An Evening at the Cinema

Source: Miss Johnson, ‘An Evening at the Cinema’, St Helena Diocesan Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, no. 350, May 1929, p. 61 (originally published in South African journal The Outspan)

Text: We arrived back at the hotel about 4-30 pm feeling really tired, but as we had reserved seats at the cinema for that evening we simply had to go. We sat upstairs on armchairs with cushions, on one side of the gallery, while the Governor with his party sat on the other. They were all in evening dress! The cinema did not start until the Governor had arrived, which was about 8-30 pm. In the meantime we just looked on at those St. Helena people and wondered if the six little girls who had hovered round since our arrival selling beads were there. They had said they were too poor even to go to the cinema – they had never been to the cinema. So we gave them each six pence for the express purpose of celebrating. Then the St Helena band started, a string band consisting of three players. They had no sooner started to play than the whole audience took up the tune and sung lustily. We’ll never forget, ‘I’m Sitting on Top of the World,’ or ‘I’ll be Loving You Always,’ or ‘Show Me The Way to Go Home.’

Comments: The first film shows on the South Atlantic island of St Helena began in January 1921. This account from a South African tourist could be describing either the Theatre Royal Bioscope or the New Store Theatre, which were adjacent to one other in the Grand Parade area of Jamestown, the island’s capital. Sound films did not come to St Helena until 1940.

Links:
St Helena Island Info – a history of cinema in St Helena

Mexican Odyssey

Source: Heath Bowman and Stirling Dickinson, Mexican Odyssey (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1935), pp. 150-151

Text: We join the people walking around the square. French sailors in their immaculate white dress uniforms and pith helmets eye the pretty girls. Are they more beautiful here just for these sailors’ delectation, and do they ever escape their ever-present dueñas? And are their dresses with the big middy-blouse collars in the seamen’s honor, or simply the latest style? For the girls are dressed well in bright summer clothes, and the northern fad for bare legs is really sensible and beautiful here.

From the movie house an amplified victrola is competing with the music outside. Already people are going in, and we find seats in the luneta, half-way back (the best place to see). To us, the people are more fascinating even than the persuasive melody of “Pienselo Bien,” a beguiling, plaintive tune. But to the Mexicans, the center of interest is Ken Maynard, a favorite Western movie star, who is here tonight in person! He has to stand up and bow and smile before they are satisfied.

Always in Mexico there are two movies, almost invariably imported from Hollywood. Westerns are the favorites, but the audience goes wild when their hero, José Mojica, sings for them, as he does tonight. They do not even mind that the newsreel shows the opening of the baseball season in the States, just ten months before, and they cannot understand a picture of a Chicago blizzard, snow swirling about pedestrians. What is snow? Something like ice cream?

Mojica’s picture is laid in the South Seas, and absorbs the Mexicans, although the scenes might have been taken on their own coast. . . . For, as we drive back along their ocean, weaving along the edge where we can look down upon a full moon throwing its wake clear to the breakers below, and as we round the last curve and see our house, black against the shining beach, we wonder what more they could ask.

The jungle is quiet now, it is as if the darkness had obliterated it. But the sea continues to moan. The oldest cry on earth. . . .

Comments: Frederick Heath Bowman (1910-1993) was an American travel writer and later a US Department of State public affairs officer. With his friend and fellow Princeton graduate, the artist Stirling Dickinson (1909-1998), he travelled through Mexico over 1934-35 in a 1929 Ford Model A convertible named ‘Daisy’. Bowman wrote the text and Dickinson provided the illustrations for their popular travel book. The cinema they visited was in Acapulco. José Mojica was a Mexican actor and singer who provided a foreword to Bowman and Dickinson’s book. He later became a Franciscan friar.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Candles, Carts & Carbolic

Source: Jim Callaghan, Candles, Carts & Carbolic: A Liverpool Childhood Between the Wars (Lancaster: Palatine Books, 2001), pp. 35-36

Text: The Saturday afternoon visit to the pictures was our one and only treat, twopence in the Balcony, penny in the Pit. Balcony patrons, as befitted their status, queued under a covered walkway, the Pit rabble submitting themselves to the open air. Attired in an ankle-length coat, adorned with brass epaulettes and a gold~braided cap held in place by his ears, Old Soupy-Eyes, armed with a long cane, stands at the top of the steps, guarding the entrance to the Pit, now and then administering a thwack to some youngster attempting to break ranks. Up and down the queue shuffles the Chewing Gum man, ‘Ere y’ar now; he intones, ‘everybody’s doing it, everybody’s chewing it, Wrigley’s spearmint, five sticks a penny,’ his doleful litany drowned in a rousing cheer as the projectionist is seen climbing the iron ladder to his box. Sounds of doors opening reach the ears of the waiting mob. Soupy-Eyes braces himself for the rush but he is swept aside, overwhelmed.

I honestly believe that no generation ever enjoyed the pictures much as we did. Wrapped in the warmth of hundreds of young bodies, the tang of peeling oranges in our nostrils, we sat under the dust-laden beam of the projectionist’s lamp in total darkness and in complete harmony with our idols on the screen. The airless cinema became a place of wonder: no sweet-wrappers rustled, no ice-cream sellers broke the spell; howls of derision greeted the occasional breakdown and when at times the screen appeared to dissolve in flames we knew it was all part of the magic.

Art Accord, William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Lou Tellegan, J. Farrell McDonald (trapped in the miner’s shack at the head of the canyon and aware that the posse was getting closer: ‘Where was Moses when the light went out? he said, dropping his smouldering corncob into the barrel of dynamite). These were our heroes. Then there was Mary Miles Minter, Nazimova of whom we sang rather a rude song, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran and once a glimpse of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, her wooden leg tucked out of sight and the Queen of them all, Pearl White, who had a song written about her:

My little pearl of the army,
Pearl of the picture screen
You’re the Queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a pearl of a girl like you.

