Going to The Pictures

In London’s working class districts, during the late 1950’s and well into the late 1960’s, you did not hear the phrase ‘going to the cinema’. It would always be ‘going to the pictures’, or the common slang term, ‘the flicks’. This was a hangover from the earliest days of silent film, when the flickering of the jerky, hand-cranked projectors, gave the experience this nick-name. My early memories of trips to the pictures date from about 1958, when I was taken to see films suitable for someone approaching their seventh birthday. By 1960, I was a veteran of hundreds of visits, and had seen all the blockbusters of the day, including ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Ben Hur’, and ‘Spartacus’. I had developed a love of film and cinema that stays with me to this day.
London was a grey place in those days. The swinging sixties were around the corner but there was little sign of them just yet. Post-war life was hard. The winters were cold, money short, and we were still surrounded by bomb-damaged buildings, and open flat areas known as ‘bombsites’. There was Television. It had two channels, was black and white, and finished quite early. The majority of the content was either too stuffy, or populist game shows and variety programmes. This was especially true during the working week, as all the effort to entertain seemed to be targeted at the weekend audience. Escape from this was provided by a trip to The Pictures. Cinema attendance at that time was immensely popular, and every showing seemed to be to a full auditorium. You did not have to travel far to see a film, from where we lived, at least. We were spoilt for choice , with at least five cinemas within a comfortable walking distance, as well as three more accessed by a short bus trip. There was also the West End of London within easy reach, with the biggest new films, and the most luxurious cinemas.

 

Those readers used to the current trend for the featureless multiplex, normally tucked away as part of a drab trading estate on the outskirts of the suburbs, can have no concept of the impact of the cinemas in London at that time. With the increasing popularity of films after 1920, most of them were built from around that date, up to the Second World War, in 1939. This meant that following the architectural fashion of the day, they were predominantly of Art Deco, or Modernist design. This was in stark contrast to the rows of Victorian and Edwardian houses where we lived. Even those destroyed by bombing would be rebuilt in a similar style, to retain their landmark features. And they were landmarks indeed. Usually on a corner plot, these cathedrals of film could be seen from a long way off. After dark, their white painted exteriors, and huge neon-lit signs, would shine like beacons, through the smog and gloom of the city. There was little else to match them, except perhaps some of the larger Department Stores, like Selfridges, or Harrods, but these were not places we commonly visited. A visit to the cinema was also comparatively cheap. With both my parents working, we could afford to go at least once every week, sometimes twice. As a treat, we would occasionally visit the West End Cinemas, to see a film in a new or different way. That could take the form of 70 mm projection, Cinerama, or early experiments in 3-D. The bigger budgets of films like ‘How the West was Won’, or ‘Spartacus’, would also justify the production and sale of souvenir brochures. These were expensive perhaps, but they were full of additional information, profiles of film stars, and stills from the making of the film. I would collect these whenever the chance presented itself, and read them over and over again. I don’t know what happened to them, and I wish I still had them today.

 

The experience of going to The Pictures began before you even entered the foyer. Outside, would be a uniformed commissionaire, in greatcoat and cap. his coat bearing tassels, and contrast piping. Here was someone who would not be out of place in a Ruritanian comedy, yet he would be a man of some bearing usually, perhaps with a military background. He would wear fine gloves, and give everyone a civil and deferential greeting as they passed. Posters for the film, and for the next week’s offering, would be in special frames outside the building. There might also be stills, and glossy celebrity photographs of the current film’s stars, and most exciting scenes. Thick red velvet ropes, suspended between gold-coloured posts, provided a barrier- at least a symbolic one – to wait behind, until the doors were opened. The very doors seemed like a work of art. Brass frames, flamboyant designs, so thick and heavy that it was necessary for attendants to open them , and secure them open after the audience started to file in. Then there were the names of the Cinemas. They meant little to a seven-year old Londoner like myself, but how exotic they sounded, how mighty and prepossessing, with their Greek and Latin simple nouns, or invented names, transferred to the streets of my youth. Odeon, Rex, Regal, Ritz, Gaumont, Trocadero. These names seemed to have never appeared before in my consciousness, and applied only to Cinemas. Even now, when I know their actual meanings, I still associate them with those old buildings, first and foremost.

