Saturday, April 18, 2009

From Beyond the Belgrave

H V Morton's book In Search of England (1927) contains the following instruction:
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Every boy in England should be taken at least once to Plymouth. He should, if small, be torn away from his mother and sent out for a night with the fishing fleet; he should go out in the tenders to meet the Atlantic liners; he should be shown battleships building at Devonport; he should be taken to the Barbican, and told the story of the Mayflower and the birth of New England, and most important of all, his imagination should be kindled by tales of Hawkins and Drake on high, green Plymouth Hoe, the finest promenade in Europe.
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And if he's still got an hour or two to kill after that, you can always take him to the pictures.
In its heyday, the city of Plymouth boasted dozens of cinemas. Hitler took out a few, television picked up where he left off, and by the time I was born in 1973 there were only three.
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All film fans have what are often referred to as 'guilty pleasures': films of which they are inordinately fond despite being fully aware that they could never in a million years construct a rational artistic defence for them. The reason usually boils down to a nostalgic attachment to the circumstances in which they were first encountered, and it is certainly the case that the majority of my guilty pleasures date from the early to mid-nineteen-eighties, the period when I first began going to the cinema, sometimes unaccompanied, as a habit rather than a treat.
Films like The Monster Club with Vincent Price disco dancing, Jaws 3-D and, God help me, Clockwise with John Cleese are treats which I still have to ration lest their magic wears off. It hasn't yet; any one of the above gives me as much pleasure - no, who am I trying to fool? - much more pleasure than The Maltese Falcon or Psycho or whatever my 'official' favourite film might have been at the time.
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I can no longer remember the first film I ever saw, I suspect it was a Disney cartoon; I remember seeing Dumbo at a very young age, and being fascinated by the inside of the whale in Pinocchio.
I certainly saw Star Wars on its first run (but not Superman, which I have still never seen.) The first time I remember being somewhat disappointed by a film was by the The Spaceman and King Arthur; until then the novelty of cinema was enough to make a treat of anything.
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Ironically, by the time I became a regular movie-goer, the city’s grandest cinema by no small margin was the Drake (later the Drake-Odeon, then just the Odeon): ironic because it was also the newest. (It opened in 1958; the first attraction was South Pacific.)
Named, of course, after the city’s most famous son, it boasted a splendid replica of his ship the Golden Hind above the entrance. (It’s still there, in fact, looking lost and lonely in a new plastic and metal landscape.)
Of all Plymouth movie houses still standing in my youth, only the Drake hinted at something of that atmosphere one associates with cinemagoing in the golden age.
According to Gordon Chapman’s superb book Devon at the Cinema it was the only cinema in Britain built by 20th Century Fox, though quickly sold to the Rank Organisation. Fortuitously so, since as well as a splendidly spacious entrance hall, high ceiling and mezzanine, it boasted wonderful Rank wallpaper, covered with pictures of Kenneth Williams and Bruce Lee. (Or was it? See photos below.)
Built with only one massive screen it had split into three by the time I first visited, and again into five by the time it closed its doors in 1999. It was the Drake that got the James Bond films, and where I was taken to see Moonraker on two consecutive nights because I fell asleep the first time.
Reproduced on the left is the somewhat uninspiring line-up of the Drake's final week: it's now a casino or something.
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Most of the following pictures of the Drake are from this website, which poignantly documents its rise and fall.
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Above: Ron Wilson, who worked at the Drake from its opening in 1958, holds up a surviving fragment of the original Twentieth Century Fox carpet the week the cinema closed in 1999.
Below: The collagey wallpaper! According to the website on which I found these pictures, this too was a homemade affair using cut out pictures like the ABC's (see below). But while the ABC's was pasted image by image on to the wall, this must have at least been professionally printed onto wallpaper, as the panels were duplicated. How well I remember Roger Moore as Bond, Bruce Lee and Barbara Windsor. Others too are familiar, though at the time I had no idea what they were, such as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Sleeper and Michael Craig buried alive in Vault of Horror! But where is a flaring-nostrilled Kenneth Williams? He was definitely there.
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Just up the road, the smaller three-screen ABC (later the Cannon and the MGM, now the Reel) still stands.
This is where I was deemed too young for Jaws, saw ET three times, Morons From Outer Space once and, in later years, sat almost alone through afternoon screenings of Bitter Moon, Blame It On The Bellboy and Parting Shots.
The only time I can remember starting a film halfway through and sticking around for the next showing (until ‘where we came in’) was here in 1985; the film was King Solomon’s Mines with (if memory serves) a moment in which a tribe of cannibals put Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone into a big pot with vegetables floating in it.
The ABC was a cosier affair than the Drake, and (as mentioned above) ingeniously made its own wallpaper out of old posters, including one for Kenny Everett’s Bloodbath at the House of Death. Going up the stairs were framed posters for Lugosi's Dracula, the Karloff-Lugosi Black Cat and Chaplin in, I think, The Adventurer.
Built in 1938, and still with many of its original art deco fittings, it survived the blitz and is still valiantly standing fast against the multiplexes, though hellish plans persist to turn it into just another plastic fast film outlet.
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The ABC, or ABC-Plaza as it was then known, showing The Demon Doctor. This was the British title of Jesus Franco's Gritos en la noche (1962, aka The Awful Dr. Orloff ). The star was Howard Vernon, though it looks to me as though the ABC's poster, apparently home-made, has re-christened him 'Verson'. The thought of a Jesus Franco movie playing in Plymouth, let alone the same cinema where I went to see ET, seems incredible to me. .
