Going to the Pictures

(L-R) Thurston Hall, Edward Arnold and Thomas Mitchell
(L-R) Thurston Hall, Edward Arnold and Thomas Mitchell

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Going to the Pictures’, Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 466-469 (originally published, in shorter form, as ‘I know what I like, but I’m not sure about art’ in The Independent, 24 May 1995, based on a lecture given at the National Gallery on this date)

Text: Floundering through some unreadable work on art history, I’ve sometimes allowed myself the philistine thought that these intricate expositions, gestures echoing other gestures, one picture calling up another and all underpinned with classical myth … that surely contemporaries could not have had all this at their fingertips or grasp by instinct what we can only attain by painstaking study and explication, and that this is pictures being given what’s been called ‘over meaning’. What made me repent, though, was when I started to think about my childhood and going to a different kind of pictures, the cinema.

When I was a boy we went to the pictures at least twice a week, as most families did then, regardless of the merits of the film. To me Citizen Kane was more boring but otherwise no different from a film by George Formby, say, or Will Hay. And going to the pictures like this, taking what was on offer week in week out was, I can see now, a sort of education, an induction into the subtle and complicated and not always conventional moral scheme that prevailed in the world of cinema then, and which persisted with very little change until the early sixties.

I’ve been trying recently to write about some of the stock characters of films of that period and I’ll talk about two in particular in the hope that I can relate one sort of pictures to the other.

A regular figure in films of that time was a middle-aged businessman, a pillar of the community, genial, avuncular, with bright white hair, and the older ones among you will know immediately the kind of character I mean if I should you this actor. His name is Thurston Hall, and this is another actor, Edward Arnold. Their names are unimportant but they were at that time instantly recognisable. I certainly knew at the age of eight that as soon as this character or this type of character put in an appearance he was up to no good.

The character speaks:

I am not an elaborate villain, nor is my spirit particularly tormented; crime in my case is not a substitute for art. It is just that my silver hair and general benevolence, invariably supplemented by a double-breasted suit, give me the appearance of an honest man. In the movies honest men do not look like honest men and suave is just another way of saying suspect. Bad men wear good suits; honest men wear raincoats, and so untiring are they in the pursuit of evil that they sometimes forget to shave.

The converse of this character, though he is seldom in the same film, would be the man who has been respectable in himself once but who has made one big mistake in his life – a gun-fighter, say, who has killed an innocent man, a doctor who bungled an operation – and who by virtue of his misdemeanour (and the drink he takes to forget it) has put himself outside society.

Thomas Mitchell was such a doctor in John Ford’s Stagecoach, and though such lost souls are more often come across in westerns they turn turn up in the tropics too, their frequent location the back of beyond.

The character speaks:

In westerns I will generally team up with the tough wise-cracking no-nonsense lasy who runs the saloon, who in her turn, inhabits the audience’s presuppositions about her character. They know that a life spent in incessant and lucrative sexual activity has not dulled her moral perceptions one bit. They remember Jesus had a soft spot for such women, and so do they.

I am frequently a doctor, in particular a doctor who at a crucial turn of events has to be sobered up to deliver the heroine’s baby or to save a child dying of diptheria. Rusty though my skills are, I find they have not entirely deserted me and I am assisted in the operation by my friend the proprietress of the saloon. She is tough and unsqueamish and together we pull the patient through, and having performed a deft tracheotomy my success is signalled when I come downstairs and say, ‘She is sleeping now.’

He concludes:

But though I rise to the occasion as and when the plot requires it, there is never any suggestion that I am going to mend my ways in any permanent fashion. Delivering the baby, flying the plane, shooting the villain … none of this heralds a return to respectability, still less sobriety. I go on much as ever down the path to self-destruction. I know I cannot change so I do not try. A scoundrel but never a villain, I know redemption is not for me. It is this that redeems me.

Now though this analysis may seem a bit drawn out, the point I am making is that the twentieth-century audience had only to see one of these characters on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage they were carrying, the past they had had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would have been able to decode their pictures – just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.

And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced a painting as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Going to the Pictures’, from which this extract comes. The essay was originally a talk given by Bennett in 1995 while he was a Trustee of the National Gallery in London. His childhood was spent in Leeds.

