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My Early Film Memories in England

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Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:17 pm

In 1941, when I was 3 years old and still living in my native England, I had tonsillitis. My mother took me to the Cornelia Hospital in Poole, Dorset. I can still remember being prepped for the tonsillectomy operation—not a bit scary—and the surgeon and nurse asking me if I had any brothers or sisters (yes, one of each) and then the smell of chloroform as the mask was put over my mouth. It all went well and I woke up in the children’s ward and was given ice cream to eat and a Rupert Bear picture book to look at. But the exciting thing came the following December when all the child patients of the year were invited to a special party. There, we were given a lovely Christmas tea, and then a movie! They had a 16mm projector and a film, a Laurel and Hardy! This was wonderful, and it was my very first film!

After the war, from 1945 to ‘49, my parents occasionally took me (aged 7-11) on a Saturday night to see movies at the local Regal cinema in Parkstone, Dorset, depicted here in the accompanying photograph. As I picture it in my memories, there were always long lines of people waiting patiently to get in. In the period immediately after the end of the war, 1945-47, people were so eager for entertainment at weekends that the cinemas were tremendously popular and crowded. My father, after he was "demobbed" (demobilized) from the army and went back to his prewar job in Bournemouth still had to work 5½ days a week. The only available time for him, my mother, and myself to go out was Saturday evening—and the place to go was the Regal. After an evening meal we walked down there and took our place at the end of a long queue that started just near the entrance steps of the cinema and wound back down the alley between the Regal and Curry’s bicycle and radio shop (which you can see in the photo). The whole auditorium of the cinema was completely crowded, downstairs and up in the balcony—literally every single seat was occupied. Gradually, as people came out of the afternoon showing singly or in twos and threes the commissionaire, a big man in the uniform of a Ruritanian general, would come to the head of the queue and would announce, "Three singles" or "A single and a pair". Waiting customers who were willing to accept whatever he announced would go forward and gain entrance. Sometimes, I think when it was rainy weather, he would even say, "Four standing!" which would mean four customers could go in and join all the other customers who were already in the cinema in the side aisles waiting for an empty seat as the afternoon viewers got up and left.

That is a vivid picture of cinemas at that time all over England after six years of blackouts, German air raids and bombings, and the return of street lights, the ripping down of blackout curtains and the long awaited return home of all the thousands of men who had spent six years in the army, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, or the Merchant Marine—other than the many who didn’t make it.

The photo here shows the Regal and a bit of Ashley Road as it looked in 1953, four years after we moved away, but substantially the same as it was in the ‘40s. In the ‘53 photo we see that the Regal was screening the Warner Brothers film, House of Wax. I didn’t see this film but I saw another 3-D film at the Regal later, in my teens after we had moved away.

During my boyhood years in Parkstone, I frequently went up and down this street. Since our home in London had been bombed during the Blitz, we lived after the war in a requisitioned home above a shop a few blocks further west. On Saturday mornings I particularly enjoyed the all-children’s show. It cost about six pence to get in and included whichever of the week’s adult films most suited to children, plus a newsreel, a cartoon, and the latest episode of a serial. So long as there was plenty of action and fighting, we boys loved it, but if ever the film star hero started smooching with the heroine we groaned out loud until he moved on to something important! I think the girls liked it, but at age 11 we had no interest in girls.

In 1949 I went off to boarding school ("public school" as we called it in England), and only on very, very rare occasions were we allowed to go to a cinema—it was too lower class! But once we were allowed to go and see a film about British officers escaping from a German prisoner of war camp—a patriotic story, so very acceptable. Then, when I was about 14, the senior English teacher gave a prize of ten shillings to me and another boy for essays we had written, allowing us to go and see The Magic Box (1951) a classic four-star film featuring many great English actors, including Laurence Olivier. The Magic Box was a historical biography about the British inventor of the film camera and projector, William Friese-Greene, played by Robert Donat. I have never forgotten this film, but for decades I was not able to see it again, until recently when a former colleague, David Green of Davenport, Iowa, sent me a video copy.

Meanwhile, back at the boarding school, our housemaster, a former army major, used to organize a wonderful house party for us 35 boys every December on the evening before we packed up and went home for the Christmas holidays for three weeks. There were always heaps of food, games, etc., and at the end of the evening a 16mm movie presentation! Two of the senior boys would set up and load the projector then turn off the lights in the house dining room and away we’d go. We always booed loudly if they had to stop to change a reel, but the screening were enormously enjoyable, all the more so because we seldom saw movies, and in England television had not yet become widespread.

In closing, I must mention that it was in this street, Ashley Road, that I met my first American. There were still American troops in the U.K. at that time and one day as I was passing a shop an American soldier came out. As he pulled something out of his pocket he accidentally spilled some coins onto the pavement. I quickly got down and gathered them up and gave them back to him. He glanced down at them, paused a second, and then said, "Ah, keep them—buy yourself some candy!" I then realized that Americans were very friendly, very kind, and very generous! Subsequent experiences have confirmed this, including the one in which I met a dark-haired, blue-eyed American girl when I was working in Switzerland. A few months later, she actually agreed to marry me!

My wife and I eventually settled in America where we raised our children, and now in retirement we enjoy being with them, and our grandchildren. And of course, I still love to watch films, especially the older ones which over the years have come to seem more and more like time machines that take me back to an earlier time and place—to the world as it was in my youth.