Archive for September 13th, 2008

Going to the pictures in Pontypool

September 13, 2008

My friend, Eric Smith, who lived next door, had a sister who was considerably older than he was. Like many other young girls, she was a picturegoing fan, and I remember she regularly took the “Picturegoer” magazine which I used to have a peep at when I was in Eric’s house. Cinemagoing in those televisionless days was a much more important affair than it is today. As the title of the above magazine suggests, “going to the pictures” was the term used rather than “going to the cinema”.

There were three cinemas in or near Pontypool:  the Park Cinema, so called presumably because of its proximity to the park, the Royal Cinema in George Street but with another entrance on Osborne Road, and the Pavilion in Pontnewynydd.

We regarded the Park Cinema as the most modern of the three. It had quite a steep flight of steps leading up into the foyer which gave it a light and airy look. The films shown in this cinema tended to be the more modern and famous ones.

The Royal Cinema, popularly known as “Pitts” for some reason unknown to me, was much older and had a neglected look about it. Apart from the usual seats in the body of the cinema, there was a flight of steps on the right hand side quite near to the screen. They didn’t lead anywhere and were used for sitting on if you didn’t mind the discomfort of a hard wooden seat. During the cheap matinee performances for children on a Saturday morning there always seemed to be a great crowd of 20 or so “rough kids” on the steps who loved making a lot of noise. They were constantly being told to keep quiet by the usherettes as they shone their torches on them. The films here tended to be older, and generally there were two shows: Monday to Wednesday and Thursday to Saturday. They also went in for serials – short episodes of about 15 minutes with stories about Flash Gordon and other heroes.

Flash Gordon, played by Buster Crabb, was one of my boyhood heroes. He was so noble and correct, and you can’t criticise anyone whose main aim is to save planet earth, can you? On the other hand “Ming the Merciless” was a dastardly villain who was invariably in the wrong. I lived on planet earth and this guy was intent on destroying it! Ming was played by Charles Middleton, who, probably in real life was a nice guy who gave cookies to kids. Beatrice Roberts was quite an eyeful so I was able to put up with her.

This is a screen shot from “Ming the Merciless” 1938

The Pavilion was also used as a theatre and occasionally put on shows. I remember seeing The Great Levant, a famous conjuror, there and also a pantomime. But mostly it showed films. It was a cheerful sort of place and had an illuminated fan sign across the front of the cinema which often could be seen from some distance.

I clearly remember some of the films I saw at these cinemas; they stand out in my memory for a variety of reasons. I remember the first time I was taken to the cinema with the rest of my family to the Park Cinema. I suppose there must have been some other films on show, but the one I remember was a short cartoon called “The Peculiar Penguins”. Later, in 1938, I recall being taken by my mother to see “Snow White” which became a Walt Disney classic. When I was about 16 I went to see the comedian Sid Field in “London Town”. It also starred Petula Clark as a young girl, and in this film Kay Kendall made her debut. It was slated by the critics but I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was great even to the extent of buying some of the sheet music to play on the piano.

I don’t remember seeing any famous films in “Pitts”. I don’t think they showed any but I clearly remember going there many times to see the adventures of Tarzan, a variety of cowboy films such as “The Rustlers of Red Dog Creek”, and many episodes of Flash Gordon.

I saw several memorable films at the Pavilion. One was “The Great Dictator” in the early years of the war. It starred Charlie Chaplain as Hitler and was a satire of Nazi Germany. It was a great boost to our morale at that time and was nominated for five Oscars. Roughly about the same time, I saw “The Rains Came”, starring Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power. It won an Oscar and featured plague, earthquake and flooding. I clearly recall the last film I saw at the Pavilion in 1947; it was “The Brothers” starring Patricia Roc and John Laurie. It was about a long and murderous grudge between two clans in the Western Isles of Scotland.

The only form of home entertainment at that time was, of course, the “wireless” which provided a good mixture of light entertainment such as “ITMA” with Tommy Handley and also “Music Hall” on a Monday evening. About teatime there was always Children’s Hour, a well run programme especially for us kids. We loved it and I still recall how well Uncle Mac read stories to us, such as  “Swallows and Amazons” and other books by Arthur Ransome and others. There was also a variety of music and the Saturday evening play. But there was no television, so going to the “pictures” as we usually termed it, was very popular. There were often quite long queues outside the cinemas particularly if they were showing a popular film for the first time. They were continuous performances which meant that, once you had managed to get in, you could watch the film through a second time if you so wished. If every seat was taken the usherette would often go along the queue saying that it was “standing room only” for anyone who wanted it. This meant standing right at the back and making a dive for any seat which became vacant.

Some keen picturegoers in Pontypool liked to see all the new films as they were shown which could mean sometimes going to the pictures three times in a week; in a way it became their hobby and to some an exercise in “oneupmanship” to be able to tell your friends that you had seen a film before they had. Picturegoing was an integral part of our lives and it certainly helped to keep up morale during the war.