Anyway, that’s what it sounded like in 1917.

Comments: Jim Callaghan (1911-2001), one of eleven children, grew up among the working-class, Irish-Catholic neighbourhood of Scottie Road, Liverpool. In adult life he became a personnel officer. My thanks to Jenny Callaghan (his daughter, I believe) for having once recommended this passage from his memoirs on my Bioscope site.

Moving (Dioramic) Experiences

Source: Charles Dickens, ‘Moving (Dioramic) Experiences’, All the Year Round, vol. XVII, 23 March 1867, pp. 304-307

Text: The diorama is a demesne that seems to be strictly preserved for the virtuous and good. Those for whom the gaudy sensualities of the theatre are interdicted may here be entertained with the mild and harmless joys of an instructive diorama. At the doors going in, we may see the quality of the guests — benevolent-looking elderly men, dry virgins, a clergyman or two, and portly mammas with a good deal on their minds, who have brought the governess and all their young family. There is a crowd, and extraordinary eagerness to get in, though there, alas! often proves to be too much room. For these moral shows address themselves only to a limited area; though the limited area does not come forward so handsomely as it should do. Among such audiences there is a more resentful and jealous feeling about points of disagreement between them to the entertainment, such as not commencing — returning money and the like; the umbrellas and sticks, it may be remarked, are made more use of — I mean in the way of creating noise and the word “Shame!” is uttered from the back benches with more burning indignation. How often on the first night, say, of the Grand Moving Diorama of the Tonga Islands, when there has been a long delay, and something fatally wrong in the gasworks of the little town has prevented the despairing exhibitor from doing much more than show dim pictures, and transformations that miscarried dreadfully, how often have we not seen a bald head and glassy spectacles rise out of the Cimmerian gloom to which the character of the show inevitably consigns its audiences, and in what seems sepulchral accents address us on our wrongs. “We learn by our excellent weekly organ — not the one we hear in our place of worship — that this is Mr. Laycock, our “worthy” fellow-citizen, who has been for years a resident. He thinks we have been treated badly— outrageously; in fact, in the whole course of his long residence at Dunmacleary — then umbrellas and sticks give a round — he never recollected an audience — a highly intelligent and respectable audience (sticks and umbrellas again) — treated with such disrespect. What they had seen that night was a miserable and inefficient thing — a wretched imposture and take-in” (sticks again). The poor showman is always helpless, and from his “stand,” where he had been in such luxuriant language describing the beauties of foreign lands, excitedly defends himself, to cries of “No, no,” and umbrella interruptions. It was not his fault. He had arrived late “in their town.” He had been up all night (“Return the money”). It was the fault of their gasworks (groans), and he would mention names. Yes, of Mr. John Cokeleigh, the secretary (“Shame”), who assured him (great interruption at this unworthy attempt to defame the absent).

A really good diorama is a really high treat, and for the young an entertainment second only to the pantomime. Parents should encourage this feeling, instead of serving out those little sugar-plums, which are so precious to a child, as if they were dangerous and forbidden fruit, which might corrupt the morals and corrupt the soul. These joys are always made to hang awfully in the balance on the turn of a feather-weight, as it were — by well-meaning but injudicious parents.

Alas! do I not recal Mr. Blackstone, our daily tutor, a steady, conscientious, poor, intellectual “navvy,” who was reading nominally “for orders,” but, as it proved, for a miserable curacy, which he still holds, and I believe will hold, till he reaches sixty. This excellent man kept a mother and sisters “on me and a few more boys,” that is to say, by coining for two hours each day on tutorship. Mr. Blackstone kept a little judgment-book with surprising neatness, in which are entries which scored down, with awful rigidness, Latin, bene; Greek, satis; French, medi. This volume was submitted every evening at dinner to the proper authority, and by its testimony we were used according to our deserts, and, it may be added, with the result which the rare instinct of the Lord Hamlet anticipated on using people after their deserts. During this course of instruction, it came to pass that the famous Diorama of the North Pole arrived in our city. It had indeed been looked for very wistfully and for a long time, and its name and description displayed on walls in blue and white stalactite letters, apparently hanging from the eaves of houses, stimulated curiosity. Indeed, I had the happiness of seeing the North Pole actually arrive, not as it might be present to romantic eyes, all illuminated from behind, and in a state of transparent gorgeousness, but in a studied privacy and all packed close in great rolls. Later, I found my way up the deserted stair of the “rooms” where the North Pole had taken up its residence, and, awe-struck, peeped into the great darkened chamber where it reposed with mysterious stillness. There was a delightful perfume of gas, and the rows of seats stretched away far back, all deserted. The North Pole, shrouded in green baize, rose up gauntly, as if it were wrapping itself close in a cloak, and did not wish to be seen. A hammer began to knock behind, and I withdrew hurriedly. Somehow, that grand déshabille by day left almost as mysterious, though not so gay, an impression as the night view. But to return to Mr. Blackstone. Latterly, rather an awkward run of “satis” and “medis” had set in, and the pupil at that evening’s inspection of the books had been warned and remonstrated. With that rather gloomy view which is always taken of a child’s failings, he had been warned that he was entering on a course that would bring him early “to a bad end,” if not “to the gallows.” This awful warning, though the connexion of this dreadful exit with the “satis,” &c., was but imperfectly seen, always sank deep, and the terrors of the “drop” and a public execution sometimes disturbed youthful dreams. But, however, just on the arrival of the North Pole it was unfortunate that this tendency towards a disgraceful end should have set in. For the very presence of this pleasing distraction unnerved the student. It was determined that an early day should be fixed when the family should go, as it were, en masse, and have their minds improved by the spectacle of what the Arctic navigators had done. To the idle apprentice who was under Mr. Blackstone’s care, it was sternly intimated that unless he promptly mended, and took the other path which did not lead to the gallows, he should be made an example of. This awful penalty was enough from sheer nervousness to bring about failure, and when the day fixed for the North Pole came round, Mr. Blackstone said “it was with much pain that he was compelled to give the worst mark in his power for Greek, namely, ‘malè!'”

