Tony Shelton takes us on a journey into his filmgoing past, as he tells us the story of going to the movies from the 1950s onwards.
In the beginning, there was Disney. And Bambi, the most terrifying film I have ever seen. The forest fire sequence still makes me shudder, especially when I see TV shots of real forest fires in Australia and elsewhere. I was five years old; my mother took me, thinking the film would charm and delight. Well, it was meant for young children, wasn’t it?
Also, around the early 1950s, my father started to take me to the News Cinema at Victoria Station – only half an hour away from our home in South London. Those visits were real treats. What a wonderful menu of cartoons (Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry), short comedies by Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, travelogues about exotic places, colourful natives and blue seas, and, of course, Pathé News with its hearty, jingoistic commentaries.
Not long later, though, my parents let me take part in what was then an important cultural experience in a young child’s life – Saturday Morning Pictures. No young people today can imagine the excitement of being let out to walk a mile or two into unknown territory to join several hundred other children in uninhibited anarchy. There were cartoons, serials (to keep you coming back for more) and treats like Flash Gordon, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers, plus the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and The Three Stooges. And best of all, the chaos of shouting and screaming and being showered in the stalls of the Rex, Norbury, by objects thrown from the balcony above. I doubt if our parents had any idea of what it was like.
There were at least two more visits to the cinema with one of my parents. And two highly memorable films, both recognised as such to the day. I must have been about ten years old when I saw The Day The Earth Stood Still. Its stark black-and-white images are still with me. I refuse to watch the modern version, knowing it will not match up to its classic original. Around the same time, my father took me to see Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear. Not only was it a superbly tense film, but, for a young lad, it featured one irresistible scene – four tough men standing in a line across the track in front of their gelignite-loaded lorry peeing shamelessly. Very daring, very French, very modern.
My father also took me on several occasions to see films at the Tooting Granada cinema. I don’t remember the films at all because they were outshone by the splendour of the cinema itself: a dreamland of Moorish-cum-Gothic architecture, with garish colours, fancy mirrors, and arches and gold decoration everywhere. It would have made a good set for a horror film. It is now, of course, rightly famous and, though it is now only used as a bingo hall, its style and features have been conserved, and it has a Grade One listing.
Not all magic
My teenage years featured only two less-than-memorable outings to the pictures. There was a first date with a girl I met at dance lessons, who I invited to see Tony Hancock in The Rebel. I was a devoted fan, but clearly she wasn’t, and the film wasn’t that good, at least compared with his radio and TV Half Hours. So, one date was enough.
The second outing was surrounded by the elaborate pretence of going with a friend to see the farce Simple Spymen at the Whitehall Theatre in the West End. This was a cover for creeping into a Soho cinema to see the much sniggered about Bridget Bardot in And God Created Woman. We didn’t see as much of Bridget as we had hoped, and I am still not sure whether my mother believed my cover story.
There were, however, two films I wanted to see. Since I could find no one else who was interested, I went on my own. The first was The Bridge On The River Kwai, the much-trumpeted Alec Guinness film about PoWs in Japanese-occupied Burma, at the large and lavish Streatham Odeon. I had the feeling that you were meant to think this was a great film, but I have never thought that it was. Good, yes, well set and produced, yes. Gripping? Only at the time. Once you knew what happened, it was not a film to see again and again.
The other film was, for me, in a class on its own: Jazz On A Summer’s Day, a lyrical and vivid wander around the Newport Jazz Festival. I was then discovering jazz and I had read rave reviews. I had to see it. I ventured into the West End to the Curzon Cinema, then a centre for the best and most arty foreign films. I was not disappointed. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the distant stars of the music glittering and playing and singing. Anita O’Day, singing in a stylish wide-brimmed hat; baritone sax player Gerry Mulligan, the epitome of cool West Coast jazz; and guitarist Jim Hall and clarinettist Jimmy Giuffre playing subtly together in a whisper. I would have ached with disappointment if I had missed it.
Northern new wave
Soon after that, I moved to Manchester for university. What a time it was to be a student in the north! The late 50s and early 60s saw the flowering of the New Wave of gritty, northern British realism from the terraced streets and factories of Nottingham, Salford, and Bradford. I can still reel off my favourites, including Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, A Taste Of Honey, This Sporting Life, A Kind Of Loving, Room At The Top, Billy Liar, and The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.
And there appeared new actors like Rita Tushingham (wide-eyed in A Taste Of Honey), Tom Courtenay, Alan Bates, and Richard Harris. Also, old favourites from the worlds of radio and variety, like Dora Bryan in Taste, Wilfred Pickles in Billy Liar and, above all, Thora Hird, magnificent as the mother of Vic’s girlfriend in A Kind Of Loving, berating him for his drunkenness and carpet deposit (“You filthy pig!”).
Albert Finney has always been my favourite, though, standing at his machine in the bicycle works, counting off the number of parts he was making, shooting peas at his neighbour from his bedroom window, and grinning salaciously at Shirley Anne Field in the chip shop in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.
There was romance attached to those black and white films. I saw most, if not all, of them on dates with the fellow student who was to become my wife. She liked northern films as much as I did. Also, she could show me all the Billy Liar locations in her hometown of Bradford. We felt part of something new and revolutionary; a good feeling to have when you are a student. I’m glad I was there.
In 1962, we saw another film which also had the impact of newness: the first (and still, for me, the best) Bond film, Dr No. In my list of cinema scares, the early scene on the island with the fire-breathing dragon is close to that forest fire moment in Bambi. The cinema was the Rusholme in Manchester – a small, scruffy, neglected fleapit that was rarely, if at all, full. We opted for the more expensive seats at 1s 6d, rather than the ninepenny ones, but not for the double seats provided for lovers, which I never saw used.
But then came Hitchcock’s Psycho, showing in about 1961 at the more lavish Odeon in Deansgate. We went with great expectations but were totally unprepared for what we saw following the rather dull and unoriginal opening sequence. The old devil had everyone fooled. The shower scene, a well-kept secret among those who had seen it before, caused a collective gasping and shrieking and, among those on a date, clinging. It is manipulative but brilliantly so, though a second shocking scene, the attack on the landing, comes close. The odd thing is that when I’ve seen the film again, I know what’s going to happen and when, but I still shudder when it does.
Recalling Psycho, another similar scene from a much earlier film suddenly comes to mind: Abbott And Costello Meet The Ghosts. I believe my mother took me to see it. It was, I think, the second feature to a film long forgotten. Before the war, she had been a fan of horror films, including the silent ones, and had often regaled me with her memories of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney. The film we saw wasn’t vintage Abbott and Costello, but it had one two-second shock when the Phantom of the Opera takes off his mask to show his hideous face. I was not expecting that!
After university, jobs, marriage and, soon, children came first, and trips to the pictures became rarer and largely confined to family visits, the last, I think, to Star Wars. Gradually television took over. And now, widowed and almost certainly in the last reel, and for the moment in total isolation, I have become a film fan again thanks to Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and All 4.
But watching even the best films is no longer an experience. I even miss the intervals with Pearl and Dean advertising and the Eldorado Ice Cream seller in a spotlight…
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