People don’t talk much about Going To The Pictures these days so maybe they simply don’t go or more likely they have a more up to date and conventional term for the pastime like Seeing a Movie. Back in those years following the war we definitely went to the Pictures and to do that we went to a Picture House. As I’ve said previously my own favourite Picture House was the Wardona in Northfleet though I frequented the place only rarely because my mother was sure I would Catch Things there. The things she most feared me catching were Nits and TB. She favoured The Majestic in Gravesend which was flashily decorated in red and gold. Old Nan who knew everything about The Pictures said it had opened in 1931 and at the time had a café for patrons and four dressing rooms for the convenience of those appearing in Live Shows. I don’t actually remember any Live Shows but I suppose there must have been some at one time. It was certainly a popular place in the late 1940s with long queues outside on some Saturday nights, depending upon what was showing of course. At popular times there was an organist called Reggie New and an usher who walked up and down the queue calling out, `Seats in all places’. When I was very small I have a faint memory of us going to see Casablanca there which I found exceedingly boring . We also saw Bambi and Snow White which were both considerably less tedious even though the forest fire was alarming and the witch terrifying.
Of the four Gravesend cinemas my own preference was The Regal. To be perfectly honest I was not keen on frequenting The Majestic by myself especially when attempting to get into an age restricted programme because the woman in the ticket office was particularly astute at querying if you were really fourteen or actually only twelve. If you were in fact only eleven that could be quite awkward despite the plush surroundings. The Regal was less lavish and had been designed by someone called Charles Lovell opening as long ago as 1914. It had 750 seats in the auditorium and over 300 in the balcony as well as two boxes for the local elite. It had originally been called the Gem Picture Theatre but in 1934 it was taken over by Union Cinemas, spruced up and renamed The Regal. Old Nan clearly remembered the re-opening in May of that year because she and my grandfather had come all the way from Crayford to attend and catch a glimpse of not only Jessie Matthews but Doris and Elsie Waters also. It was clearly quite an occasion and after the excitement of rubbing shoulders with the stars they had treated themselves to a fish supper in The High Street before downing a number of Gin & Tonics at The Three Daws. This story, told a number of times as I was growing up did not impress me at all because I had no idea who Jessie Matthews was and only a dim awareness of Elsie & Doris Waters who were to me, two very boring radio personalities who seemed to say things that made my mother and the Aunts laugh a lot. The best feature of The Regal as far as I was concerned was that the staff in the ticket office were usually not quite as fussy as those at The Majestic and because of this eleven and twelve year olds were privy to a wide and exciting range of restricted programmes that these days would not raise an eyebrow.
Regal fussiness was more to do with allotting seating and the two usherettes were quite determined that anyone who looked under the age of fifteen must sit as far Down The Front as possible and preferably in the first two rows, in fact in the cheapest seats, tickets for which I seem to recall were a mere nine-pence. This was usually easily enforceable because child patrons generally had in fact purchased the cheapest seats and in any case in those days as a rule children did what adults told them to unless there was a fool-proof way of not doing so.
My mother was not in favour of the cheapest seats because she had read somewhere that viewing from too close a proximity to the screen would inevitably lead to blindness in later life. She firmly believed that my Grandmother’s cataracts were a consequence of this habit. Therefore although we were not as frequent cinema attenders as our neighbours, when we did go we always sat At The Back, in the Good Seats, sometimes paying as much as one and nine-pence for a matinee performance. So when my brother and I were sent off on a Saturday afternoon in March 1953 to see `The Greatest Show On Earth’ starring the dashing and handsome Cornell Wilde with whom I had fallen passionately in love, although I was not quite thirteen and Bernard only six years old we were given the exact money and told to only buy Best Seats. I importantly joined the ticket office queue and duly purchased two one and nine-penny tickets. It was quite a surprise therefore when presenting them to the bored afternoon shift usherette to be ordered with a simple flash of her torch to `Go down the front’. I carefully held the tickets up again for inspection and said firmly, `I’ve paid for back row tickets – one and nine-pence each!’ Looking a little impatient and raising her voice she flashed the all-important torch down the aisle, `All children down the front,’ she said abruptly and quelling my next protest before I could actually utter it she added, `And no lip if you don’t mind.’