Links: Copy of Bennett’s original talk ‘I know what I like, but I’m not sure about art’ in The Independent

Seeing Stars

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Seeing Stars’, London Review of Books, vol. 24 no. 1, 3 January 2002, pp. 12-16, reproduced with slight emendations in Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 160-173

Text: In the 1940s within a mile or so of where we lived in Armley in Leeds there were at least half a dozen cinemas. Nearest was the Picturedrome on Wortley Road but others were just a walk or a tramride away – the Lyric down Tong Road, the Clifton at Bramley, the Palace off Stanningley Road and the Western a bit further on. And without ever being a dedicated filmgoer I could have graded them all from fleapit upwards in their degree of comfort and sophistication just as, a little later, I would be able to grade the neighbourhood churches in terms of high and low, many of the churches and cinemas since sharing a common fate, conversion to carpet warehouses, second-hand furniture marts and, nowadays, health clubs.

Programmes changed twice a week and we generally went on a Monday and a Saturday. Comedies were best, particularly George Formby, but we took what was on offer, never knowing whether a film had any special merit. Some came with more of a reputation than others, Mrs Miniver for instance with Greer Garson, Dangerous Moonlight (with the Warsaw Concerto) and Now, Voyager with the famous cigarettes. But I’m sure I must have seen both Citizen Kane and Casablanca on their first time round with no notion that these were films of a different order from the usual twice-weekly fare. It was only towards the end of the war that more of a fuss started to be made over forthcoming films, so that I remember reading in Picture Post (and probably at the barber’s) about The Way to the Stars with the young Jean Simmons, and the making of Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale, and the first Royal Command Performance, another Powell film, A Matter of Life and Death.

Suburban cinemas were often pretty comfortless places. While the entrance could be quite imposing, with the box-office generally at the top of a flight of white marble steps, presumably to accommodate the rake, the auditorium itself was often not much more than a hangar, the aisle carpeted but the seats on lino or even bare concrete. Wartime meant there was no ice-cream but en route to the cinema we would call at a sweet shop and get what Dad called ‘some spice’, provided, of course, we had the points, sweet rationing the most irksome of wartime restrictions and still in force as late as 1952, when I went into the Army.

As a family we always went to the first house, which ended around 8.10, with the second-house queue waiting as we came out, scanning our faces for a clue to the experience we had just had, much as, I imagine, soldiers did when queuing outside a brothel. The second-house crowd seemed to me more loose-living than we were, raffish even. It certainly included more courting couples and folks who liked a drink (and who might even have had one already), none of whom minded rolling home at the to us unheard-of hour of half-past ten.

The waiting (and the Second World War involved a good deal of waiting in every department) was generally done up the side of the cinema in a grim open-sided arcade that today would be drenched in urine but wasn’t then. If the cinema was full and the performance continuous the commissionaire would come down the queue shouting: ‘Two at 1/9;’ ‘A single at 2/3.’ Or (very seldom): ‘Seats in all parts.’

We always called it ‘the pictures’, seldom ‘the cinema’ and never ‘the movies’. To this day I don’t find it easy to say ‘movies’, ‘going to the pictures’ still the phrase that comes to me most naturally, though nowadays I’m not sure that ‘the pictures’, like ‘the wireless’, aren’t among the self-consciously adopted emblems of fogeydom, the verbal equivalent of those smart Covent Garden establishments that do a line in old luggage. But calling the pictures ‘the movies’ went with calling cigarettes ‘fags’, beer ‘booze’ or girls ‘birds’. It signalled a relaxed, unbuttoned approach to things, life led with more of a dash than I was ever going to manage.

Picture-going was generally a family affair, but when we were still quite young, at eight or nine, say, we were allowed to go to U films by ourselves and (with a bit of nagging) to A films too. Since the A signified that a child could only see the film when accompanied by an adult this meant hanging about outside the cinema accosting congenial-looking cinema-goers, preferably women, with ‘Can you take us in, please?’ Warning us often, every time we left the house it almost seemed, against ‘stopping with strange men’, my mother never liked my brother and me to go to the pictures on our own, but only once did I come to any harm and then not really.

In 1944 we had moved, disastrously as it turned out, from Leeds to Guildford, where we stayed for a year, so at that time I would be ten, and had persuaded my mother one afternoon to let me go see Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, which I’d seen in Armley but was now showing at the Palace in Onslow Street (closed in 1956 to become a bingo hall and currently a nightclub called The Drink). I hung about for a bit until a genial middle-aged man in glasses came along with one boy in tow already. This seemed to indicate respectability and I was about to ask him if he would take me in when he got in first, even taking my hand before shepherding us both past the box-office; he may even have paid.

