Stephen Wade recalls growing up in the matinee days of the 1950s, when a trip to the cinema brought big-screen thrills and the occasional spot of real-life danger.
My grandma tried to snuff me out twice. I have read about the large families of Edwardian days, and of infant mortality rates being frighteningly high, but looking back, I see that my relatives tried to make us kids yet more statistics – but they did it with love.
The second attempt on my life took place in the Shaftesbury Cinema in Leeds, and the weapon of choice was the boiled sweet. I recall lying on the marbled floor of the vestibule, staring up at half-a-dozen adult faces, all concerned about me as I fought for breath. In the excitement of watching Don Winslow of the Navy take on a few dozen sword-wielding tribesmen on the big screen, the great sugary ball had slipped down my throat and stuck.
What was to be done? There were appeals for medical people but none came. I was maybe turning blue. But then the manager arrived, dragged me to my feet, hit me on the back with the force of a crossbow bolt, and the ball shot out, to roll across the floor, as I drew in great quantities of breath. Granny made noisy sounds of relief and hugged me. It was done with love, as was the first attempt, when she used gooseberries, with a similar result and a similar slap on the back.
But I can see now that the love extended to give us that most profoundly moving and uplifting experience of going to the Saturday Matinee.
The murder attempts took place in the mid-1950s when westerns and noir thrillers were the big attractions. My cinema-going life began when I was five in 1953, when I was carried on my dad’s back for a mile, in a family walk from the village of Churwell to the Rex at Beeston, south Leeds.
The westerns were dominated by Randolph Scott (‘Leatherface’), Audie Murphy (war hero) and a host of other leads who were to be massive stars later on – such macho types as Glenn Ford, Richard Widmark, and Jack Elam.
The baddies were bad from the start, and there was no hope of reform unless he was a drunken sheriff with a woman who nagged him to be good again. The goodies were broody, troubled but noble. We learned our morality from the B-movie westerns and thrillers.
Terror of the projectionist
But then, after a move across Leeds, came the Saturday Matinee. The serials on show were to govern the nature of my playtimes and imaginative games for the rest of my childhood and beyond. The Shaftesbury, on York Road, was the attraction.
Along the road towards Gipton was the ‘bug-hutch’ and that was no rival. The impressive, classically formed Shaftesbury was posher. There was a better class of sweets and entertainment, with the organist rising from the depths to appear, resplendent and magical, before us. The ice cream lady stood by, the ladies in charge tried to suppress the noise in the stalls where we gathered to raise mayhem.
I had no notion of the projectionist’s existential terror then; time has educated me to understand that the poor man must have dreaded Saturdays and surely entered his tiny kingdom with a shiver of apprehension, and a prayer to Spool – the god of film-reels – for a trouble-free morning. The Pearl & Dean adverts seemed to be fluently delivered, but in the string of shorts, he must have applied all his skill to change reels with the speed of the god Mercury.
As the foot-stamping and chanting began after merely a few seconds of silence, he surely developed a rare skill-set, with very dexterous hands, of going through the sequence of tasks which would start the next reel and shut up the savages down below.
Still, hundreds of Leeds schoolkids packed into the place, as long as they had sweets to crunch and ice creams to lick, were free from the revolutionary spirit.
It was only when there was a technical hitch, usually just as Don Winslow was galloping into a cave, that the beginnings of a riot could be gauged by the manager. This brave, burdened man would try to announce that there would be some piano music while the problem with the film was sorted out. There was still a feeling at that time that a civilising process with children was worthwhile, and his announcement that there would be a selection of melodies from Grieg or Tchaikovsky fell on deaf ears.
He was inured to being pelted by wine-gums or gobstoppers; the pianist, equally sensitive to the mood of the masses, would sometimes be raised simply to a level at which she could see the enemy, and then decide whether to ascend further or descend for safety reasons.
What did we relish in those delirious times? Don Winslow of the Navy was one hero; others were masters of comedy such as The Three Stooges, whose repertoire consisted of slapping each other, either with hands and fists or any nearby object. We thought this was hilarious. There was an epidemic of face-slapping at school one time, as every playtime was Three Stooges Time. Nurse had several casualties to deal with.
Some of the very best films consisted of various treatments of the theme of sieges and assaults. The noble soldiers (British or American) were penned in by ‘savages’ and there was a string of noble sacrifices by men of spirit (who soon became spirits) and this would last for ages.
My brother and I followed this up by staging endless military campaigns which extended from our lounge into the garden; our massive toy-soldier armies covered all the personnel of the American Civil War, World War Two and the Wild West, of course. If a film stood out as having a special influence on us one Saturday, then for the next month there would be a battle taking place from the film.
Of course, later, when Zulu and The Alamo came along, these still had that influence of the appeal of the siege, as did J G Farrell’s great novel, The Siege Of Krishnapur. But in the 1950s, what really formed us lads was the gunfighter. We all had a pair of six-guns in sparkly holsters, cowboy hats and chaps. Everybody at one time also had a Davy Crockett hat.
It was for us a time without television sets. We had our first in 1961. It was also a time without phones, internet or any other device; the Saturday Matinee was our Star Wars. Yes, there were comics, and these followed up the matinees. Film Fun carried strips of The Three Stooges, along with Red Skelton and other popular comedians. Film Fun was really in tune with us – there was, for instance, Barry Ford’s Western Roundup, in which you could post questions to him and, if published, you received a guinea.
Cinema was where you went to be uplifted but also, of course, shocked. It was raw ‘pity and fear’ as Aristotle noted about tragic tales; we roared with preternatural hatred when an evil villain like Peter Lorre came on, and we whooped with joy when Gary Cooper gunned down the nasty man who wanted him dead. Not only could we do the battles, we could do the voices as well. The Saturday Matinee appealed to our sense of mimicry. There were lots of gunfights across north Leeds at the time, with Wyatt Earp calling out Ike Clanton, or Wild Bill drawing his derringer at a cardgame. (We had the Derringers too – in little silver spudguns that fired blobs of potato).
I could usually manage Edward G Robinson, and we could all do Sitting Bull. I look back with shame at the abysmal representations of the Sioux or the Cheyenne in those early films, of course. Something of that time has stayed with me, and it is lodged very deeply in my creative centre. I now write westerns, with the pen-name of Frank Callan. The landscapes of Montana or Wyoming came at us every Saturday, alongside New York in The Bowery Boys and various other shady locations.
What stays with me in the most vivid and powerful way?
It has to be the manic, pee-your-pants excitability in the crowd of kids as the tick-tock of the reel began and something flickered on that great, magical stretch of canvas that was our dreamland – something very distant from bombsites, ration books and nurse’s nit inspections.
Yet it was more than dreamland: it was a prefiguring of what your imagination was destined to hunger for in years to come. Just for once, in that foyer, I put on a show of my own and survived to tell the tale.
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