At this terrible blow all fortitude gave way, and, with a piteous appeal to tutorial mercy, it was “blubbered” out what a stake was depending on his decision, and that not only was the North Pole hopelessly lost for ever, but that worse might follow. Blackstone was a good soul at heart, and I recal his walking up and down the room in sincere distress as he listened to the sad story. He was a conscientious man, and when he began, “You see what you are coming to, by the course of systematic idleness you have entered on,” and when, too, he began to give warnings of the danger of such a course, with an indistinct allusion to the gallows, it was plain there was hope. After a good deal of sarcasm and anger, and even abuse, I recal his sitting down with his penknife and neatly — he did everything neatly — scratching out the dreadful “malè.” But his conscience would only suffer him to substitute a “vix medi,” a description which, in truth, did not differ much, but which had not the naked horror of the other. I could have embraced his knees. And yet suspicion was excited by this erasure, most unjustly, and but little faith was put in the protestations of the accused; for his eagerness to be present at the show was known, and he was only cleared by the friendly testimony of an expert as to handwriting.

That North Pole was very delightful. It seems to me now to be mostly ships in various positions, and very “spiky” icebergs. The daring navigators, Captain Back and others, always appeared in full uniform. They had all our sympathy. The most exciting scene was the capture of the whale, as it was called, though it scarcely amounted to a capture. When the finny monster had struck out with his tail and sent the boat and crew all into the air, a dreadful spectacle of terror and confusion, which caused a sensation among the audience, exhibited by rustling and motion in the dark, an unpleasantness, however, quickly removed by the humour of our lecturer, who, in his comic way, says, “As this is a process which happens on an average about once in the week, the sailors get quite accustomed to this ducking, and consider it rather fun than otherwise, as it saves them the trouble of taking a bath.” This drollery convulses us, and the youthful mind thinks what it would give to have such wit. Not less delightful was the scene where the seals were playing together on the vast and snowy-white shore, with the great “hicebergs” (so our lecturer had a tendency to phrase it) in the distance, and the two ships all frozen up. We had music all through, as the canvas moved on. And when our lecturer dwelt on the maternal affection of the wounded seal which was struggling to save its offspring, and declined to escape into the water, Mr. George Harker, the admired tenor (but invisible behind the green baize), gave us, with great feeling and effect — was it the ballad of “Let me kiss him for his Mother”?

Only a few years ago, when the intrepid navigators, M’Clintock and others, were exciting public attention, a new panorama of their perils and wanderings was brought out. Faithful to the old loves of childhood, I repaired to the show; but presently begun to rub my eyes. It seemed like an old dream coming back. The boat in the air, the wounded seal, and the navigators themselves, in full uniform, treating with the Esquimaux — all this was familiar. But I rather resented the pointing out of the chief navigator “in the foreground” as the intrepid Sir Leopold, for he was the very one who had been pointed to as the intrepid Captain Back.

Not less welcome in these old days was the ingenious representation of Mr. Green the intrepid aeronaut’s voyage in his great balloon “Nas sau.” There was a dramatic air about all that. The view of gardens, crowded with spectators in very bright dresses (illuminated from behind), and with faces all expressive of delight and wonder, and the balloon in the middle — a practicable balloon, not attached to the canvas. We could see it swaying as the men strove to hold it. I remember the describer’s words to this hour: “At last, all being now ready, Mr. Green, the intrepid aeronaut, and his companion entered the car, and having taken farewell of his friends, gave the signal to cast off, and in a moment the balloon rapidly ascended.” At the same time cheerful music behind the baize, “The Roast Beef of Old England,” I think, struck up, and the garden, wondering spectators, trees, all went down rapidly, the balloon remaining stationary. The effect was most ingeniously produced. I never shall forget the interest with which that voyage was followed. We had the clouds, the stars, the darkened welkin, all moving slowly by (to music). The crossing of the Channel by night, and the rising of the sun — wonderful effect! Plenty of rich fiery streaking well laid on. Then the Continent, and terra firma again; and how ingeniously was a difficulty got rid of. Necessarily, the countries we were to see from Mr. Green’s car could only be under faint bird’s- eye condition, and “so many thousand feet above the level of the sea,” which would make everything rather indistinct and unsatisfactory. We therefore took advantage of the interval between the first and second parts to get rid of our large balloon which blocked up the centre of the canvas, and changed it for a tiny one, which was put away high in the air, in its proper place, where it took up no room, and did quite as well as the other. However, at the close of the performance, when we had travelled over every- thing, and wished to see Mr. Green coining down, we took back our large balloon, and were very glad to see it again, and the wondering faces of the Germans.

There is one scene which the dioramic world seems inclined not willingly to let die. At least it somehow thrusts itself without any regard to decent dioramic fitness upon every kind of diorama indiscriminately. Any student will know at once that I allude to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. This seems to have a sort of fascination for the painters. I never knew a single show that had not this church “lugged in” head and shoulders, or rather porch and pillars, either at the beginning or at the end. I am afraid this is from no spirit of piety or veneration, but simply from the favourable opening the church presents for changing from a daylight view to a gorgeous “night effect.” They know, too, that the good are among the audience in strong force, and that is touching the true chord. We know by heart the clumpy Byzantine pillars and the Moorish arches, and the stairs down to the right, and the round globes of white light lamps burning, and the men in turbans kneeling.

