Magnum Leisure Centre, Irvine

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Before we begin, this blog entry from Craig McAllister concerns the Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine on the West coast of Scotland. Although he remembers it here mostly as a music venue, it also used to house a cinema. According to Cinema Treasures, the Magnum Film Centre opened, along with the rest of the Leisure Centre, on 18 September 1976. It was a 323-seat arthouse cinema initially, due to a tie-in with the Glasgow Film Theatre, but moved to more mainstream fare. Contributor Dave Simpson says that the final film shown there was The Hulk, on Sunday 17 August 2003. The former cinema auditorium is now used as a live theatre.

That’s the local-historical preamble. Over to our correspondent, Craig McAllister

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The grand old Magnum Leisure Centre in Irvine is being pulled down as I type. Local politics and whatnot has seen the building fall gradually into disrepair, an eyesore too far gone for a quick cash injection and 60 minute makeover. They’ve opened a spanking new place in the town centre. It’s impressive ’n all that, but like for like, it doesn’t come close to what the Magnum offered.

A fixture on Irvine beach since 1976, the Magnum played a formative part in most Irvinites’ growing up. Beyond Irvine, it was known as the place where you were bussed on a school trip; to swim, to skate, to watch the latest blockbuster in its plush 300-seater theatre. If you were that awkward age between being too old to stay in on a weekend night but too young for the pub, the Magnum was your saviour. There’s no-one I know who didn’t go there. Even oor ain Nicola Sturgeon mentioned it on her Desert Island Discs, recalling Frosty’s Ice Disco skating sessions with a misty-eyed fondness.

The Magnum had something for everyone. The Scottish Indoor Bowls championships were held there. Every pedigree dog in the country was shown there at some point. Girls and boys danced at regional shows. Gymnasts tumbled and twirled and twisted their way around the main hall. 80s fitness freaks squashed while the half-hearted badmintoned. All manner of variety shows were held there and crucially, all manner of big, proper, touring bands poured through the doors as quickly as they could be accommodated.

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Irvine in the 1980s was a popular place for all your favourite bands to play; The Clash, The Jam, Big Country, Thin Lizzy, Chuck Berry, The Smiths, The Wonder Stuff, Madness … the list is endless, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Willie Freckleton, the local Entertainments Officer who offered up what was at the time the largest indoor concert hall in Europe to the promoters and band managers who deigned which towns were important enough to play. Willie offered the hall rent free, which proved to be the clinching factor most of the time. Amazingly, most of the bands would include Glasgow and Irvine as part of the same tour, something that, since the building of the Hydro on Glasgow’s Clydeside, is now unthinkable.

There are a multitude of stories connected to the Magnum, from local folk who were so familiar with the warren of corridors and passageways in the changing areas that they could sneak from the ice disco into the UB40 gig without paying, or the young fans who found themselves receiving mohawks from Clash roadie Kosmo Vinyl after they’d played a terrific London Calling-era ‘Greatest Hits’ gig, not that The Clash ‘did’ greatest hits, but you know what I mean.

I remember the day The Jam came to town. Too young for the show (I didn’t even know it was on) I happened to be at the front of my house as scooter after scooter after scooter buzzed past on their way from Glasgow to the Magnum. A multitude of mirrors, parkas and girls riding pillion, it was just about the most impressive thing I’d seen at that point in my life, something only equalled when I saw The Clash in Irvine Mall on the day of their Magnum show. Four alien-looking guys in denim and leather and black shades, surrounded by a scrum of older folk I recognised from the years above at school. “It’s The Fucking Clash!!!” is what I remember hearing, even if I was unaware exactly who The Fucking Clash were at that point in my life.

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Spandau Ballet, photo by Ross Mackenzie*

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Willie Feckleton once told me a great story about booking Chuck Berry, his idol and the musician he was most thrilled at having landed to play in Irvine. Chuck, a musical giant who was right there alongside Ike Turner at the birth of rock ‘n roll, a man who is responsible for fashioning the DNA of the rock guitar riff was, by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant human being. In Irvine he wouldn’t play until he’d first been handed his fee (paid in American dollars, of course) in a brown paper bag in the dressing room before going on stage. The anonymous support band was also Chuck’s backing group and when Chuck eventually came on he played on about only six songs. He let the other guitarist take most of the solos, looked super-bored throughout and disappeared offstage fairly quickly.”

