Flicks and This Fleeting Life

Source: Tony Harrison, ‘Flicks and This Fleeting Life’, in Edith Hall (ed.), Tony Harrison: The Inky Digit of Defiance – Selected Prose 1966-2016 (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), pp. 430-431, orig. pub. as introduction to Tony Harrison, Collected Film Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 2007)

Text: A tram ride into town took me to the big cinemas: the Odeon and the Majestic, where the blockbuster Hollywood films were shown. There was also a small cinema, the News Theatre, now the Bondi Beach Bar, next to the city station and the Queen’s Hotel in City Square. It was there, just after the Second World War ended, that I saw the newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps. I don’t remember who took me – I think maybe my grandfather, the retired Hunslet signalman who lived with us – but there was something overwhelming in seeing such terrible images on a large screen, much bigger than life-size. I think my reaction was almost on the sale of those early viewers of the Lumière brothers’ film of the train arriving in a station in 1895. It wasn’t that I tried to escape from the heaped corpses moving towards me, but I felt that jumbling cascade of bulldozed, emaciated Belsen bodies were being dumped onto the art deco carpet of the cinema and into my consciousness for ever. It almost blighted my life, it had such a powerful effect on me, and made me draw a line between what I knew in my heart was ‘pretend’, the films that entertained me and made me laugh, and what was news: real dead bodies bulldozed into pits at Bergen-Belsen. I have never forgotten that introduction to the filming of real life, or in this case, real and terrifying death. Nor how jarring the voice-over narrations were! What narrator could find the right tone for such terror? This newsreel changed my attitude to life and film for ever.

Comments: Tony Harrison (1937 – ) is a British poet and playwright, known for his film and television verse collaborations. His childhood was spent in Leeds. Newsreels of the liberation of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945. There was much controversy at the time as to whether children should be prevented from seeing the Belsen newsreels.

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

The Cinema Gains a Powerful Ally

Source: Northerner II, ‘This World of Ours: The Cinema Gains a Powerful Ally’, The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, 3 June 1953, p. 4

Text: I attended a revolution yesterday. I saw the triumph of large-screen television in the cinema. With about 2,000 other guests of J. Arthur Rank, I had been invited to the Odeon Theatre, Leeds, to watch the BBC’s television transmission of the Coronation – and we saw it on the largest screen in the country. The results were so good and the audience were so impressed that, as the show went on, the conviction grew that the magic box of the cinema had acquired a wonderful new trick. Television is certainly going to play an increasingly important part in bringing cinema audiences to the scenes of great events while they are actually taking place.

Yesterday’s show convinced Alderman H.M.G. McKay, Deputy Lord Mayor of Leeds, that the civic duties which had prevented him from going to London for the Coronation were a blessing in disguise. “I came into the theatre a disappointed man,” he said in a speech of thanks to the Odeon management. “My wife and I had been allocated tickets for seats on the Coronation procession route, but the Lord Mayor of Leeds’s Secretary is a hard-hearted man. He told me I could not got to London.

“The Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress are at the Abbey by Royal invitation – but I think we in this theatre are seeing a great deal more of the Abbey ceremony than they will see. It will give me great pleasure to tell the Lord Mayor all about it when he comes back to Leeds.”

Close-up of the Queen

The Odeon audience, who included old-age pensioners, nurses and representatives of many organisations in the city, shared Alderman MacKay’s enthusiasm. They applauded the Queen when she first appeared in the Royal Coach as it left Buckingham Palace. Their applause grew louder when a close-up shot made it appear as if she was smiling not at the cheering crowds who lined the streets but directly at us in the cinema.

They clapped Viscount Montgomery as he entered the Abbey in the procession. They clapped and cheered Sir Winston Churchill, who was wearing his most indomitable look. They gave a thunderous reception to the Duke of Edinburgh. But when the Queen entered, looking tense and serious, the cinema was hushed in sympathy with her for the ordeal that lay ahead.

For me the most moving part of the service was the singing of that noble hymn, “All people that on earth do dwell.” Some of the cinema audience softly joined in, and I am sure many more would have done so had the worlds of the hymn been flashed on the screen. I suggest that the BBC should adopt this practice on future occasions when people are asked to take part in the singing.

I can think of no other way in which the televising of the Coronation could have been improved. I thought the BBC carried out their extremely difficult task splendidly.

Comments: The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 was broadcast live on BBC television, and played a major factor in popularising television in the United Kingdom. The live broadcast was also shown in some cinemas, holiday camps and other areas where large screens could be erected. Television in cinemas or theatres was not a new thing, however, having been first demonstrated by John Logie Baird at the Coliseum in London in 1930.

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

Loitering with Intent

Source: Peter O’Toole, Loitering with Intent: The Child (New York: Hyperion, 1992), pp. 22-23

Text: The appalling, tormented end of King Kong upset me greatly. Gorgeous great monkey that he was. It was plain he meant no harm to the lady he held so carefully in his hand as he shimmied to the giddy top of the Empire State Building. You could see he was fond of the girl and only minding her. Why hadn’t they just let him be in his jungle? Wanting no more than to bump his chest, let rip the odd rumbling great yodel, chew a banana and fling a few trees about. Why capture him, rope and chain him, take him away to lock him up so that people could gawk at him? He was a superb beast. It was his capturers and keepers who were brutal. No wonder he broke loose and fled up the tallest thing to a tree he could find. But they chased him and found him and got him. They blinded him with search lights, they wounded him with bullets, they set aeroplanes on him, to fly at him and frighten him and shoot, shoot, shoot him. Wicked they all were and cruel. It pleased me hugely when King Kong snatched the aeroplane attacking him and snapped it into bits. Serve it right. None of it was fair and may King Kong be blessed forever for putting up a good scrap.

Mind you, there were hugs and sweets from Mummy to console. There was the sway and clatter of a tram ride to Roundelay Park to enjoy, ice cream to lick as my mother and I held sticky hands when we walked through the trees and down to my magical lake there.

Yes, I quite understood that King Kong was only a story, only a picture, it hadn’t really happened. They were only pretending, they hadn’t truly hurt that mighty monkey, it was just like a game. Mummy explained it all simply and clearly to me as we dipped our hands into the water of the lake to remove the vanilla and the strawberry and my mother had thrown the last of her ice-cream cornet to the ducks. And yet: I didn’t want to see that film ever again.

Comments: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013) became a notable screen actor. Roundelay Park is in Leeds. King Kong was made in 1933.