BTV? BEFORE TELEVISION.“You mean, there was not even any television?” The incredulous response to how I grew up in the pre-box age.
“No“, I reply, “but we did have The Pictures!”
Then comes the problem of trying to explain in this privatised age, the communal activities the “Flicks” occasioned and the three stages of growing up that they represented.
Stage 1...With Parents.
I was brought up in a terraced cottage in a tight. decent working class community in Gorleston-on-sea, on the west bank of the River Yare.
In those immediate post war years nobody owned a car so to get to the “Flicks” we either walked or queued up and caught a double-decker bus, smokers upstairs. As soon as we arrived at the cinema of our choice, we immediately joined another queue “to get into” a magical world.
Most picture houses had commissionaires simply to meet and greet customers dressed in their peaked caps and uniforms straight from Ruritania.
Once tickets had been obtained it was time to look around…gaudy advertisements of “Forthcoming Attractions” and excellent black and white photographs of famous film stars. The prevailing colour schemes were gold and deep red with all sorts of design features…classical capitols, fat cherubs, and the masks of comedy and tragedy everywhere. I particularly liked the feel of thick carpet under my feet- like most on our road at home we had lino and rag mats. “Please mum, can I have some sweets?”
We were then led to our row by the torch bearing usherette and left to thread our way past grumbling patrons to our exact seats. Already primed to not talk or twist sweet wrappers while the film was on, we kids were expected to freeze like little statues. The air was already blue with tobacco smoke by the time the programme began.
This followed a well worn pattern…adverts-Coming films-- B Film in black and white-Interval-Pathe News-Main Attraction in colour -National Anthem. Then came the rush to the exits and queuing for the bus home.
Potential little dissidents were kept firmly in check by parental authority and the sheer weight of the adulthood surrounding us.
Stage 2...Without Parents.
“Dad! Can I go to the pictures on Saturday morning?”
Yes, the “Saturday Morning Rush” was upon us and the prospect of two hours of unbridled freedom without teachers and parents in the dark!
Freedom beckoned! So it was that the next Saturday found me lined up with a howling, baying mob of hobgoblins and malcontents outside Gorleston’s “Palace” picture house. The door to juvenile anarchy was open.
The manager was small, shy and retiring- hardly the man for quelling ongoing revolt. Instead he relied upon his enforcer- the head cleaning lady. Clad in cross-over pinny and turban, clutching a mop she would appear at moments of crisis and bang on the floor of the stage to get attention. She would make serial threats about turfing us all out, only to be met with serial abuse. She would then take to the aisles randomly using her mop to stab at little rebellious pools of darkness before disappearing through the exit doors to loud clapping, jeers and hoels of derision.
Just opposite the Palace were two shops of great significance. The first was Beaumont’s toyshop who once got in a store of tin pea-shooters and the second, a branch of the Home and Colonial grocery chain that supplied the ammunition-an inexhaustible supply of split peas. Internecine warfare was then fought during the boring bits ie anything not set in the American West involving multiple shoot ups between guys in either white or black hats. Peas shot through the silver beam from the projector spoilt many a dramatic scene.
More deadly were the occasionally detached seat arms thrown down aisles to hit the front of the stage with resounding thumps and bangs.
During a showing of “Beau Geste” and a prolonged desert scene, 200 of us started simultaneously banging on the backs of seats to raise a dust cloud of our very own.
We were of course forbidden access to the upper circle following a disastrous experiment by the manager. All the rougher elements had seized the front row of the balcony in a sudden coup to develop bombing techniques on the kids below. I will say nothing of the spitting competition onto the cap of the soon to resign commissionaire!
The real heroine of the mornings, however, was the girl employed to sell ice creams and soft drinks from a neck-suspended tray during intervals. I am not sure how much money she ever took surrounded by a pack of little thieves who put Fagin’s lads to shame, but not once did she ever suffer any form of abuse-that was reserved for any figure of authority!
And so passed many a Saturday morning until…
Stage 3 Outgrowing the Rush.
At 11, having passed my 11+ I was a pupil at Great Yarmouth Grammar School which meant my travelling into Yarmouth each day.
Being a holiday resort the town boasted half a dozen cinemas and with new found friends I started visiting two or three of them a week- generally on the way home from school. By now the Film Noire films had given way to the epics as the industry tried a King Canute job against the tide of television.
For the first time I started to critically discuss what we had seen with my friends. Was “Ben Hur” a better film than “El Cid? What was so special about “High Noon?” Was “The Paths of Glory” only about the First World War?” What made “The Twelve Angry Men” such a gripping film?
On mid-week afternoons, one cinema started showing older what we now term “Classic” films. What I saw have remained some of my favourites ever since…John Grierson’s two documentaries “Night Mail” and “Drifters”. (My father who was a herring fisherman reckoned it was truly accurate down to the last detail); Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” and “Alexander Nevsky”; “The Grapes of Wrath”; “The Third Man” et al.
It was at this point that I discovered another function of the cinema…girls! A lass accepting an invitation to the cinema meant half the work was done and her making for the back row double seats was a cert! I will draw the veil of discretion at this point.
We might not have had television and today’s electronic marvels, (that I for one thoroughly enjoy), but which are surely no substitute for the social and cultural impact of The Pictures.