Coming off after the set Willie approached Chuck enthusiastically. “That was great Chuck! They love you out there! How about an encore?

Sure,” drawled Chuck with his hands out. “Fo’ anutha’ five hun’red dollas … ”

It’s stories like those above that live long after the artist has left town and the gig is nothing more than a pre-smartphone blur of exaggerations and half-truths. Did Morrissey really dance with Brian McCourt’s umbrella when The Smiths played? Did Phil Lynott really nip up to George the Barber at the Cross for a quick trim of the ’fro, mid-tour with Thin Lizzy? Who can be certain if they did or didn’t? For cultural and economical terms, it’s a real shame that Irvine no longer has a venue that can be used to entice the big acts of the day to come and play and create memories for our young (and not so young) folk.

 

First published as Magnum Opus in July 2017 on the blog Plain or Pan, serving “outdated music for outdated people” since 2007.

*Thrillingly – according to Craig – Ross has snapped loads of bands at the Magnum. Sadly, this is all he could find!

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The Odeon; the ABC, Canterbury

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By Martin P

Growing up in small town East Kent, I was spoiled for choice with two cinemas. Two! One, the old Canterbury Odeon, betrayed its theatrical roots, with a balcony and actual stalls at the rear of the lower tier. It was by far my favourite place to see a film. The first I can remember seeing was the Walt Disney animated version of Robin Hood – I vividly recall being given a poster of the titular fox in the foyer afterwards, which I proudly took home and Blu-tac’ed to my bedroom wall. I also remember another time, going with my school friend Alex’s family to see a James Bond film, probably For Your Eyes Only. The film clearly was lost on me.

What wasn’t lost on me was the fact that my friend’s older sister, Denise, on whom I had a prototype crush, sat next to me. This may or may not have been a factor in what happened when, during the interval between supporting and main feature, a collection box for the Red Cross was passed around. Now although Alex’s family had taken me out, my parents had not wanted me to go empty-handed, or with empty pockets, so had packed me off with a crisp new £1 note. When the collection box came to me, I felt pressured to put something in, just like everyone else – it seemed the right thing to do, the grown-up thing to do. And I had no change. So the whole £1 went in.

Had I hoped to impress Denise? Maybe. Was I subsequently unable to buy a Kia-Ora? Definitely.

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Anyway, whilst the old Odeon is now the Marlowe Theatre in The Friars, the grubby old ABC is now the marginally less grubby Odeon, in Upper St George’s St. Though the Odeon was my favourite, it’s the ABC I need to talk about. I didn’t like the ABC as much. It felt a bit tatty. And whereas the Odeon has a circle and stalls, the ABC was just an enormous terrace of seats for its single screen. To give you an idea of how things were, my last visit there was in the ’90s for a late-night screening of Reservoir Dogs. They let the audience sit there for nearly an hour before cancelling and offering refunds because the bulb in their projector had blown and, incredibly, they didn’t have a spare.

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So, we’ve established I didn’t much like the ABC but in those days, when there was far less choice, you took what you could get. And what I got, one day, was The Waterloo Bridge Handicap.

Now IMDb tells me this film was made in 1978. If I Googled hard enough, I could probably find out what films it was shown as the support feature for in the years that followed. But I’m not too bothered about that; the very fact that I can’t remember what the main feature was tells me all I need to know. But The Waterloo Bridge Handicap stuck.

It’s a simple tale of commuters, haring over the eponymous river crossing in the style of a horse race, complete with commentary from a young Brough Scott. He’s not the only notable name on show either. Leonard Rossiter plays the lead, Charles Barker, whilst Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Gordon Kaye and Zoot Money all put in appearances too.

The reason this film stuck, and that I’ve been thinking about it lately, is that I now have a 10½ minute walk from where I park to my office. Note, 10½. Not 10, not 11. That’s how much I’ve refined the walking leg of my commute. And the thing is, if there’s anyone further up the path than me, I try to walk them down. I have a notional finishing line. I even talk to myself about it (in my head, not aloud – don’t panic). It becomes a little race for me. I know how that sounds, but when you walk the same 0.8 miles twice a day, every day, well, what would you do to make it interesting?