Suddenly we hear the harmonium behind, and the voices of Mr. George Harker, the admired tenor, and Miss Edith Williams, the (also) admired soprano, attuning their admired voices together in a very slow hymn; and gradually the whole changes to midnight, with a crypt lit up with countless lamps and countless worshippers. A dazing and dazzling spectacle, the umbrellas of the good and pious becoming deafening in their approbation. Taken as an old friend, that I have seen in every town in the kingdom, I have an affection for this crypt and its transformation; but still I know every stone in it by heart. Where was it that I saw the DIORAMA OF IRELAND, with “national harps and altars,” “national songs and watchwords,” “national dances and measures,” all in great green letters, made out of staggering round towers and ruined abbeys? — appropriate songs and dances by Miss Biddy Magrath. Where but is an Irish town rather towards the north. I recal the lecturer, a very solemn man, who preached a good deal as the canvas moved on to music — it is a law that canvas can only move to music; and a city with bridges, &c., and a river would slowly pass on, and stop short when it was finally developed. Our lecturer would say, sadly, as if he were breaking a death, “LIM-ER-ICK! the city of the vier-lated te-reaty!” The result of this announcement in the northern town was a burst of hisses, with a counter-demonstration from the back benches. The grand scene, however, was when a bright and gay town came on, and was introduced as “DERRY, THE MAIDEN CITY!” Then there was terrific applause, and even cheers, with a counter-demonstration from the back. It will be conceived that this state of things did not conduce at all to the success of the diorama, and it was very shortly withdrawn from its native land, and exhibited to more indifferent spectators. And yet Miss Magrath’s exertions, both in singing and dancing, were exceedingly arch, and deserved a better fate.

The lecturers are always delightful. What were they — I always think while waiting for the green baize to be drawn — before they took to this profession? Is it a lucrative profession? — by the way, it certainly must be a limited one. How he must get at last absolutely to loathe the thing he described, and yet he always looks at it as he speaks with an air of affection; but in his heart of hearts he must loathe it, or be dead to all human feelings and repugnances. For only consider the “day performance” at two — the night one at eight. Yet he always seems to deliver it with an air of novelty, and an air of wisdom, too, and morality, which is not of the pulpit, or forum, but simply dioramic. It is only when he descends to jests and joking that he loses our respect. A little story of his goes an immense way, especially anything touching on love or courtship. “There,” he says, speaking of the prairies, “the vast rolling plains are covered with a rank lugsurious and rich verjoor. There we can see the solitary wigwam, with the squaw preparing the family kettle, unencumbered by their babies. They have an excellent way in the prairies of dealing with troublesome appendages. Every child is made up into a sort of case or bandage, as depicted in the foreground of the scene. When they are busy, they simply hang them on a tree to be out of the way.” Every father and mother laughs heartily, and with delight, at this humorous stroke. Perhaps the pleasantest of the whole round was a certain diorama that called itself “The Grand Tour,” and which carried out the little fiction of its visitors being “excursionists,” and taken over every leading city on the Continent. We were supposed to take our tickets, “first-class,” at London- bridge, embarked in a practicable steamer at St. Katharine’s Wharf, with its rigging all neatly cut out, so that, as we began to move—or rather, as the many thousand square feet of canvas began to move — we saw the Tower of London, and various objects of interest along the river passing us by. The steamer was uncommonly good indeed, and actually gave delicate people present quite an uncomfortable feeling. Presently all the objects of interest had gone by, and we were out at sea, with fine effects by moonlight, fine effects by blood-red sunrise, and then we were landed, and saw every city that was worth visiting. Against one little “effect” some of our “excursionists” — among the more elderly — made indignant protest. When we were passing through Switzerland and came to Chamounix, where there had been a prodigal expenditure of white paint and a great saving in other colours, and found ourselves at the foot of the great mountain — I forget how many thousand feet above the level of the sea, but we were told to a fraction our lecturer warmed into enthusiasm, and burst out into the lines:

Mont Blanc, the monarch of mountains,
In his robe of snow, &c.

But the greatest danger that menaces us is what our lecturer calls the “have-a-launch,” which must be a very serious thing indeed. “Often ‘ole villages may be reposing in peaceful tranquilhity, the in’abitants fast locked in slumber, when suddenly, without a note of preparation” —- Exactly, that is what such of us as have nerves object to — a startling crash produced behind the baize — a scream among the audience — and the smiling village before us is buried in a mass of snow—white paint. It is the “have-a-launch.” This is the grand coup of the whole. Why does the music take the shape of the mournful Dead March in Saul?

Yet even dioramas have the elements of decay. Sometimes they light on a dull and indifferent town, and get involved in debt and difficulty. The excursions can’t pay their own expenses. I once saw a diorama of the Susquehanna, covering many thousand square feet of canvas, and showing the whole progress of that noble river, sold actually for no more than five pounds. I was strongly tempted, as the biddings rested at that figure. It would be something to say you had bought a panorama once in your life.

Comments: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a British novelist and journalist. All the Year Round was a literary periodical that Dickens founded and initially edited, as well as contributing material. Although the piece was written in 1867, Dickens is mostly recalling shows from the 1830s. Moving panoramas (or moving dioramas) of the kind described by Dickens combined panoramic paintings that scrolled pass the viewer with lighting effects and music. Among the panoramas to which he refers are David Roberts’ Moving Diorama of the Polar Expedition (1829) and Aeronautikon! or, Journey of the Great Balloon, originally created in 1836 by panorama specialist the Grieve family and inspired by a balloon flight from Britain to Germany undertaken by Charles Green. These particular panoramas, and Dickens’s commentary, are discussed in Erkki Huhtamo’s book Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (2013).