 
Once inside, I felt as if I was entering a wonderland. We were greeted by uniformed usherettes, who in my young eyes, always seemed stunningly attractive, with heavy make-up, smart hair, and friendly smiles. They would inspect your ticket, advise you which entrance to take, and tear the ticket in half, so it could not be used again. As a family, we preferred to sit in the upper balcony, which was called The Circle. In the ground floor area, called The Stalls, the seats were on one level, so the sudden arrival of a heavy set, or tall man, or a lady who chose not to remove her hat, would mean that I would have to watch the entire programme though the gap in their shoulders. Upstairs, the seats were arranged in a tiered fashion, so no matter who sat in front of me, I would always be able to see. There was also a small surcharge for sitting in The Circle (unlike live theatre, where the opposite applies) , so it made you feel a little bit grander, as you made your way up the sweeping staircases.

 

We came from housing which was acceptable to us at that time. We did not have fitted carpets, central heating, or an inside bathroom. These commonly accepted facilities came later, when the terraced houses were mostly demolished, to make way for the new estates of maisonettes and flats that we moved into after 1960. The cinemas were a break from this. Carpet so thick, and of such quality, my small shoes sunk into it. Ornamental design on a massive scale; balustrade staircases of great width, enormous chandeliers, wall sconces to provide up-lighting, framed pictures on the walls. Even a visit to the toilets was an experience. Rows of shiny gleaming urinals, containing small blocks of sweet-smelling chemicals, lofty stalls, with locks that declared whether they were occupied, or not. Mirrored walls above large wash basins, and paper towels from chrome dispensers. They were immaculate; no vandalism was apparent then, it just wouldn’t have occurred to us.

 

Once through the doors into The Circle, subdued lighting provided a coloured glow to the surroundings. It felt as if you were in another country, or in a Royal Palace. More usherettes (they were always female then) waited to check tickets, and to show you to your seat, using the small torch that they carried to light the way. Once everyone was seated, overcoats folded, most hats removed, darkness would descend, along with the complete silence, punctuated by an occasional cough, that was expected of the audience. Noise was not tolerated at that time. Nobody chatted, there were no mobile ‘phones to worry us, even the cellophane packets of toffee popcorn (the only type available), or the small boxes of chocolates that we had been treated to, were opened with the silent skill of a master safe cracker, so as not to cause offence.Β  Smoking was allowed of course, anywhere in the building, and most of the adults, and even some of the younger audience members smoked freely; not just cigarettes, pipes and cigars also. There were ashtrays on the backs of the seats in front of you, and they would have been emptied between performances. This was not at all unusual or strange to the audiences of that period, and a ban on smoking would have been unthinkable then. As a result of all this smoking, a blue haze would appear above us, reflected in the ceiling lights, and later in the beam from the projected film. I actually looked forward to this, as I regarded it to be an essential part of the experience, something like The Northern Lights, courtesy of nicotine.

 

I was then ready. An early type of air-conditioning, about which I knew nothing, ensured that the cinema was cool when it was hot outside, and central heating provided cosy warmth on cold days. I always felt just right in the cinema, it was my home from home, and a better home at that. Though the film had not even started, there would be music playing. In some cinemas, even then, there would be an organist to entertain the audience. He would sit at some incredible conglomeration of pipes, keyboards, and buttons, which I generically called ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer’. In more modern establishments, piped music would be played. This would usually be the soundtrack to the film that would soon be shown, and would sound very loud and dramatic. Many films had a theme tune in those days, before the addition of pop songs and rap tracks became the norm. There was another chance to buy a programme, if it was that sort of film, or to purchase an ice cream, or drink. These were sold from deep trays, carried around the necks of yet more usherettes. Though they were probably the same ones that had taken the tickets earlier, I did not work that out for a long time. The tray’s contents were illuminated by a small light, and she would also have a small cash box. It was a portable, floodlit shop in miniature; purpose built for the venue, and to me, always fascinating. There would be a later chance to re-visit this lady if need be, during the intermission.

 

If a film was a large production, and lasted over two hours, it would break just over half way through. A sign on the screen would announce the interval, usually of fifteen minutes duration. People would shuffle along the long rows, mouthing their ‘excuse me’ to every neighbour, and head off to the toilets (called Lavatories of course) or to join the queue for refreshments. When less grand films were being shown, which was more usual, there would also be a break, as there would be two films in Β the programme, so the intermission would come after the first, less important film, and before the film called the ‘main feature’. As well as two films, there would also be Pathe News, showing world events, Royal visits, or sporting triumphs, and sometimes cartoons. So it was a full evening of entertainment, and represented excellent value. At the end of the evening’s performance, the lights would be turned up, and you would be expected to stand, for the playing of the National Anthem. This may seem archaic now, but woe betide anyone seen sneaking out before the end. It was frowned upon. Britain was still a patriotic country in every way then, with a vestige of Empire, and a flourishing and loyal Commonwealth.