I’m going to embed the film now, courtesy of YouTube. Even if you think I’m a bit sad with my walk to work, this is worth a watch, partly for its time-capsule illustration of how much things have changed: in film, with the leisurely (pedestrian, you might say) pace of the opening; in London, with buildings and street furniture that are consigned to history; in transport, with British Rail rolling stock; and in people, not only in dress but in technology, with not a mobile phone in sight and people either talking to each other or, at least, looking where they’re walking. And if the Thames station ident at the start of the clip doesn’t get your nostalgia muscle flexing, nothing will.

Martin has been blogging on issue cultural, musical, cinematic, political and otherwise at New Amusements since 2005. This blog entry was first published there in May 2016. I include it with pleasure.

Northampton College of Further Education Arts Centre

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The first rule of Film Club: films start at 7.30, please be punctual

On Valentine’s Day, 1980, a couple of weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I saw my first “X” film. The visceral Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers, I didn’t have to sneak in through a held-open fire door, wear a false moustache or lower my voice an octave, as per underage tradition (and as seen, for real, when I failed to get into Lings Forum to see The Exorcist that same year). I paid £1 to see it, legally, projected onto a modest screen before an auditorium of arranged plastic chairs at Northampton College of Further Education’s Arts Centre, courtesy of their members-only Film Society. (The campus was further north up the same Booth Lane that Weston Favell Upper School stood on. The school is now an Academy, and the College of Further Education is now Northampton College, redeveloped between 2009 and 2012.)

I loved my first Film Society experience and wrote the following haiku-like review of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers in my 1980 diary above a rough cartoon approximation of Donald Sutherland in his “footballer’s perm” phase, emerging from an alien cocoon: “Really good’n’gory. Nice pod scenes, rather horrific, creepy and ace.”

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Like any 14-year-old, I was wracked with a confusing hormonal need to fit in and rebel at the same time. A glance at the customised cover of my 1980 diary reveals a serious schism. Between the cut-out Photostats of my favourite bands the Undertones and 999 are pics of Gene Hackman, The Elephant Man and Marilyn Monroe, plus the logo of the aforementioned NCFE Film Society. At that difficult and easily distracted age, I was a little bit films and a little bit rock and roll.

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I was not yet a member of the NCFEFS when I saw Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers – part of a special, leafleted Spring ’80 Horror Films Season along with Piranha and The Return Of Count Yorga – but a guest of my friends Neil and Dave, a pair of what would these days be called nerds from the Trinity School side of town whom I’d fallen in with at Saturday morning art classes at “the Tech”, and whose trendy English and Communications teacher Mr Tilley had been their link to the Film Society. Without perhaps fully appreciating it at the time, Neil (feather-cut, rainbow braces) and Dave (Phil Oakey fringe, green v-neck) were to be my passport into a new world and, ultimately, a fast-track to adulthood. That Film Club, as we knew it, would one day help qualify me for a career in film criticism would have been purely abstract at the time.

It’s clear to me now: between the years of 1979 and 1983 I was half-punk, half-nerd. To neatly illustrate: in 1979 I’d begun to regularly buy two grown-up publications – the New Musical Express and Film Review. I had also become a devout disciple of Barry Norman and BBC1’s Film ’80, which morphed into Film ’81, Film ’82 and so on. In the final dark days before the VHS revolution, access to movies was controlled: you either saw a film at the cinema when  the chains decreed it, or you saw it on TV after the usual five-or-six year gestation, and even then often cut for taste by the philistine broadcaster … unless you joined Film Club and transformed Tuesday nights for the best part of the academic year.

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My 14-year-old desire to see Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers was salacious rather than academic: it was an “X” therefore I wanted to see what might be in it that qualified it to be one. (The “X” certificate seemed far more illicit than its prosaic replacement the “18”.) The NCFE Film Society, which I eagerly joined in September 1980, existed outside of such arbitrary, draconian restrictions.

