure no man living in those years could foresee the important part films were destined to play in the life of the people.

… Meanwhile the pianist (there was, of course, no orchestra), who played anything that came into her head, tinkled away furiously, and the imagination of the audience did the rest. The sequences were nailed together with sub-titles, which sufficiently explained the plot, and the last sub-title, ‘Comes the dawn’, was used so often that it became a classic. It is a curious thing that this crude form of entertainment met with success during one of the greatest periods of English theatrical history. The first film that might be described as ‘full length’ also appeared at the Alhambra round about 1910-11. The title was A Trip to the Moon, and it was based on Jules Verne’s novel, with a comic element added. It was one of the most ingenious films I have seen, and attracted much attention.

Comment: Frederick Willis was the author of several book on London life. King Edward VII died in 1902. Ruffell’s Imperial Bioscope was a film renter and exhibitor. Montagu Pyke was the leading London cinema exhibitor of the early 1910s. L.C.C. is London Country Council. A Trip to the Moon is Le voyage dans la Lune (France 1902) by Georges Méliès.

London Scenes

Source: W.R. Titterton, London Scenes (London: Andrew Melrose, 1920), pp. 141-148

Text: It is a shabby street of the broader sort, packed with traffic, and lined with assorted shops.

From the front the cinema theatre looks like a pasteboard palace transported from Shepherd’s Bush. Across it, in glaring capitals, sprawls its bill of fare – “featuring” Mary Pickford, perhaps; almost certainly Charlie Chaplin; and, to emphasise the fact, there is a picture of the pretty lady, or the comical fellow, plastered over the entrance, or on a board that leans against a festal column below. A tall and gorgeous commissionaire, hired mainly for display, commands the steps. These a crowd of customers is constantly ascending and descending, with a continual tinkle of metal as money and pass-in checks salute the metal counter of the box office. Occasionally the commissionaire shouts aloud a passionate or a side-splitting title – such as: “This afternoon, The Lure of Sin, in three parts, featuring …’ Or, “Continual performance, Flossie’s Frivolous Flutter.”

The hour is early and the crowd is of military age or under. The prevailing type seems to be the small boy in smeary cap and greasy trousers, smoking furiously at a cigarette gripped in the extreme corner of his mouth, rattling his money in his pocket, and swarming as to a scrum. The one word you catch for certain as he presses to the box-office is “Charlie.” They are all faithful subjects of the young Pretender.

You pass through a door and a curtain, and are in almost absolute darkness. The only light is at the end of the room, where black-and-white figures are capering foolishly on the screen. Music of a mournful gaiety indicates the presence of a piano and a fiddle. You have the feeling that this has been going on since the beginning of time. A black shape collects before you, and flashes at you a flaming eye and a luminous hand. The hand grabs your check and a voice says sharply, “Stalls this way please!” The shape drifts away, you following. You are aware now of rows on rows of blackness, on either side of you, with a fugitive hint of faces that grows to a certainty as the drifting darkness halts, and flashes its luminous eye on a row of them. Stumbling over stretched legs, you fall into an empty seat.

Here you are in an atmosphere of stuffiness, tobacco smoke, and vague mysterious voices, whispers, a treble giggle, a muted bass. And all the while, as in a nightmare, the meaningless pageant of the film parades.

Gradually you settle into your environment. Puffing at your pipe, all your senses except the sense of seeing are lulled to a drugged security. The eyes are drugged, too, yet wide open and straining – fascinated, hypnotised by the phantom pictures of the film.

The absurd legends do not make you laugh. In this mad word, “Maisie falls to it. Archibald is some boy,” do not strike a discordant note. But now that you have the hang of the story, and are, as it were, a part of it, the voicelessness of the actors oppresses. You are much relieved when an overburdened female suffer screams, “Look out! he’s got a knife!” Then the house roars, and for a moment the atmosphere is homely and healthy; but the next minute the nightmare grips you again.

Wonderful things happen. There is an express train, with Maisie hanging on to the tail of it. There is Maisie dangling over a precipice and the villain hacking at her with a knife. There is Archibald catching a tameless steed, riding him through burning forests, over icy mountains, and finally falling with him down tall cliffs into a moonlit sea. There is pathos, too – Maisie and Archibald captured by gun-men, and torn from each other, he grinding his teeth, she weeping bitterly. And there is that great scene where Archibald, worn with torture and the loss of his meat-card, drags himself to the church just in time to prevent Maisie being forced into marriage to save the honour of her aged father. There is a sound of sniffling around you then.

At last “The Lure of Sin,” in three parts (you have not even seen one part of it), is over, and the lights go up on a very strange assembly. The people sit bundled up in their seats, not yet half awake, their eyes blinking. A few couples still sit with arms interlaced, here and there a tired man or woman in shabby clothes, quietly sleeps. Attendants cry, “This way out!” Customers who have seen the round of the reels, and do not wish to see it again, respond to the invitation. Many of the boys, the cigarettes still in active eruption, are munching war-bread and margarine, and betting on Charlie for the next act.

Charlie indeed it is, and, when he bounds into view, you realise the artistic function of the cinema. It is to present Charlie. His walrus waddle, his sham catastrophes, his polite entanglements, his amiable idiocies, his in frequent sudden bursts of harlequin fury, the trap-door motion of his saluting hat, the incomparable shuttle of his eye over his toothbrush moustache – all these things had necessarily to be part of a dumb show, and could only rise to their true pitch of extravagant impishness when Charlie had been squeezed to a black-and-white phantom on a screen. As a popular amusement the cinema lives on Charlie.

. . . . . .

We are farther west now, and the theatre has other airs. It advertises itself, but in a more reticent fashion. Its portico is more magnificent, and the commissionaire stands in a carpeted foyer.

When you have entered the well-appointed theatre the lights are up, and the spectators look very like those you see at the play. But they are bored. In spite of the quite delightful music played by the orchestra, boredom stares out of nearly every face in balcony and stall. They have not come to a festival, they come to get doped.

The film is a film one – a medley of many periods. Vast crowds manoeuvre in vast spaces, in colossal temples and palaces decked with monstrous idols or Christian monuments. There are fierce battles, desperate attacks and surprises. The drama is nothing, but the spectacle is grandiose. It is not as fine as Charley’s Aunt, but it is better than Rheinhardt.

Yet even this oppresses. For the spectacle has no dramatic significance. It is meant to overcome you with the “muchness” of it. You read in letters of fire across the screen: “This film costs £200,000.”

When you are out in the street again you take a deep breath. The carnal, common life is so dignified and fine.

Comment: William Richard Titterton (1876–1963) was a British journalist and poet, and a severe critic of the cinema. His London Scenes documents aspects of London life during 1914-1918. The text includes line drawings of a small cinema showing ‘Vitagraph Grand Pictures’ and a grander cinema showing ‘Triangle Plays’.