A Knight’s Tale (30: The Heyday Of Local Cinema)

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.

(Photo: sensesofcinema.com)

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.


  1. You captured that age very well. I got to see many of these things (less the raincoated gent) on 1950s television in the States. I guess that pervs will be pervs.

  2. Going to the movies was quite an experience—exciting, nostalgic, and, at times, sordid. Its heyday has waned, I think, with the advent of flat screens and streaming. On the one hand, I am sorry for this. On the other hand, I am grateful, especially during the pandemic, that there are so many good things to watch on television.

  3. It was fun going to the movies but now it had been almost eight years since we have gone to see a movie. Somehow, I don’t have the patience to sit through a movie. I find TV very boring too 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  4. It’s been so long, I don’t remember the last time I went to the movies. Given the contagion we seem to be stuck with on a permanent basis, I doubt I’ll ever go back. I did enjoy going to the movies as a kid, though. The Saturday matinee at the Jax in Colebrook, New Hampshire was only twenty-five cents for children.

  5. Movies and theaters have certainly changed. I think my mom said it cost a nickel (5 cents) to go to the movies–which involved, as you mentioned, newsreels and cartoons, too.

    I love movies, and since we tend to see the less mainstream movies and usually go in the afternoon, we’re often in the theater with only a few people. I mean pre-pandemic. Watching movies at home is not as an immersive experience, but I’m happy we’re able to stream movies.

  6. My sister and I were not allowed to go to the movies, although all our friends went every Saturday. I remember the first time we ever went with them — it was something like Ben Hur (what a movie to start out two little girls with!), and I was more concerned with my sister’s reaction to the scary parts than I was with the movie — I don’t remember anything about the movie!

  7. These are delightful memories – I loved Tony Hancock; Kit Carson was a treat; as for Roy Rogers … now you have set my memory wheel spinning into the past!

  8. So many memories! The only Loony Tunes I know has always been reruns on TV. (I’m not a fan, but if I hear my husband giggling in the middle of the night, I know he couldn’t sleep & is watching Buggs Bunny, or maybe the Three Stooges.) My grandad would show us films on a film projector with 2 reels. Most were home movies from before I was born, but he had some Three Stooges films, too, somehow.

    Re: Don – It is so cool to find someone who you have shared childhood memories with. I find memory to be so unreliable and am always interested to hear someone else’s take on things.

    Re: Push Bar To Open – So you’d push those bars as you walked along, hoping to find one that would let you back in at some point? What a brilliant idea! Too bad you’d be rewarded for your industry with a man with a raincoat on his lap (insert disgusted emoji here).

  9. When TVs were small and limited to three stations, it was a treat to get lost in the big screen at the movie theatre. In high school I worked at a movie concession stand and later the box office, so I got to see a lot of movie for free, some many times. Those were the days.

  10. You had some interesting memories of you younger days. I was a few years behind. The first movie I remember seeing was Peter Pan – with my Mother and her friend. I cried all the way through it for those poor little orphan boys who had no Moms. At least there were no pervs lurking around.

    1. Thanks very much, AnneMarie. My first at the cinema was either Bambi, or Snow White. Incidentally I glimpsed a Bambi in the forest as we drove to Southbourne yesterday.

  11. That was an immersive post invoking rich environmental imagery. It felt as if I had gone through those times and adventures. Even the man caressing your thigh was real! (It seems pests like those exist beyond the confines of time and place).

  12. What interesting memories!
    And cinema memories are a part of so many of our lives.
    My family could only afford to go to what they called drive-in movies…outdoors…cheaper, all pile in the station wagon, but still fun. 🙂
    I remember, as a little girl, my first in-theater movie was a birthday gift from a family member…we got to go see My Fair Lady. 🙂 The theater was big, comfortable seats, plush red velvet curtains with accents of gold, etc. 🙂 So regal looking…so much fun! 🙂
    (((HUGS))) 🙂

    1. Thanks very much, Carolyn. I took my son Michael to see My Fair Lady. Drive-in movies are periodically shown in a field in the New Forest. The next one is due at Christmas. X

  13. The stunt by Harold Lloyd with the clock was not really dangerous at all. The layout of the building was such that the clock did not have a drop underneath it, although they positioned the cameras so that it looked like there was. It’s a long time since I watched it, but if Lloyd actually does fall, then there was a pile of mattresses for him to land on. He would have done very well to injure himself!
    On the other hand, when Buster Kearton does the stunt where the end of the house falls off but he is standing in the window space and is unhurt, was real. The story goes that the two stunt men refused absolutely to do it, and thought Keaton had some kind of death wish!

  14. What a delightful romp down memory lane, and I have to confess you have again provided inspiration for a post. Most Aussies youngsters of a certain era would associate going to the cinema with rolling jaffas down the linoleum aisles. Wikipedia defines Jaffas as a small round sweet consisting of a solid, orange flavoured chocolate centre with a hard covering of red coloured confectionery – part of the culture of both Australia and New Zealand.
    The screening began with ‘God Save the Queen’ but as soon as we got to sit down, the rolling began!

  15. My childhood cinema had an organ, with seated organist playing all the while, that rose up from the under-stage bowels, before the first feature, and again during intermission, with the organist giving a cheery wave as she sank out of sight once more.
    And sadly, yes there were always men in raincoats.

  16. Loves the sense of Dejavu and also the timelines you establish of how it was for you during your days. Also the risque ending u totally get ! Great read this 🙂

      1. Haha .. hope it has you flummoxed in a good way !thank you for reading:) My name is Soni. The name of the blog is appam which is a traditional south indian bread – a fav food 🙂

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