Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[17] Cinema


Because I can, (and because it’s my blog,) I will start with a diversion from my (not yet announced) topic. If the title means nothing to you, you will have to read on a bit to see what this post is about.


As I write these posts, I am often struck by the need to convert the way we spoke then into more modern terminology. The language has changed so much that I have one or two posts planned just about the ‘English’ language. New things have new names but very often we use informal or slang words instead. When they were new, we had photographs, telephones and televisions. Now we have photos, phones and TVs. We used say that someone was ‘on the blower’ for the telephone, and we to talked of the ‘telly’ or the ’goggle-box’ for television.


When films started, they flickered at a few frames per second but they did look as if they moved. They were moving pictures, called colloquially ‘movies.’ It was some time before they were developed with sound and became the ‘talkies’ to our parents. (I’m not that old.)

When I grew up, where I lived, films were called films. Now, throughout Britain, they seem to have become ‘movies’ again by the creeping Americanization of our language, made more rapid with computers and the Internet. (The UK is now considered to be a very minor country by Microsoft. Their software comes with many language options including Welsh, but does not yet include English English. This is not my first mention of Americanization and it will not be my last.)

Where was I? Films. When we went to see a film, what we actually said was we were going to ‘the pictures,’ or colloquially, to ‘the flicks.’ We are now ready to consider something else that has disappeared from life as we knew it then.

Saturday Morning Pictures

Films ran in a cycle through the afternoon and evening. No one would generally think of a morning showing. But once a week we had Saturday Morning Pictures, presumably designed to give parents a child-free shopping opportunity. As children, we went regularly. I think it started at 9:30 and lasted a couple of hours. Normally you paid 2s 6d for a seat in the front stalls, or 4s 6d for the rear stalls, more for the circle. For Saturday morning pictures, children paid just 6d. (In modern money terms, think 12½p, 22½p and 2½p. Those are for children. In those days, children paid half price for most things.)


Let’s start with the building, the cinema. [US: movie theater.] We had large cinemas then, a large open auditorium comparable to what we would now see as a theatre, with only one screen. We went to the Odeon at Gant’s Hill. (That was about a mile away, so we must have walked it sometimes, or maybe we took the bus.) Inside, it was like many theatres we still have now, about the same size, with Stalls and a Circle. Instead of a theatre stage, it had just one large screen with theatre-like curtains, which opened and closed for every film. (To complicate things, some more modern theatres have moved away from the stage at the front with curtains. Now we have theatre in the round.)

I suppose what we had on Saturday was a cheaper version of the general film routine of the rest of the week. We had two short films, perhaps re-used ‘B’ pictures – lots of adventure stories, perhaps Westerns or Robin Hood, sometimes serials or series. (Westerns are something else that seems to have disappeared. They were very popular in the cinema and on early television – the American ‘Wild West.’ As children, we would have called them ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ It’s not politically correct now, but what the US now call ‘Native Americans’ were then always ‘Red Indians’ or just ‘Indians.’ I am not sure what the accepted UK term is now, as we don’t mention them except via US usage.)

Most films would have been in black and white but there were also cartoons, always in colour.

In the interval between films we had a bit of audience participation with all the boys and girls singing a few songs. As you will remember from our hymn singing at Highlands, words were displayed on a screen at the front for us. The cinema had a nice screen available for the purpose. (If you don’t remember, you haven’t been paying attention. Go back and read the earlier postings!)

The best singalong songs have familiar choruses to sing. One which we always sang was about Robin Hood, with its familiar chorus as follows.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men

Feared by the bad, loved by the good

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood

I have to guess that early independent television (ITV) featured a series about the man who stole from the bad and rich and gave to the good and poor, because what we actually sang was: “Feared by the BBC, loved by the ITV.” (In our family, we didn’t see early ITV.) If you didn’t know that, you probably guessed from my title!

