Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Day 159: Cinema Paradisio

My earliest memories of the cinema, were Saturday mornings, back in the old country (the UK), being bundled into my parents’ car with my brother and one or two other mates and being taken to the Odeon in Cosham High Street (Portsmouth).

Now, humour me whilst I lament the old days a little bit. In Woody Allen’s Radio Days, the protagonist recalls how the first time, as a child, he went to Radio City Music Hall: “it was like entering heaven”. In the film, the scene is underscored by an equally heavenly piece of music, Frank Sinatra singing ‘If You Are But A Dream’:

If you are but a dream
I hope I never waken
It’s more than I could bear
To find that I’m forsaken
If you’re a fantasy
Then I’m content to be
In love with loving you

It’s one of my all-time favourite moments of movie magic, which ironically, is not about the movies but radio, Woody’s hymn to those “radio days”. I remember the sights and smells and excitement of that Cosham Odeon in the same way.

I was given enough money for an admission ticket and either a hot dog or a Jamboree Bag or buttered popcorn and the choice was always a dilemma (irreconcilable goods - you can have one but not the other). My biggest regret, in hindsight, was that we were under strict instructions to buy tickets for the “refined” Circle not the rough and tumble of the stalls. Remember, this was ten years and more before the burrows and hutches that are Multiplex; the cinema was just one big great cathedral. The Odeon, like most other cinemas in my home city - the ABC, the Granada, the Gaumont - was huge, cavernous, ornate and all art-deco.

There were crimson curtains that would slowly swish back, a safety curtain and man playing an organ that rose out of the orchestra pit. The lighting was subdued and golden, the ceilings high than the interior of St. Paul’s and the enormous screen surrounded my a muted phosphorescence of mint green or some other such hue.

The programme was one or two cartoons, something by the Children’s Film Foundation (the gorgeous Susan George or Hayley Mills used to be in all of them) and then the feature which was often distributed by J.Arthur Rank and opened with that oiled muscle man striking a gong. I’ve read recently that those saturday morning matinee screenings were down to 300 cinemas by 1978, having peaked at 2,000 in 1955.

The staple diet of Carry-On films were too racy for kids but not the Ealing Comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob or The Ladykillers. War and Westerns were perennials and I think that the entire back-catalogue of any film that featured the English comedian-actor Will Hay (1888-1949), in which he invariably played an headmaster, were passed down to us, the next generation. And speaking of schools, the “gels” (girls) of St. Trinian’s - the originals, not today’s tawdry schlock - were regulars, starting with The Belles of St Trinians (1954), then Blue Murder at St Trinian’s (1957), The Pure Hell of St Trinians (1960) and The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966).

The St Trinians series of films (I’m not going to use that dreadful latter-day word, “franchise”) were all distributed by British Lion Films and featured those great staples of the United Kingdom’s cinema screen Alistair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, Terry Thomas, Lionel Jeffries and, beginning his fictitious life as England’s favourite spiv, a young George Cole (Arthur Daley). The scores were always composed, orchestrated and conducted by Sir Malcolm Arnold (favourite of the Proms and composer of soundtracks for The Bridge on the River Kwai [Academy Award], The Inn of the Sixth Happiness [Ingrid Bergmann) and the extraordinarily fantastic and thought-provoking Whistle Down the Wind).

I must stop, feeling that I’ve gone all nostalgic, not just for a time and place that no longer exists but for a cinema (in the broadest sense of the term) that is maybe just a product of a young boy’s eye.

I miss the fact that the red seats no longer fold up and down.

Day #159 Tip: Do yourself a big favour....
Whatever age of movie you grew up in, if a day amongst your writing days comes when you are stifled, stultified and stunted, then go get a bunch of the films from your local dvd store that exited you back then, back as far away as you can remember, before computer games.....around the time that paint-by-numbers and jigsaws. were popular Christmas presents.

You don’t have to stay stuck there forever, but it’s worth reminding yourself of why you loved and still love films. I have a local outlet that does seven weekly hires for seven dollars on a Wednesday, guess where I’ll be going tomorrow?!

Robin Hood, Captain Blood and Zorro live again. “Who was that masked man?”


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