A trip to “The Pictures”: Watching movies in Post-WWII London

The Ten Commandments (1956) - The PicturesIn London’s working class districts, during the late 1950s and well into the late 1960s, 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 (1956), Ben Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960). 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 programmes were either too stuffy, populist game shows, or 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 little concept of the impact of 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. 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.

Spartacus - The PicturesA 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 sometimes visit the West End Cinemas, to see a film in a new, or different way. That could take the form of 70mm projection, Cinerama, or early experiments in 3-D. The release of bigger budgets films like How the West was Won (1962), 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 the 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 doors themselves seemed like a work of art. Brass frames, flamboyant designs, so thick and heavy that it was necessary for attendants to open 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 meaning, I still associate them with those old buildings, first and foremost.

How the West was Won - The Pictures

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 on 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 through 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.

Poster - Ben-Hur (1959) - The PicturesSmoking 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, but 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 upcoming film, 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 ‘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 shown. 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, and still had 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’.

I retired, almost two years ago, then aged 60, and moved from a busy life and work in Central London, to Beetley, in rural Norfolk. After 22 years as an Emergency Medical Technician in the London Ambulance Service, followed by 11 years working for the Metropolitan Police in Control Rooms, it is going to take some adjustment to being retired, and not working shifts. My interests include photography, local and global history, and cinema and film. I have yet to find a home for my extensive DVD collection but look forward to revisiting many favourites, and discovering new ones.

21 thoughts on “A trip to “The Pictures”: Watching movies in Post-WWII London

  1. My parents didn’t go often to the movies when I was a kid, but back then, everyone went to the drive-in theater. Before the feature presentation, there would be plenty of advertisements for refreshments at the snack bar, which was always in a fairly central location, but towards the rear of the parking area, which looked something like an ocean with waves upon which to park the front tires. During this time, the parking area was well lit, as droves of people would be carrying back to their cars paper trays filled with popcorn, Coca-Cola cups, and candy. (Others would be simply returning from the restrooms.) On screen, a brief cartoon would count down the minutes to “showtime.” Realizing that young children would be restless during the wait time, most drive-ins offered families a playground located at the base of the giant screen. Once the show began, the parking area darkened considerably. The main feature (there was always at least two movies, and often a third one, though few people stayed for the late showing) was always preceded by movie previews (“Coming Attractions”) and cartoons (most popularly, those that featured The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote). As I said, growing up, my parents didn’t take the family very often, and I’ve mostly forgotten the films we saw. However, I do distinctly remember seeing “How the West Was Won” (1962), “Goodbye Charlie” (1964), and “The Monkey’s Uncle” (1965). Later, as a teenager, I was sometimes invited by friends with a car to watch a movie at the drive-in.

    Walk-in movie theaters were rare back then. In Kansas City, the magnificent Midland Theatre on Main Street always thrived, but by the time I had a car of my own, the multiplex ruled the day. (I will never forget seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” on the Midland Theatre marquee, but my father was at the wheel, and I was not yet old enough to drive.) Much later, I went a few times to the Bijou, a very small movie house in Westport (an historic district) that showed foreign films, cult films (including a staple, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”), and films of special interest.

    From the mid-1970’s to the mid-90’s, I frequented the cineplex. But as VHS membership clubs faded out, and Blockbuster began offering cheap rentals, I began splitting my time between catching up on old films on videotape and going to the movie theater. Since the mid-90s, I have given movie theaters the cold shoulder. For one thing, it’s expensive. For another, as you pointed out, patrons are inconsiderate these days. But, mainly, I prefer to pick and choose films, and buy them on DVD so that I can watch them as often as I wish, and activate subtitles if need be. I also prefer DVDs because they typically offer the film as originally intended, uncut. (I remain faithful to DVDs, but sometimes will purchase the DVD/Blu-Ray combo.)

    Pete, I thoroughly enjoyed your nostalgic look back at your London movie theater experiences. By the way, the British spelling (“theatre”) is sometimes used here, because it rings artistic. The Midland Theatre in Kansas City always used this spelling.

    • Thanks very much for your interesting comment David. I liked hearing about the drive-in cinemas. We never had any in the UK (at least not around London). I doubt the weather would ever be guaranteed long enough to make it worthwhile!
      Best wishes, Pete.

  2. I know I’m late to the game, but I just wanted to say that I very much enjoyed reading this! It’s all good and well for the movies themselves to get nostalgic (there are often “re-runs” of earlier films that are squashed among the previews nowadays), but it’s rare that you hear about what the movies used to be like from someone who saw them first-hand. Thanks for the experience!

    • Thanks for the comment LV. Glad to hear that you enjoyed the nostalgia.
      I wish you a very happy 2014, and I will hopefully be back on Curnblog at some stage.
      Regards from England, Pete.

  3. What a great story! I enjoyed reading about your experience — so vastly different than mine and yet with so much in common. So many memories have been dredged out of my memory bank and I’ve been happily relating to your experience and remembering some of the wonderful movie theaters in my childhood and youth — from Waterbury CT, Boston MA and NYC NY. Those theaters were grand in so many ways and awesome to a kid from a quiet rural background.

  4. Pingback: A Country Tail | beetleypete

    • Thanks for the comment. I lost most, if not all the magic, when the cinemas here were broken up into a group of small screens inside what was previously one venue. Some were so small, I no longer regarded it as a special experience. Add to that the popcorn buckets, talking teenagers, and increased ambient lighting, and it became something very different.
      Glad to hear you still enjoy it though. Regards from England, Pete.

  5. I’m a few years younger than you, but I still remember instrumental overtures before the film, and you could stay for as many screenings as you liked. Smoking was banned in Montreal, Canada, for many years after children died in a cinema fire. I didn’t hear the national anthem played until I moved to Ottawa in 1981.

    One of my favorite scenes from John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (the novels, not the mini-series) involved a clergyman promising a dying little girl that she would see a double bill in colour every day. After she dies, he says to himself, “Now, God, if you are, give her pictures.” It makes me cry every time!

    Thanks for a wonderfully detailed and well-written bit of movie history!

    • Thanks Paul. It was good to be able to stay and watch again, especially when the weather was bad, and there was nothing to do outside. I also remember coming in near the end of a film, and then watching the whole programme again. Great days!
      Regards from England, Pete.

    • Thanks for your kind comment. I trust that these memories will always endure, as they have been the subject of many great documentary films on the BBC, and they are often in the plots of films and novels. As long as the old films still exist, there will be scenes of people streaming into the cinemas, to enjoy that feeling.
      Regards from England, Pete.

  6. The american experience was still similar to what pete describes here through the sixties, with the subtraction of the in-cinema refreshment usherettes, who are still a fixture, however, at cinemas in Lima, Peru. Also,wedidnt have the higher prices for balcony seating,but did have what were called loges, the last three rows on the main floor with more leg room more stuffing in the chairs. the cost an extra quarter. fine piece, pete.

  7. Your London movie-going experience is similar to what I’ve read was the American experience during the 1920’s through 1940’s. The major difference is in the playing of the national anthem – I’ve never heard of that happening in the States. What a powerful feeling it must have promoted!

    • Thanks for your comment, much appreciated. It was strange, looking back, to all stand for the anthem at the end. I cannot imagine me doing that now, as I am fiercely anti-royalist! However, this country was a very different place, before 1970.
      Regards from Norfolk, Pete.

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