Before having a successful career as a lift engineer, my dad was an assistant projectionist in a London cinema, spooling, among other things, Pathe News and British propaganda films.
His love of film carried on throughout his life and he would often take me on childhood treats to the cinema where we’d watch Clash of the Titans, Star Treks 1-4, Star Wars, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Flash Gordon – because I was too young to watch Flesh Gordon – and other films HE wanted to watch.
Back then, there was a choice of cinemas within walking distance of each other. There were queues. Long queues that snaked their way along the High Street and almost joined the other cinema queues.
There was no online pre-booking, no precise choice of seat, just sense to join the queue early so as you’d be ahead of the free-for-all that happened when the cinema doors opened as people rushed and clambered over you to get the best central seats.
Seating was a choice of upper circle or stalls, depending on how much you wanted to pay to watch a film and whether you liked to watch a film from aeroplane height or ridiculously below ground.
The only seat etiquette was that smokers had to sit on the left hand side of the cinema and watch their films through a smoky haze – which meant that watching The Towering Inferno from here was like watching a film in 3D and watching John Carpenter’s The Fog was virtually impossible.
Couples would always sit in the back row with the boys waiting for the scary scenes to start so as they could comfort their dates by helpfully shoving their tongues down their throats. During the romantic films, boys would always go for the arm around the shoulder or on the knee approach to snare the girlfriend in moves they had witnessed on Saturday afternoon TV wrestling shows.
But one of the main differences in the cinematic experience was that it didn’t really matter when you entered the cinema to watch a film because the films were on a continuous loop and people would often enter a cinema, watch the end of a film and just sit there for a couple of hours so as they could watch the start and then get up and leave at the point they came in.
And this was considered normal behaviour.
This meant that everyone you had seen killed at the end of the film was now miraculously alive but about to meet their fate or that the couple, whose wedding you witnessed were now going through a tough patch and not looking like they’d get married at all.
There were normally two films, the main event and a lesser, time filler film or sometimes cartoons.
One of the highlights of the cinema experience was during the intermission where a young usherette, who harboured hopeful dreams of appearing on the big screen, would find herself at the front of the seats, having her silhouette projected onto an advertisement for Joe’s Auto Repairs.
It was a start for her.
The sight of the usherette would incite feelings of joy and anxiety as dads shifted uncomfortably in their seats looking for change to send their kids down to buy the obligatory Kia-Ora orange juices or ridiculously frozen ice cream sundaes, knowing there were limited supplies in the usherette’s tray and that the order would be invariably wrong when the kids returned and arguments would begin.
Alongside the screening of upcoming blockbuster film trailers (courtesy of Pearl & Dean, whoever they were?), there were bizarre advertisements for local trades and Asian eateries filmed on Super-8 cine cameras. How they financed to have these projected onto the big screen is anyone’s guess. Free meals for the projectionist, perhaps?
Whatever the trade was, it always had to be within two minutes of the actual cinema. If you were a slow walker, I don’t know if you could sue them under The Trades Description Act?
They never announced “Come to The Koh i Noor, only two bus rides away from this cinema!”
Fast forward and I am as guilty as my dad, having taken my lad to see films that I wanted to watch. So I really have to belatedly apologise to him for making him sit through the entire Spiderman franchise, the dreadful Harry Hill Movie and SpongeBob SquarePants – Sponge Under Water.
In years to come, I’m sure he’ll do similar with his own children and them with theirs.