London Particulars

Source: C.H. Rolph, London Particulars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 104-107

Text: It was in the company of Mr Herbert and his Sunday School following that I made my second visit to a cinema. (The first had been in my mother’s arms at about the age of twelve months.) Since then, I had grown accustomed to the marvels of the magic lantern: first, through visits to Wally Gerrard’s house, where a magic lantern was one of the attractions, and from about 1908 onwards through our acquisition of an Army and Navy stores magic lantern, price 92 shillings and six pence with eight slides. Four slides told the story of a London Fire Brigade hero called Bob the Fireman. It seems odd to me that the second cinema visit, after a lapse of nine years should (in contrast with the first) have left in my mind virtually no record of what was shown on the screen. The explanation probably is that I was absorbed in the mechanics and showmanship of the whole thing. In the Fulham Road near the Fire Station a shop had been converted into a tiny cinema, though that is not what it was called. It was called the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre; and it seems a happy thought that the wonder and magic of ‘moving pictures’, even then probably twenty years old and yet growing year by year, should sustain the word ‘movie’ in our language to this day. (Not that we ever used the word then: I believe its public admission to un-American English happened in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House towards the end of the war.) I suppose the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre seated an audience of thirty at the most, the front three rows of chairs being very small ones of the kind seen in nursery schools, and behind those (for the grown-ups) there were padded forms with no backs to them. Saturday performances started at 3 p.m. and the price of admission was twopence-halfpenny.

The music was provided by an old horn-type gramophone, operated by the ticket cashier, its horn protruding through a hole cut in the wall of the box-office. The films were all very short, and no doubt very old – they broke down many times in each performance. And at each breakdown a stout lady who always sat on a cushioned stool near the Exit (it was the first time I ever saw the word Exit, and to this day I don’t understand why it is better than Out) tugged at a little chain hanging from the gas-lamp near the door and, it seemed to our startled eyes, flooded the room with a dazzling light. Mr Herbert told us that the management had not learned to leave a company of children in the dark with nothing to engage their attention. An audience of grown-ups were allowed to wait in the dark, I believe, during breakdowns. But they probably knew how to pass the time.

It was I think a year or two after that (probably 1912) when my parents first took us all to the newly opened Putney Bridge Kinema: a splendid edifice, we thought, with a domed entrance; two or three hundred seats; a curtain that pulled itself, with an unforgettable swish, across the screen at the beginning and end of each picture – it bore corrugated references to what we had just seen and what was to come next; a little string ensemble eked out by an indefatigable pianist; and brown-uniformed attendants who paraded the aisles from time to time squirting deodorant over our heads (I wonder why?). The lights went up at the end of each picture, and it was then that the attendants began shouting ‘Sway out please’ and ‘Cigarette, Chocleet’. The very first time we were taken to this stately pleasure-dome, and waited while my father paid our admission fees, I leaned over and whispered in five-year-old Roland’s ear the mysterious words he must have been hearing so often from me in recent months: ‘Moving pictures!’ He tells me that once he was inside, and seated on his father’s lap, he noticed that there were indeed pictures all around the walls, and he was waiting breathlessly for them all to start moving when, to his intense disappointment, all the lights went out. It was some time before he found that everyone else was now looking at a huge illuminated square at the end of a searchlight, and even longer before he was prepared to allow that the flickering figures to be seen on it must be the moving pictures for which I had so long and so excitedly prepared him.

Visits to the Putney Bridge Kinema became a weekly occurrence, and it was there that we saw our first Charlie Chaplin film. It was called Laughing Gas, and it established a devoted family of Chaplin addicts who were never, in the next seventy years, to waver in their loyalty. The universal Chaplin impact was something I shall never really understand. For years it seemed to me that there are so many totally humourless people in the world that success on the Chaplin scale simply shouldn’t be possible, that it is a phenomenon calling for some transcendental explanation. Then I saw that this point of view merely rationalizes the feeling, in the breast of each Chaplinite, that Chaplin really belongs to him alone, that there is no one else who quite understands just how funny life can be. I do not see how this universal act of identity could have survived Charlie’s ham sociological period, his City Lights and his Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux and the rest. But when I was a boy no one could have foreseen those aberrations.

Three actresses of the time enslaved us, and at that age I was precociously ready for enslavement: ‘eleven-plus’ was for me, I now realize, a prominent emotional milestone. They personified our more ecstatic dreams of the fair: Mary Pickford, Daphne Wain, and Pearl White. Miss White held us by reason of the terrifying predicaments we always had to leave her in. As the curtain swished across at the end she was always crying for help from a seventh-floor window in a burning building, hanging by her beautifully manicured fingernails from the outside of a balloon basket, or bound and struggling gracefully in the path of an express train. Her films bore titles like The Exploits of Elaine, and it was only the need that she should survive for at least one more advertised Exploit that sent us home partly optimistic about the future. Mary Pickford and Daphne Wain held us by their beauty, whatever kind of story it had to illuminate, and they usually got their stories over in one go.

Comment: C.R. Rolph (real name Cecil Rolph Hewitt) (1901-1994) was the son of a policeman. His family lived in Southwark, then Finsbury Park, then Fulham. He became a Chief Inspector in the City of London Police, Vice-President of the Howard League for Penal Reform and served on the editorial staff of the New Statesman. London Particulars is the first of two classic volumes of autobiography.