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Once you’d paid your flat membership fee (£7.50, or £6 for students, OAPs and “claimants”, which went up by a pound the following year), you were entitled to see all 36 films showing in the 1980-81 season and to sign in your own guests. A flash of your blue membership card also secured entry to and “unrestricted use” of the “Real Ale Bar” on film nights, where those of us at O-Level would comically nurse half-pints of shandy while making up nicknames for the more grown-up regulars. (“Stacy Keach,” we called one of them, for self-evident reasons, keeping up the cineaste theme.) Film Club was run by a tireless man called Frank Quigg, who we must assume worked at the college. I have a picture in my mind of a slightly less racy History Man type with elbow patches but I may be post-rationalising.

During that first, mouth-watering season I saw any number of films that would have been off-menu if I’d continued to live the life of casual grazer: Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (another “X”, excitingly), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (a landmark Cuban film set between the 1959 Revolution and the 1962 missile crisis with a prescient fractured narrative), Revenge Of The Creature in old-school red/green 3D, and the “lost” 1974 kitchen-sink drama Pressure, whose raw depiction of everyday life and separatist politics within the Trinidadian community in West London was quite the socio-political eye-opener. This was, I guess, the cinematic equivalent of roughage. Were it not for Frank Quigg, I might never have broadened my palate in this way.

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Having paid my £6 I was committed to squeezing my money’s worth out of Film Club, and dutifully ticked off Summer Of ’42 (“ace Durex-purchasing scene,” according to my diary), Robert Altman curio Brewster McCloud (“a wonderful epic of weird and wit”) and the first part of a Bill Douglas double, My Childhood (“black and white poverty-o plot”) as the season built to its climax in April with Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative 1972 Russian sci-fi landmark Solaris (“bloody subtitles”).

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It would be easy to back-romanticise and rewrite my own underdevelopment so that Film Club’s steady diet of foreign movies had a profound effect and opened my mind to world cinema on the spot. It didn’t. I fell asleep during the 165-minute Solaris, awoke and snuck out before the end. (Not the last time I would nod off in a cinema, although that has more to do with the passing years.) While awake, I was exposed to some choice nuggets of exotic cinema at an impressionable age, from Japan (Nagisa Oshima’s Empire Of Passion) , Australia (My Brilliant Career), France/Italy (Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe), Germany (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu), and Argentina (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s The House of the Angel) … I’d grown up with Abbot & Costello and British comedies like What A Whopper on TV, and James Bond and Disney at the pictures, so this forced march of maturity was significant.

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But never mind the quality, feel the width. In 1981, I saw a total of 121 films. I have this precise figure at my fingertips because, world-class anal-retentive that I undoubtedly was, I had started keeping a running tally. This was the year that the Collins family took delivery of its first VCR – a Philips V2000 with the double-sided cassettes, very much the cleansed ethnic group in the VHS-Beta war – which eased the hunting of films around the TV schedules and empowered Paul and I to pause and replay the best bits of Chinatown, Death Wish, Deliverance and other choice, late-nite items from the ragged pages of the Radio and TV Times.

The badge of honour was in seeing every film I could possibly see. You can sense by the way each one is logged in my diary – title, year of release, certificate, followed by still frankly juvenile assessment (“Chariots Of Fire, 1981, ‘A’, starring Ian Charleston, Ben Cross … that’s all the big stars out of the way!”) – that I am now under the factfinding spell of the big film encyclopaedias I’d started asking for as birthday presents or borrowing from the library: David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of The World’s Greatest Movie Stars and Their Films by Ken Wlaschin, both of which I pored over as if handling sacred scrolls.

I gleaned enormous, mathematical, savant-like satisfaction from the simple act of seeing multiple films in ad hoc double, triple or quadruple bills. During the Christmas holidays in 1981, for instance, I marked up six in one day, thanks to bingeing at the VCR with Bridge On The River Kwai, Carry On Doctor, Savage Bees, Superman, Superman II and Magic. At such a greedy rate, you can see how, the following year, my film total went up to 144.

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In 1983, the year I turned 18 and cast aside the maroon blazer of the sixth form, I saw 175 films, which is I suspect a lifetime per annum record. Film Club, whose 1982-83 season was my last before heading off to London and to art college, helped plump up those impressive numbers. I never went to film school. But I didn’t need to. Here, on tap, were the likes of Tony Garnett’s directorial debut Prostitute, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, further unsweetened black experience in Britain courtesy Babylon, Spielberg’s 1941, the seminal Richard Pryor In Concert … but it is sad in retrospect to see Tuesday nights at Film Club gradually displaced by rented videos, band practices and nights at the Bold Dragoon pub.