In fact I did mind because I had been about to enlighten her about the blindness that could eventuate from sitting too close to the screen. I minded very much and had begun to feel just a little bit fearful of a possible fight but also indignant. Bernard tugged at my hand anxiously and looked as if he was about to cry, `Let’s do what she says,’ he urged. But I had already decided to ignore her because Right was on my side and so I began to drag him into one of the back row seats whereupon she took his other arm and started to propel him towards the front of the auditorium with her torch. Infuriatingly he obediently went ahead of her intent upon not missing the beginning of the afternoon programme where the Pathe News might still be showing dramatic footage of the devastating recent tidal surge that had even affected people we knew of in Northfleet and killed hundreds that we didn’t know at all. But I had already begun to feel the stirrings of fury that in subsequent years would become all too familiar a sensation when face to face with injustice and discrimination. Rushing ahead of the huge arc of her torch I pulled him back, holding his upper arm firmly with one hand and the one and nine-penny tickets now becoming creased and sweaty with the other. On the way in I had idly noticed a door that said Manager’s Office. Managers I knew had power and sorted out problems. `I’m going to see the Manager,’ I said firmly, `Because you shouldn’t be making us sit in cheap seats when we’ve got tickets for dear seats.’ She shrugged but just a little diffidently.
Bernard had begun to cry properly now, big tears rolling down his cheeks, `I just want to see the circus people,’ he said. I told him he would definitely see the circus people because the Manager would sort out the problem and as I spoke I imagined a performing tiger tearing out the throat of the odious woman with the torch, forcing her to drop it in the aisle as she screamed in anguish, vainly trying to fend off the animal but not before it wrenched her right arm out of her shoulder. This particular circus scene was so very pleasing that I pictured it all over again before plucking up the necessary courage to knock on the door that said Manager’s Office.
I banged on the door as loudly as I could but nothing happened until I knocked for the third time. He was short and plump and looked ill-tempered; patches of underarm sweat were evident on his otherwise whiter than white shirt. He had blue braces and a jacket draped over the chair-back beside him in the tiny space. `What do you want?’ he asked irritably glancing at Bernard whose nose was now running because of all the tears.
Battling the inner turmoil I was feeling I explained the problem and also elaborated on the reasons why, the danger of blindness in later life emanating from the first rows of the stalls. I showed him the creased and now very damp tickets which he smoothed on his blotter, nodding as he did so, `Yes these are back stalls all right’ he said. Still looking exasperated he led the way back into the auditorium which was now nicely filling and called to the abhorrent usherette, `Iris - these customers have the correct tickets for back seating,’ he said.
She shrugged again and told him that the kiddies had seemed to have lost the tickets and if only she had seen them there wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.
`She’s a liar,’ I said and turned to Bernard who was still weeping but more quietly now. He was in no state to support me
The Manager sat us in the back row just as the Pathe Gazette rooster appeared on the screen. A moment or two later he returned with a packet of Polo Mints which he handed to Bernard who stopped crying at once.
Despite the undoubted attractions of Cornell Wilde, Trapeze Artist, I didn’t feel entirely normal for at least half an hour, endlessly reliving the bloody demise of the much despised Iris, she whom the circus tiger pinned to the sloping aisle of The Regal Cinema and then consumed so completely that all that was left of her by intermission was the abandoned torch still shining its arc towards the screen. Beside me my brother now cheerfully munched on Polo Mints.
As we waited for the bus home he said, sounding suddenly very grown up, `It’s worth complaining isn’t it Jean?’
I nodded and tried to appear sophisticated, still feeling edgy and ill at ease about what had happened.
Decades later, on a visit back to Gravesend after The Regal had become first a Bingo Hall and then the United Church of the Kingdom of God, I was abruptly reminded of that afternoon when I had been ardently in love with Cornell Wilde and when a tiger ate an usherette called Iris.