I can in fact now be a bit more precise, with the help of modern technology and, in particular, Wikipedia. ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’  ran on  British television for 143 half-hour, black and white episodes, broadcast weekly between 1955 and 1959 on ITV, with Richard Greene as Robin Hood and Alan Wheatley as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Most episodes were pure original fiction created by the show’s writers and producers.



I suppose this is as good a place as any to say a bit more about films and cinemas in general. Just about every cinema was either an Odeon or an ABC. The two chains showed different films, which changed once a week. (I think on Thursdays. Sometimes the same film would show for two or three weeks.) Cinemas would show the main film, a shorter ‘B’ film, Pathe News and a few adverts and trailers in a cyclical pattern. (Pathe News, you know all about Pathe News.) For your ticket you could sit where you liked, go in straightaway and stay as long as you liked. If you came in the middle of a film, you would stay at least until that point came round again. [Local papers would show what main film that was showing and give the time of ‘LCP,’ the Last Complete Performance. If you came earlier, you weren’t sure what you would see first.]

As you generally arrived during a performance in the dark, there were usherettes who had torches to show you the way to an empty seat. (It’s pointless to consider whether the word for men was ‘ushers.’ Men didn’t do it. Many jobs were very sexist – just like stewardesses on aeroplanes. [US: airplanes or planes])

Young readers will know nothing about the physical process of cinema, and will imagine a large electronic screen, showing computer produced, perfect pictures at the touch of a button. Production and showing of films were certainly not easy processes and the quality of pictures and sound was far from perfect. Films were made by taking photographs at 24 frames per second with a heavy, noisy camera. There was a lot of editing and splicing and copying to get the product ready for use in reels, each holding 1000 feet of film [300 metres], enough for a mere eleven minutes.


Reels, about the size of a car’s hub cap, had to be manually threaded into a projector, which was operated by a projectionist at the back of the cinema. A powerful light in the projector shone through each frame on to the screen, and the tape wound just about fast enough to give the illusion of movement. (When the wagons rolled across the plains of the West as the Indians chased, we always had the optical illusion of wagon wheels turning backwards. The Mathematics is straightforward but I will not put it here.)

What we did not normally notice was the process of changing reels every eleven minutes – unless the projectionist missed one and we had a few minutes gap.

During the production process sound was added to the cellulose strip holding the pictures, so that the projector also reproduced the soundtrack. If the projector speed wobbled a bit we had wobbly, flickering pictures and distorted sound.


Film Classification was much simpler than now with only three choices for the Film Censors. Most films were classes as ‘U’ and could be seen by anyone. Some were ‘A,’ which meant that children had to be accompanied by an adult. A few were graded ‘X,’ either for sexual content or for horror. (Most modern films graded ‘15’ or higher would not even have been acceptable then as ‘X.’ Censorship was much stricter.)


Ice creams

In the interval between films, the other job of the usherettes was to sell the ice-creams. They came to the front of the cinema and we queued for them. The only options were ice lollies [US: popsicles] in two or three flavours or choc-ices. [No US equivalent. Wikipedia suggests: Klondike bar.] Prices, in modern terms, 1p or 2p.


The process of colour came in gradually, taking at least ten years. (It was difficult to get perfect colours and there were worries about the physical lifetime of the cellulose film. Technicolor, the most popular process, was invented in 1916.) I remember being taken in a group from school to see Ben Hur in colour in 1959 – this was in a wide-screen format and we were taken to London to see it. At another time, the whole school saw The Ladykillers, shown at school in black and white. We did not expect colour in those days. (Television remained black and white.)

Cartoons, produced in a different way, had always been colour since before I can remember. They were made by drawing and photographing each one of the 24 frames a second by hand, so the classic cartoons took years to produce. There was nothing remotely resembling computer animation.

(One other thing we had then that has disappeared. After the last performance of the last film, they played the National Anthem. We stood in silence for it, as we always did whenever it was played.)

Two for the price of one – Cinema and Saturday Morning Pictures in one blog. Don’t expect this every time …


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

8 thoughts on “[17] Cinema

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  3. Thank u for your blog
    Was very interesting and brought back some memories


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