Links: Copy at Dickens Journals Online

A Holiday in Burma

Source: C.M. Leicester, A Holiday in Burma, with a chapter on a visit to Calcutta (Exeter: A. Wheaton and Company, 1928), pp. 44-49

Text: After dinner there is time for an entertainment of some sort, as the hours kept in Rangoon are not early. An opportunity offers of seeing a Burmese film by Burmese actors, and the party is attracted to this in preference to any more usual entertainment.

There are several picture houses in Rangoon. Some display posters familiar in London and give inside the comfort of plush upholstery. There is also an Indian cinema house where may be seen perhaps a presentment of Hindu folk lore. The Burman has his own favourite resort, his own film favourites whose deeds of valour and daring are recorded vividly on the hoardings. The film appears to have caught the imagination of the Burman, and he has recently embarked on the production of native films. After some experience of partial failure due to the difficulty of lighting, the strong sunlight being insufficient to show up details and to do justice to the jewels which are worn in the legendary tales of kings and princes, it was decided that there must be a visit to America to study methods of production and lighting. Recently films have been produced which have done great credit to the Burmese producers.

The building of the Burmese cinema is neither beautiful or very comfortable, and ten rupees has secured the luxury of a ‘box,’ a sort of loose box with concrete walls and wooden sides, containing half-a-dozen seats. There is some unaccountable delay in starting the show, and the orchestra fills in the time playing on the native instruments what are evidently popular airs, for the audience breaks in and sings the refrains. At last a start is made, and the local news is shewn in pictures with descriptions in Burmese, and, as a finale to this prelude, there appears the cause of the delay — a slide, unearthed from some dim recess, with ‘Welcome’ in colour and
garlands: a friendly greeting to the intruding West.

Then follows the film, a record of the adventures of a very popular hero who appears to combine in his attractive person all the daring of a Jack Sheppard and a Dick Turpin with the adventurous spirit of the desperado who has for the past year successfully eluded justice for wild deeds committed in the Thazi district. Dressed in his native lungyi and gaung baung, and complete with pistol and mask, he pursues his exciting career and accomplishes a series of desperate flights and escapes; capturing a horse and riding bareback; dropping from a roof into a waiting motor car; tearing with open throttle along country roads whilst from the back he peppers his pursuers with shots from his revolver. Breathless, exciting adventure in accordance with the accepted tradition of another hemisphere, but with the scenes laid in less familiar settings.

The orchestra faithfully records the emotions aroused in the audience, who from time to time break into the music with song. To unaccustomed ears it appears impossible that there can be any definite scheme in the sounds produced by the instruments, and one experiences an involuntary tribute to the intelligence of these people, who evidently are more sensitive to cadences than we are ourselves.

The sub-titles, in Burmese characters, stretch across the screen like chains, their meaning elusive and intriguing.

The pictures must unfold their own story. The youth is evidently the pampered son of a family of high respectability. His parents, in Western dress, are seated in padded comfort, in a room replete with ‘occasional’ tables, lace covers and anti-macassars. The father is reading a newspaper and the mother is toying with a piece of embroidery, when the news comes of their son’s escapades. Shocked and distressed, there is much talk but no action. They seem hampered by their unaccustomed garments and the chairs. It would seem more natural for them to be squatting on the floor in their native costume.

Then follow more hair-breadth adventures and escapes and the introduction of the love interest. There are meetings in a garden with a charming little lady with flower-decked hair. Passionate appeals are made and tender glances are exchanged — and that is all there is to a love scene in Burma. It would certainly fail to ‘grip’ a Western audience, for the lover does not approach his lady nearer than a couple of yards — so etiquette decrees. There is a parting and the lady is sad. The lover leaves her, to continue his thrills in another reel.

By this time it is after ten o’clock, and half-time. Already the young man has committed crime enough to hang him many times over. He seems certainly to be heading for disaster. It is impossible that so gallant a figure should end ignominiously on the scaffold, and it would appear to be equally impossible that the authorities can be hoodwinked into allowing him to escape his due and settle down into domesticity with his waiting lady love. A solution is difficult. But endurance is at an end, and with the full knowledge that the next reel will produce the thrill of the hero placing his enemy on the rails in front of an on-coming train, the box is vacated and escape effected into the night air.

Outside are lined up the cars of the Burmese merchants, their drivers asleep, awaiting the end of the performance, which will be about midnight.

Comments: Burma (now Myanmar) was a British colony in the 1920s. Fiction film production began in the country in 1920. It is unclear whether the news referred to was a newsreel or news relayed through slides. I have not been able to find any information on C.M. Leicester, except that he was British and probably came from Devon. His visit to Burma and India took place over 1926-27.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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.

Children of the Green

Source: Doris M. Bailey, Children of the Green: A true story of childhood in Bethnal Green 1922-1937 (London: Stepney Books, 1981), pp. 48-49

Text: The Band of Hope was entirely different. Held on a Monday evening, it attracted so many children as to need two sittings. We would queue up for about three quarters of an hour, and the queue was so long by the time the doors opened, that there would be another three hundred or so waiting to get in when we came out. Some of the children came out and tagged on to the end of the queue again, so much did they enjoy it.

Yet it was a very simple meeting really. We sang cheerful hymns, flashed on a big screen, lovely hymns about drinking pure water and not yielding to temptation.

One favourite was

Give me a draught from the crystal stream,
When the burning sun is high

Not that any of us had even seen a crystal stream, but it was a nice gooey tune and we could really yell.

But the top favourite appealed to me very much, the words had so much meaning for me.

As on the path of life we tread,
We come to many a place,
Where if not careful we may fall, And sink into disgrace.