I let my subscription to Film Club lapse without ceremony or fuss. Too many distractions. But my tastes in cinema had been irrevocably converted to small-“c” catholicism by Film Club, and during the Christmas recess in 1983, I willingly sat down in front of the telly for my first Busby Berkeley musical, 1943’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game and 1969’s stunt parachutist drama The Gypsy Moths, mainly because I was on a mission to see the whole of Gene Hackman’s CV.

In 1995, I briefly became the Editor of Empire magazine; in 2000, I landed the job of hosting Radio 4’s weekly film programme Back Row; and, a year later, began writing about films for Radio Times, where I am still retained as Film Editor. I couldn’t have achieved any of this without my self-enforced early-80s cinematic education, enhanced and nourished for those three key years by the imaginative and varied programmes of Frank Quigg at the culturally Tardis-like Arts Centre. Unrestricted use of the “Real Ale Bar” had made me a man, even without my ever sampling any Real Ale.

 

Postscript #1

This is what the Booth Lane campus of Northampton College (formerly Northampton College of Further Education) looks like, all redeveloped and funky, today.

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Postscript #2

This piece was originally published, in an even more comprehensive and discursive form, in the sorely-missed Word magazine in June 2011. Thanks to David Hepworth for commissioning it. However, in the letters pages of the following issue in July, a disgruntled reader (whom I won’t dignify with a name) complained in the strongest possible terms, describing my article as “the most boring piece I’ve ever read in a magazine.” Everyone’s a critic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Forum, Northampton

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I was a pupil of Weston Favell Upper School on Booth Lane in Northampton between 1978 and 1983. You can look for it today: Weston Favell Academy sits on the same site, redeveloped during the two-tier revolution that saw away with middle schools to an extent that I no longer recognise it from the road. (There’s a fence all the way around it now, which there never was, to keep people in and out.) In my day, it was the comprehensive establishment of choice for those who did not wish to join the segregated boys’ school or the school for girls. It nestled beside a dual carriageway known locally as Lumbertubs Way or on maps as the A43, on the other side of which was Lings Upper School. Due to this proximity, come the end of term, there tended to be rumours of war: a “fight” with the rival Lings kids. We were separated by the A43 but joined by an underpass. Here is the school I no longer recognise:

I only remember the threat of violence turning corporeal once. As I unlocked my bike from the bike sheds on the last day of term around the turn of the decade, a sort of battle cry went up and a contingent from Weston Favell amassed on the border, with the prospect of Lings kids swarming through the subterranean Checkpoint Charlie for the fabled clash. My memory is that it came to nothing more than rhetoric. A lot of kids ran through the bike sheds, but I assumed they were our boys, running away. I got on my bike and cycled home through the village back to Abington Vale, my own estate. It was a phony war. There was neither fire nor fury.

Lings had a reputation. For being hard. Whether this was socioeconomic or geographical – or simply mythical – is hard to confirm. The estates on the “other” side of Lumbertubs Way (I bet Martin Amis wishes he’d come up with that name) had a largely unearned status as the badlands. When I befriended an older boy from the other side of the tracks, my mum was a bit iffy. But I was 17 then, and knew no borders, and had no understanding of what was or wasn’t social housing. (She worked as a secretary at Lings Upper School, so had insider knowledge; I simply saw outlaw cool and wanted to be part of it.) Circa 1982-1983 I spent as much time on those estates as I did in the leafier Abington Vale. I expect this was like the cool kids in New York in the 70s hanging out in Chelsea and the East Village.