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Plymouth's third cinema was the Belgrave. It seems obvious to me today that this was the most cherishable of them all, though my only clear memory of visiting it was to see Abba the Movie.
It was the oldest (built in 1912), the most ramshackle, eccentric and charming. (Here it was that my father laughed so unrestrainedly at Peter Sellers in The Smallest Show on Earth that he kicked a woman in the head.)
To my parents’ generation the ‘Grave was the number one choice for fifties sci-fi and horror, rock and roll films, double-bills and second runs. By the seventies it had been forced into less innocent forms of exploitation; I have a vivid recollection of staring at the little reproductions of garish film posters that accompanied the listings in the local paper, transfixed by the mysterious promise of The Hills Have Eyes and, especially, by what seemed the most enticing double-bill ever: Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Toolbox Murders.
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The ‘Grave closed its doors in 1983 before turning itself into a snooker hall. This it remains, the rather splendid old building still standing as it was. For a while I lived in a flat in the same street, but I never dared to look inside and see how much of the interior had been destroyed.
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A little later I discovered that the Plymouth Arts Centre had a cinema. This was strictly no-frills but its programmes completed my cinema education: here I saw Battleship Potemkin, Birth of a Nation, Grande Illusion, Nights of Cabiria, The Chelsea Girls and Blue Velvet for the first time.
Designed merely to supplement the output of the main cinemas with more offbeat fare, today it is one of only two cinemas in the entire city (or three if you count the multiplex, but I'm assuming you don't).
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Nothing has ever come close to the sense of intoxication engendered by childhood visits to the Drake and the ABC, though I have of course had memorable times in other cinemas since. In London, I lived for a while just around the corner from the ABC, Catford, built in 1913 as the Central Hall Picture House, and another lovely old three-screener which maintained a suicidal programme of films other more impressive cinemas in the area couldn’t be bothered to show.
It was also steeped in that quintessential cinema smell - dust and popcorn and old upholstery - to a degree I have never encountered before or since. Almost overwhelming in its intensity, it hit you like a wet duvet when you entered, and clung to your clothes for hours after. Weeds grew out of its façade.
Here I enjoyed Dracula Dead and Loving It in the company of one old man on a Friday afternoon and Miss Congeniality with rain pouring through the ceiling and spattering on a nearby seat. It closed soon after.
. What shall we see tonight in Catford? Breakfast at Tiffany's?... or Emmanuelle IV in 3-D?The interior was nothing like this when I lived there! The coming attraction on the wall is Gorgo. I'm not sure who the chap in the framed picture is.
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The story of British cinemas in the post-war years is, alas, one of constant decline. Death came with many smiling faces, first television, then video, then the multiplex, with several other factors chipping away at the gaps in between.
Doubtless a generation older than mine quite rightly recalls video as an evil fully comparable to those damned multiplexes. It seems obvious now that video was the decisive blow that did for the Belgrave, just as the multiplex unquestionably finished off the Drake.
I am just old enough to have had a silent Super-8 projector at a time when they were not a collector's retro novelty but the only way of watching a film of your choice at a time of your choice at home. I had one-reel versions of House of Frankenstein and Easy Street (and a Laurel and Hardy film in fact called Their Purple Moment but to me forever to be known as Passing the Buck, the title it had been given for home consumption).
I still have them and many more, and now am a devoted aficionado of the unique experience they provide, of the whirring of the projector, of that hot smell made by the film rushing past the bulb. But at the time home movies were dying just like the Belgrave and thanks to the same culprit.
Still, I was too young to resent video. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever encountered: a big silver box in the living room built like a tank with a remote control connected to it by a long lead that actually allowed you to make recordings of Jaws and the Kenny Everett show.
The first film we ever recorded was Love at First Bite, which I certainly feel is excellent for what it is, but again - not quite worthy of the warm place it occupies still in my family's memories of the time. My sister and I watched it so often that we could recite the entire script from beginning to end, and I'll wager we could still make a pretty good stab at it.
I can even remember word for word the way it was introduced by Roger Shaw, the continuity announcer. (This was in the days when ITV, in our region at least, employed announcers we could see as well as hear; they sat in a kind of minimalist mock-up living room, and we were encouraged to get to know them by name and think of them as part of the entertainment. Which they certainly were, especially a chap, now alas deceased, called Ian Stirling.)
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This was before the sell-through revolution (when the Video Collection started putting out tapes of the Marx Brothers in Love Happy for £6.99 in Woolworth’s). You could buy some films at about £20 a pop, but who needed to, when just about every newsagents and corner shop had a rack of enticing plastic boxes for rent? And every neighbourhood had its own specialist video rental shop – our favourite was Video Express (in Laira, Plymouth fans) – where whole rooms would be lined with the likes of Who Dares Wins and The Amityville Horror and Zulu Dawn, all smelling beautifully of dust, sunlight and fag smoke.
Video Express had two rooms: a cavernous, overflowing one for VHS, and a sparse little drab one for we Betamax lepers. Here I was reacquainted with those iconic images of the hand rising from the grave from Zombie Flesh Eaters and that scary bald chap from The Hills Have Eyes, along with perhaps the most famous video cover of all, for a film I had never heard of (and in fact have still never seen): Driller Killer.
These films, Driller Killer especially, would soon achieve a degree of celebrity far beyond their worth when they were re-christened ‘video nasties’. For most of my generation, recollection of the titles alone is enough to be instantly transported back to those glorious early days of video tape. But for me, they take me further: to 1979 and those little posters in the newspaper. Video nasties they may have become, but they will always be first and foremost Belgrave movies.