There was a really rousing chorus which we yelled at the top of our voices.

Don’t step there, don’t step there, don’t step there,
For if not careful you may fall, don’t step there.
The drinker’s path is one beset by many a hidden snare,
Oh, shun the drink shop’s fatal spell, I warn you,
Don’t stop there.

After the hymns, the lights were lowered and we had a story, illustrated by Magic Lantern slides. A deep hush settled over us as we listened to the lovely stories. Nearly always about poor children living in hovels, whose fathers drank away every penny. My Dad was a saint compared with these fathers. How we all wept, when father stole the blankets off the children’s bed to take to the pawnshop for drink money. And we sobbed audibly when mother walked the streets in the snow to get help for her sick baby, clasped to her breast for warmth, while Dad lay in a drunken stupor on the bare boarded floor. Then, the minister of vicar met up with the family, and when the dog collar went into the hovel, the sin went out. Father broke down and admitted the evil of his ways, all the family were saved, father got a job immediately; and they all lived happily ever after. This was the bit I found hard to swallow. I knew that even good men, when they lost their job, didn’t easily get another. But I supposed the minister helped them, because the last picture showed them all well dressed and smiling, sitting in a well furnished room with flowers on a vase on the table, and even the sick baby had taken a miraculous turn for the better and was now a chubby darling sitting on father’s knee.

Then the lights went up and we sang another hymn and made for the door, taking a ticket and signing the pledge, week after week. “I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks as beverages.”

Comments: Doris M. Bailey (1916-?), daughter of a french polisher, was born in Bethnal Green in London’s East End and lived there until the late 1930s. This sequence describes events from the 1920s. The Band of Hope, founded in 1855, was a British religious organisation dedicated to teaching children of the evils of drink. It organised regular meetings in churches and halls, which were widespread and popular throughout the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Enter the Dream-House

Source: Mo Heard, interviewed in Margaret O’Brien and Allen Eyles (eds.), Enter the Dream-House: Memories of Cinemas in South London from the Twenties to the Sixties (London: Museum of the Moving Image, 1993), pp. 63-66

Text: We lived in Catford, the edge of Catford, in Lewisham in South-East London. My Mum went to Taunton to have me because it was during the Blitz in 1940. I’m the only child. I have no brothers or sisters and my dad was away in the army. My mother went to the pictures twice a week and I’m sure she took me. My earliest memories are going to all the cinemas in that area: there were three in Catford and there were three in Lewisham and I went to all of them. My mother took me to “A” films – Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and all those. I think my earliest memories are round about 1945, 1946. I remember seeing It Always Rains on Sunday and all those British films. We used to go after nursery school. What I do remember is my mother used to buy the ice-cream in the Co-op, so it must have been at a period when you couldn’t get ice-creams in the cinemas or they were cheaper outside, and we used to take those with us.

About ice-creams in cinemas, we used to get tubs and they were very, very hard and you used to peel round the top of the cardboard tubs until it was halfway down and the ice-cream inside was so hard you could hold the tub and lick it like an ice-cream cone. And I always remember the tops – you never had wooden spoons in those days, you took the top off and folded it in half and used that as a spoon.

I remember coming out and it was dark and we used to walk home and always stop at the fish and chip shop and but threepenneth of chips. I was completely hooked by all those films.

Did any films frighten you as a child?

I remember very vividly certain frightening scenes but I do not remember what films they were from. They must have been “A” films but obviously, because I was so young, I would not know what the title was. I remember there was a woman in a bedroom and she heard the glass breaking downstairs and she went down the staircase and her silhouette was against the wall and she had a flowing nightgown on. I don’t know who it was. And she came down the stairs and I think whoever it was at the bottom reached up and murdered her or something. And there was another film where some woman was walking down a crunchy gravel path in a park or a garden at night and there were footsteps following her in this crunchy gravel. And then she stopped and they stopped.

In those days it was continuous performance, so you’d go in and move along the row and then you’d plonk down and you might be in the middle of a B picture. How at the age of four or five could you pick up a story like that? And then you’d go through the newsreels and the ads and the rest of it and then you’d get the A picture and then you’d come to the B picture. And the moment it got to the point where we came in, my mother would nudge me and say “This is where we came in.” And up you’d get and walk out. We didn’t have to leave but I suppose she didn’t want to sit there any longer.

Did you go to children’s shows on Saturday mornings?

I went to Saturday morning pictures at the Prince of Wales [Lewisham] and the Plaza [Catford]. I became an ABC Minor – “We’re Minors of the ABC and every Saturday we go there … and shout aloud with glee”, etc., etc. I remember when the manager – or whoever used to get up before the films on stage and get us to sing bouncing ball songs – asked if there were children who wanted to get up and do tap dances and things, I got up with a friend and we sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. I think I must have been only about seven. It must have been painful.

And, of course, the terrible noise that all the yobby kids made! And my friend and I used to sit near the back and we were terribly classy because we knew about cinema and we watched the films. Every time in the films they came to the dialogue, suddenly mayhem, pandemonium broke out, and we would sit there and we’d go “Shut up! Be quiet!” and tell off these kids around us. Once we obviously chose the wrong people to tell off, because they chased us afterwards down the High Street and were going to beat us up.

When I was older I would say I was brought up on the American musical and I just dreamt and fantasised about being Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Mitzi Gaynor – all those actresses with their very tight waists and their big belts and their dresses and skirts that went out and there were all those petticoats. When someone like Mitzi Gaynor did a twirl and the skirts sort of rose up, they had about six miles of thick petticoats on underneath.

Did you ever try and copy hairstyles and make-up?

