On August 5th 2012, in my house in Sigoules, my friend Don and I spoke of cinema. I had been a regular cinema-goer during my teens in the pre-television era. What we found we both had in common was weekly visits as small children to Saturday Morning Pictures, not far away from each other in South London. I went with Chris to the Odeon, Wimbledon, and Don attended the Granada, North Cheam.
An early entertainer was Tony Hancock who, in ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, had us glued to the radio. He allegedly lived in Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. My friend, who lived in Cheam for twenty years, could find no matching location. The only reference to East Cheam he knew was a corrugated iron hut housing a religious establishment including East Cheam in its title. Hancock followed his radio series with one on television. The most famous episode is ‘The Blood Donor’, in which he bemoans having to part with ‘very nearly an armful’. As Don is a few years older than me, our trips to the cinema were not quite contemporary, but near enough.
I still remember the words of : ‘Here we are again, Happy as can be, All good pals, And jolly good company’, in which the MC led crowds of excited children at the start of the proceedings. This would be accompanied by an organ which rose from the orchestra pit. There followed a programme of cartoons, comedies, and Westerns. Cartoons would be Disney or Looney Tunes. Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton were the funny men.
I remember Buster Keaton being sped along on the front of a steam train. Don’s recollection is of Harold Lloyd being suspended from the hands of Big Ben. These men performed all their own stunts without the benefit of modern technology. Big Ben must have been a made-up model. The Westerns offered a different thrill. I particularly remember Kit Carson. We would be treated to twenty minutes of a serialised film starring the cowboy hero which would leave us all on tenterhooks until the following week. He would be left surrounded by Indians on the warpath, or tied up by villains. We had to wait seven long days to see how he would extricate himself. Other such stars were Roy Rogers and Trigger; the singing Gene Autrey; and The Lone Ranger and Tonto. Magical stuff for children who had no screen at home. We all vociferously joined in.
Later, Don and I, still unaware of each other, would visit the newsreel cinemas at the London Terminal Stations. We would watch Pathe news covering the previous week. These eventually became cartoon cinemas and those offering subtitled foreign films. My venue was Waterloo station in my early commuting years.
Don’s story of a recent visit to the theatre in Bungay where the audience consisted of eight people reminded me of Charlie Chaplin. Just after the film ‘Chaplin’ came out it reached Lincolnshire. This was a biopic, starring Robert Downey Jr., brilliantly playing the acrobatic comic. Jessica and I drove out to the small town of Sleaford to see the performance. It was showing at the Odeon. Not one that has been split into several cinemas with multiple screens. One of the huge, possibly earlier music hall, establishments, which were either adapted or built in the brief heyday of the local cinema. There was a staff of two. A very tall gentleman, who must have been in his eighties, ushered us to the ticket desk in the vast foyer, which was serviced by an equally elderly woman we presumed to be his wife. We bought our tickets and entered the auditorium. Our usher was waiting inside where he tore our tickets in half, gravely presenting us with our respective sections, whilst retaining the others. Before the show began we established that we were an audience of twelve. There was plenty of room and it was very cold. At the interval a beam lit up the ice cream girl. As you’ve probably guessed, this was our ticket seller. The ice creams were a bit hard, and, for a while, beyond the capabilities of the wooden spoons. Perhaps the vendor had mentioned the temperature to her colleague, for he came round and asked us if we would like the heating on. Naturally we all would. He disappeared, and returned with a two-bar electric fire which he placed in the centre of one of the side aisles. It was an excellent film and and a most entertaining experience. Probably a retirement project.
Another relic of the heyday of the cinema is the Granada, Tooting, in South West London. In that brief period of a few decades it showed films in a splendid setting with three or four thousand seats, and ornate boxes in tiers high above the stalls. A Grade I listed Art Deco style building, it is now what has been termed ‘the finest bingo hall in the land’, home to Gala Bingo Club. Many years ago I attended there my only bingo session with my Auntie Stella. I fell asleep during the proceedings.
Back in the early 1950s, I discovered ‘Push Bar To Open’, which was the sign accompanying the emergency cinema exits. One afternoon, as I left, the door would not close properly. This phenomenon was always worth investigating in order to gain free access.
Another less savoury aspect of this form of entertainment was that if you were on your own you risked a man with a raincoat across his knees moving into the seat beside you. A hand would then caress your thigh. You would then get up smartly and occupy a seat as far away as possible.