The film had already started, Errol Flynn flirting with Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth while the usherette showed us down the aisle and before we had even sat down the man was pinching me and remarking on my nice chubby legs. This seemed fairly boring to me as, so far as I was concerned, they were just legs, but I put up with it for the sake of Errol Flynn, who soon after we sat down was away on the Spanish Main. However, the clutching and the pinching was getting more urgent until, innocent though I was, it dawned on me that this must be what Mam’s mysterious warnings had been about.

The sight of Errol Flynn now chained to an oar in the Spanish galleys seemed to bring these claspings to a new pitch of urgency and I decided, as they moved higher up my legs, that I ought to make a break for it. So I got up and, foolishly, headed not up the aisle to the foyer but down the aisle to the Gents where, not surprisingly, my admirer followed. Once there, I didn’t hide in a cubicle but just stood waiting, not knowing what to do.

I see myself standing in that cinema lavatory and hearing the bang of the swing-door as this kindly, bespectacled man, now suddenly sinister, comes through the door in pursuit. The entrance to the Gents was also the back door to the Exit and my admirer stood there for a second, obviously wondering if I had fled the cinema altogether. There was a moment, which in a film would hardly seem credible, when he stood with his back to me trying to decide if I’d gone. Had he turned and looked down the steps to the lavatory he would have seen me. But he didn’t turn, and obviously deciding it would be prudent to leave, he pushed the bar and went out through the exit door.

I wish I could record that I went back and watched the finish of the film but I just hung about for a few minutes until the coast was clear, then (though nothing had happened to me) ran home in mild distress. I told my mother, who became satisfyingly hysterical, but Dad, a shy and fastidious man who I knew regarded me as a liar and a show-off, was just made angry, refusing even to believe anything had happened and, if it had, ‘It was all nowt.’ Certainly I hadn’t been damaged, and if damage was done at all it was only in Dad’s refusal to acknowledge the situation. As it was, the only lasting effect of the incident was to put paid to any further lone visits to the cinema and to teach me to keep quiet. One’s legs often got felt up as a child. Dad’s old headmaster, Mr Alexander, used to give us lessons in algebra and he was a great stroker and clutcher, though only of the legs and not the parts appertaining. Vicars did it too, without seeming to want to take it further. It was something I came to expect, and just another of the ways in which grown-ups were boring.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Seeing Stars’, on his memories of cinemagoing, from which this extract comes. The films mentioned are Mrs Miniver (USA 1942), Dangerous Moonlight (UK 1941), Now Voyager (USA 1942), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Casablanca (USA 1942), The Way to the Stars (UK 1945), A Canterbury Tale (UK 1944), A Matter of Life and Death (UK 1946) and The Sea Hawk (USA 1940).

Links: Full article at London Review of Books

Seeing Stars

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Seeing Stars’, London Review of Books, vol. 24 no. 1, 3 January 2002, pp. 12-16, reproduced in Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 170-171

Text: I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V, which, during our brief sojourn at Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transformation from the confines and painted scenery to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.

Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children and that they should be taken out. None were; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.

The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, High Noon perhaps its ultimate representation. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire Over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.

Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca and Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. William Empson, I think, never wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:

The web of European civilization seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.

It was a dilemma I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Seeing Stars’, on his memories of cinemagoing, from which this selection comes. The films mentioned are Henry V (UK 1944), High Noon (USA 1952), Fire over England (UK 1937), A Tale of Two Cities (UK 1958 or USA 1935 – there was no film of Dickens’ novel made during the Second World War), The Young Mr Pitt (UK 1942), The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Casablanca (USA 1942) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Newsreels of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.

Links: Full article at London Review of Books

Untold Stories

Source: Alan Bennett, Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 170-171

Text: I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V, which, during our brief sojourn at Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transformation from the confines and painted scenery to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.

Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children and that they should be taken out. None were; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.

The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, High Noon perhaps its ultimate representation. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire Over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.

Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca and Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. William Empson, I think, never wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:

The web of European civilization seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.

It was a dilemma I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Untold Stories’ from which this selection comes. The films mentioned are Henry V (UK 1944), High Noon (USA 1952), Fire over England (UK 1937), A Tale of Two Cities (UK 1958 or USA 1935 – there was no film of Dickens’ novel made during the Second World War), The Young Mr Pitt (UK 1942), The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Casablanca (USA 1942) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Newsreels of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.