I don’t think so. I used to draw ladies with dresses like that on my school books and all over the place. I do remember in Catford there was a shoe shop on the corner of Wildfell Road and Rushey Green and it was called Vyners of Hollywood. And in the windows, literally stacked from floor to ceiling, were thousands of shoes, and they were all glamour shoes. And they had sort of twelve-inch wedge heels and they were made of snake skin. And they had peep toes and high ankle things. And I used to drool over that shop. I never ever met anyone in the street who ever wore anything like that. And I really wanted shoes like that. By the time I got to the age of being able to wear shoes like that, they’d disappeared.

I used to go to matinees in the holidays with friends. And I remember my friend and I, we must have been about ten, queuing up for hours to see this wonderful film at the Queens in Rushey Green. It was next to the Lewisham Hippodrome. It was the most beautiful cinema. It was very tiny. There were a few marble steps up to these gold-handled glass doors and then there was a central paybox. I think you went in either side. I remember low ceilings, very narrow inside, and lots of brass. There was a brass rail halfway down with a red plush curtain and presumably the expensive seats were behind and the cheaper ones in front. On the left-hand side, there were only three or four seats against the wall before the aisle, just a few seats down the side. I can see it now: it was quite narrow but tall and arched, so it was definitely a mini electric palace.

And I remember queuing for hours to see this film with my friend and when we finally got in and were sitting there watching this film, the usherette came up with a torch and shone it one me. And there was my dad who was terribly cross because he’d obviously got very worried that I hadn’t come home. He knew that I’d gone to the pictures and he’d come to find me and fetch me out.

Talk about being shown up in the cinema, I remember going to the Gaumont at Lewisham with my mum and my aunt and it was in the afternoon and just a few people in there, and they’d bought the cheaper seats at the front. And I remember my aunt, who was always a bit of a girl, she said, “Come on, there are loads of seats – let’s move back.” And we moved back and, of course, the usherette came and told us off and made us move forward again. There was no one sitting at the front at all and I was very embarrassed by that.

What was the Gaumont like as a building?

The Gaumont at Lewisham was a palace. We never, ever went in the circle at the Gaumont. It was obviously far too expensive for my mum. We always went in the stalls. And what I do remember is queuing to get into a film that everybody wanted to go and see. And once you’d bought your ticket, on each side of the foyer they had these “corrals” and you would go into this corral which had a brass rail and you would queue inside that. And then they would let you into the back of the stalls where they had more corrals, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. The cinema was enormous – I think it must have had about six aisles. Right at the back, you had the low wall on the back seats and then you had this step up away from the back aisle and that had the brass rails round it. So you were let into one of these corrals where you stood and you were higher than the seats so you could watch the film. And then they would gradually get you out and seat you.

And one other thing: some B picture star, Faith Domergue, had appeared at the Gaumont and there she was coming down the stairs and my mother said, “Go on, go and ask her for an autograph.” And she got my diary out and I went up and this film star used my back to write her autograph, and there was a flash, a photographer, and my mother discovered it was the local paper. And she said, “You’re going to be in the local paper.” But I never was.

Comments: Mo Heard has been an actress, publisher, writer, usherette at the National Film Theatre, and at the time of this interview in 1993 she was manager of the Actors’ Company at the Museum of the Moving Image in London. The Queen’s Hall at Rushey Green opened in 1913 and closed in 1959. The Gaumont Palace in Lewisham opened in 1932 and seated 3,050. It finally closed as a cinema in 1981. My grateful thanks to Mo Heard for permission to reproduce this interview.

Cheap Amusements

Source: John Collier, ‘Cheap Amusements’, Charities and the Commons, 11 April 1908, pp. 73-76

Text: For four months a joint-committee of the Woman’s Municipal League and the People’s Institute has been engaged in an investigation of the cheap amusements of Manhattan Island. The committee has been composed as follows: Michael M. Davis, Jr., secretary of the People’s Institute, chairman; Mrs. Josephine Redding, secretary of the Woman’s Municipal League, secretary; Mrs. R. H. McKelvey, Miss Henrietta B. Rodman, Miss Alice Lewisohn, Mrs. F.R. Swift, Michael H. Cardoza, Charles H. Ayres, Jr., John Collier, and W. Frank Persons. The investigation has been made financially possible through the Spuyten Duyvil branch of the Woman’s Municipal League. The writer has acted as field investigator.

Attempt has been made to cover all phases of the cheap amusement problem, excluding from the detailed investigation dance-halls and skating-rinks on the one hand and high-priced theaters on the other. Legal and business aspects have been studied as well as educational and sanitary. The subject-matter has been fourfold: melodrama, vaudeville and burlesque; nickelodeons, or moving picture variety shows; penny arcades; and miscellany. The miscellany are anatomical museums, fake beauty-shows, etc., which are confined to a limited area of the city where they maintain a difficult existence. They can be passed over in the present brief report. What follows sums up the results of the investigation.

The whole topography of the cheap-amusement problem has changed within the last six years. To illustrate: the old-time crass melodrama has been in large measure dethroned, crowded out by the cheap vaudeville and the nickelodeon. The cheap vaudeville has spread widely and has become a problem in itself; it plays a fairly constructive role in a few instances, and in several is about the vilest and most brutalizing form of entertainment in New York. Withal, it generally keeps within the bounds of the laws protecting public decency, which are largely matters of interpretation, but only through agitation, hard fighting and a constantly aroused public sentiment can it be kept within bounds. But even the cheap vaudeville has been eclipsed by the tremendously expansive nickelodeon, the number of which in Greater New York, has grown in a few years from nothing to more than six hundred. The nickelodeon is now the core of the cheap amusement problem. Considered numerically it is four times more important than all the standard theaters of the city combined. It entertains from three to four hundred thousand people daily, and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children. And finally, the penny arcade has sprung into mushroom existence, has proved itself to be irredeemable on the educational side and without the elements of permanent growth in popular favor and has worn out its public. It is now being driven from the field by the nickelodeon.

