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.

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.

A Cab at the Door

Source: V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door: An Autobiography: Early Years (London: Chatto & Windus, 1968), p. 72

Text: London was dangerous. We had a girl to help my mother for a few weeks and her mind, like the mind of the one at Ealing, was brimming with crime. She took me to the Camberwell Bioscope to see a film of murder and explosions called The Anarchist’s Son, in which men with rifles in their hands crawled up a hill and shot at each other. When the shed in which one of them was living, blew up, the film turned silent, soft blood red and the lady pianist in front of the screen struck up a dramatic chord. In the Bioscope men walked about squirting the audience with a delicious scent like hair lotion that prickled our heads.

Comment: Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900-1997) was a British author and critic. This extract comes from his first volume of autobiography. the Pritchett family lived in a street off Coldharbour Lane, Camberwell. The cinema he refers to is possibly Burgoyne’s American Bioscope. I have not traced any film from this period with the title The Anarchist’s Son. Spraying the audience with disinfectant was common in cinemas in the pre-WWI period. The event recalled dates from the late 1900s.