 

I would walk home, tired but happy, chattering to my parents about the film or films we had seen, perhaps clutching my glossy programme, and looking forward to the next time that I went to ‘The Pictures’.

24 thoughts on “Going to The Pictures

  1. I still call it The Pictures, or the Flicks, much the same as The Baths, which apparently should be the swimming pool:) In fact you description of the pictures is much like my memory, albeit a good few years after your experience. Mind you it takes a while for things to get up North πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ever since they spiit the cinemas into smaller screens, they lost that magic for me. I was lucky that I went to every huge cinema in London when I was young. I got to see Cinerama, Super Panavision, and 70mm widescreen on those massive screens. That’s why I fell in love with films as a boy.
      Cheers, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Pete,

    Thank you. You brought back so many happy memories. I am older than you but equally fond of ‘the pictures.’ In between evacuation and the air-raid warnings, now and then, Mum and I would ‘escape’ to the Odeon or Princess cinema to gaze at the silver screen. I recall sobbing fit to die when Nelson Eddie was killed and sang ‘I’ll See you Again’ to Jeanette McDonald from the sky, and when Jane Eyre’s best friend in school died. And who couldn’t be devastated during the last scene of “All Quiet on the Western Front’?. I had to wring my handkerchief out…TV is not quite the same! Cheers, x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment and memories, Joy. When they broke up the big cinemas into smaller-screen multiplexes, it seemed to me as if the experience was diminished to the extent that I rarely enjoyed it any longer. Now I live in the countryside, I almost never bother with the cinema.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. Thank you. I still went almost every week until I moved to Norfolk i 2012. I used to walk into the West End for afternoon showings, or around the corner to the cinema in Parkway, NW1.
      My local cinema in Dereham shows mainly ‘family films’, so I have only been a few times in the last nine years.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jim. For me, that was the real golden age of cinema going. No mobile phones, no ‘ambient lighting’, and definitely no fast food. (Except for Payne’s Poppets, and a tub of ice cream.)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Stevie Turner and commented:
    A lovely post from BeetleyPete looking back with affection to long ago trips to the cinema. Mum and Dad would often take me on the train up to the West End on a Sunday afternoon, and we would go to the Leicester Square cinema. Happy times.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. My parents would often take me to Leicester Square on a Sunday afternoon to the cinema there. I remember seeing Oliver! and Paint Your Wagon there as a young child, and also The Professionals with Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. Yes, I remember the usherette with her tray in the intermission, in the days when I could eat ice cream, lol.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. What a wonderfully vivid description, Pete. It brought back some great memories although we never had live music. I can remember leaning my head back taking in the detailed and luxurious decor that extended even onto the ceiling. It was a grand time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of the book. I never seem to get time to read books these days. However, I would vote for him to be leader of the Labour Party instead of Miliband, given the chance. I also know North Kensington very well, as I worked there for 20 years, in the London Ambulance Service. I have written a lot about that on my blog too. (Ambulance Stories)
      I have now added the book to my Amazon wish list, thanks to your welcome recommendation
      Many thanks for the comment, and your interest in the post.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

      1. There’s no political stuff – it’s just a memoir written about growing up in London in the 50s (that’s why it’s so good!) Will we ever have a front bench politician again who left school at the earliest opportunity, then worked in a v normal job, as a postie, before moving into the union then politics?? Can’t see it – they all seem to be professional politicians these days! I really enjoyed the book, it was very evocative, and I think if you grew up in London around the same time you’ll recognize a lot. There’s a follow-up, Please Mr Postman, in hardback at the moment, I’ll definitely buy it when it comes out in paperback. He’s a natural storyteller.

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        1. I agree, there seems little chance of getting any genuine politicians from a ‘normal’ background ever again. I spotted the sequel when I looked up the book on Amazon. It’s my birthday in March. If the paperback is out by then, I may well ask for both!
          Regards from sleepy Norfolk. Pete.

          Like

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