Not only the superficial aspect, but the essential nature of the cheap amusement problem has changed and changed for the better. Constructive elements have entered and triumphantly made good with the public, so that now the cheap-amusement situation offers an immediate opportunity and a rousing challenge to the social worker. The nickelodeon’s the thing, and the story of its development is instructive.

Five years ago the nickelodeon was neither better nor worse than many other cheap amusements are at present. It was often a carnival of vulgarity, suggestiveness and violence, the fit subject for police regulation. It gained a deservedly bad name, and although no longer deserved, that name still clings to it. During the present investigation a visit to more than two hundred nickelodeons has not detected one immoral or indecent picture, or one indecent feature of any sort, much as there has been in other respects to call for improvement. But more than this: in the nickelodeon one sees history, travel, the reproduction of industries. He sees farce-comedy which at worst is relaxing, innocuous, rather monotonously confined to horseplay, and at its best is distinctly humanizing, laughing with and not at the subject. Some real drama: delightful curtain-raisers, in perfect pantomime, from France, and in the judgment of most people rather an excess of mere melodrama, and in rare cases even of sheer murderous violence. At one show or another a growing number of classic legends, like Jack and the Beanstalk or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, can be seen any night. The moving picture repertoire amounts to tens of thousands, and is amazingly varied. One firm alone in the city has two million feet of “film” stored away until it can be used again as fresh material, after the public has forgotten it. In addition to the moving-picture, the nickelodeon as a rule has singing, and almost invariably the audience joins in the chorus with a good will. Thus has the moving-picture-show elevated itself. But the penny arcade has not elevated itself, and the cheap vaudeville, if anything, has grown worse.

The nickelodeon is a family theater, and is almost the creation of the child, and it has discovered a new and healthy cheap-amusement public. The penny arcade is a selfish and costly form of amusement, a penny buying only a half-minute’s excitement for one person. Its shooting-gallery and similar features are likewise costly. In the short-lived pictures there is no time for the development of human interest, but the gist of a murder or of a salacious situation can be conveyed. So the penny arcade has resembled the saloon, from which the family has stayed away; and everything artificial has been mustered in to draw the floating crowd. As for the cheap theater, it has had a false tradition behind it, and managers have taken for granted that a low-priced performance could be given only by an inferior cast. So when the cheap theater has departed from the crudest melodrama it has gone over into inferior vaudeville and has depended on illegitimate methods for its success. This is the rule, although there are exceptions, and vaudeville at best has only a limited interest for the great, basic, public of the working and immigrant classes in New York.

But the nickelodeon started with a free field and a marvelous labor-saving device in the moving-picture, and it began above all as a neighborhood institution, offering an evening of the most varied interest to the entire family for a quarter. Thus the nickelodeon grew as solidly as it grew swiftly, and developed a new amusement seeking public, the public that has made the nickelodeon what it is. Right here is found the most significant aspect of the present amusement situation. All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day. Here is a new social force, perhaps the beginning of a true theater of the people, and an instrument whose power can only be realized when social workers begin to use it.

The investigation led almost immediately to constructive opportunities. On the legal side, an anomalous situation was found. In no existing law, state or municipal, was penny arcade or moving picture mentioned. These theaters were grouped by construction as common shows, along with ferris wheels and bicycle carrousels, and were put under the authority of the license bureau. But where the standard theater is regulated in the minutest detail as regards its building requirements, by written law, there is no law and no printed specification for the moving picture show, which plays with fire. The theaters are controlled by the police, in whom responsibility is centered, and who co-operate with the proper departments. But the nickelodeon is controlled by the license bureau, a clerical department, and up to ten months ago it went to all intents and purposes unsupervised. Then popular agitation and the initiative of a hard working official in the fire department, set the city’s machinery at work, and a good deal has been done. The moving picture show is reasonably safe from fire now; it is not yet safe from contagious disease, and the air is often very bad.

As a first step toward adjusting the legal situation, the investigation committee framed a bill, which has been introduced by Assemblyman Samuel A. Gluck at Albany, and which has passed the Assembly by a large majority. Barring unforeseen obstacles it will pass the Senate at the present session. This bill provides for the raising of license fees on nickelodeons from $25 to $150 a year, for the placing of this license under the direct control of the police, along with the license for standard theaters, and for the exclusion of school children from nickelodeons during school hours and after eight o’clock at night, except when accompanied by guardians. This bill went to Albany with the endorsement of various civic organizations, the Board of Education, and the Moving Picture Association itself which has shown every desire to co-operate in the improvement of moving picture standards.

On the side of co-operation with the moving-picture business looking toward more elevated performances, and even the improvement of the artistic and educational quality and of sanitary conditions through direct competition on a commercial basis, the opportunity is immediate and large. In this field it is probable that the drama machinery of the People’s Institute will be turned to use in some co-operative plan, giving endorsement to the best of the shows and receiving in return the right to regulate their programs. Settlements on their own initiative could do valuable work in this way. The investigation committee, which is to be perpetuated as a sub-committee of the drama committee of the People’s Institute, will in all probability start one or more model nickelodeons, with the object of forcing up the standard through direct competition, of proving that an unprecedentedly high class of performance can be made to pay, and perhaps, in the event of success, of founding a people’s theater of the future.

Comments: John Collier was an American social worker working for the New York People’s Institute. Michael M. Davis of the same organisation later produced an important study of commercial entertainments, including cinema, The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreations in New York City (1911). Charities and the Commons was a weekly journal dedicated to social and charitable themes. Penny arcades would often include moving pictures, usually of the peepshow variety.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

If I Don't Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.