But let’s rewind to March 1978, when I was still at Abington Vale Middle School (don’t look for that one), just turned 13, but 12 in all but name, and awkward with it. Smaller than average height, Star Wars fan, Look-In reader, keen marbles player, but doing my best to create my own style (untucked shirts over white t-shirt, pin-striped “bags”, which were kind of post-Glam rock bovver flares, white trainers, centre parting), I had discovered my own hormones and felt locked out of the love-in. In what would have been our penultimate term at “Abby” Vale, I was tilting at my teens, rather than fully signed up. Our form teacher, Mrs Dennison, one of the nice ones, took us to see a film for educational purposes: To Kill a Mockingbird at the Lings Forum Cinema. (We were reading Harper Lee’s novel in English at the time, although quite why a black-and-white film made in 1962 was doing the rounds in 1978 remains a mystery.) I noted in my 1978 diary that the film was “crap”, but that I sat next to Tracey Allen, one of many forbidden objects of my nascent affection in the fourth year. I hardly need to add, but did: “Didn’t do anything though. Huh.”

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So here we have not only my first visit to the Forum Cinema, which is still going by the way (and has been smartly reupholstered by the look of these photos), but also the first time – by random selection – I’d sat next to a girl I knew in a cinema, albeit as well as the rest of Form 4-1. Tracey Allen did not choose to sit next to me, it just happened as we filed in. I have revised my judgement, and the film isn’t “crap”, but you can see why I was self-conscious enough to make that rash appraisal. Tracey Allen was one of those girls who seemed about five years older. It happens at that age. A fissure forms, doesn’t it? A fissure that yawns into an abyss faster than a 13-year-old can weave afresh.

That same year, Dad took me to Lings (we called the Forum “Lings”) to see Monty Python & The Holy Grail. A pivotal father-son bonding moment, as Mum didn’t like Monty Python, and Simon, two years younger, was only interested in war and soldiers, so Dad and I formed a comedy alliance. (Years later, I bought tickets to see Spamalot with him in the West End of glittering London, as if to complete the circle.)

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The Forum opened in 1974 as part of the Weston Favell Shopping Centre, colloquially known by the brasher, perhaps rejected name Supacentre. It is an enclosed complex in the American style, that genuflects to the motor car, situated on the eastern edge of Northampton, apropos of the aforementioned estates, Weston Favell village, Booth Lane and marauding Lings kids. A listing I found online states that the Centre offers approximately 307,763 ft² (approx. 28,592 m²) of retail accommodation arranged over two floors with 1,150 free parking spaces. (That it is still commercially anchored by one of the largest Tesco Extra supermarkets in the UK is interesting only in that it has been thus since 1974: a long covenant for a shop.)

An article on the occasion of the Centre’s 40th anniversary in 2014 in the Chronicle & Echo remembered how it was “designed to be a central hub for the local community, including a church and a nursery school, as well as shops and eateries.” It was opened by Baroness Evelyn Sharp, a retired Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government who, in 1976, became the first woman Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers. One assumes Tony Blackburn was too expensive. She said that it “exceeded her hopes” despite initial doubts. Its catchment area covers roughly 235,000 people as far as Kettering and Corby. Verily, it is a beacon. There used to be a bridge over the Wellingborough Road from another patchwork of estates that was designed like a long tube. A certain degree of sci-fi pleasure was gained from using it, which took a long time to wear off.

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Once enrolled at Weston Favell Upper, I began to treat the area as my own, and the dawn of the 80s was marked by a solidifying of my boyhood love of films. The ABC was our central place of worship and had been for the latest James Bond or Disney while growing up, and will be discussed separately, but Lings offered less glamorous blockbusters, after a gestation period, shown at a much reduced price. My new filmgoing companion Paul Garner (who’d been at a different middle school) and I took full advantage, and saw any number of big-name films we’d read about in Film Review magazine, but which must have bypassed the ABC, as it only had two screens. (Film Review was my first regular movie magazine. Formerly the ABC Film Review, as it was affiliated with the cinema chain, I devoured its every page and began to get ahead of the curve of exciting new releases. I even sent away for back issues from the 70s to own its coverage of Jaws and The Omen.)

Brubaker, a prison drama starring Robert Redford was one that stands out. Also, The Frisco Kid, starring Gene Wilder and breakout Star Wars star Harrison Ford. I made a deal with Dad’s sister Auntie Margaret whereby she agreed to accompany me to Lings to see a few “AA” horrors, as she’d expressed an interest in the genre and Uncle Alan obviously wasn’t keen. This only stretched to one trip in the end, but we did see Coma, a film I’ll always sit down to if it’s on the telly to this day and which I was dying to see in 1979. (I reviewed Michael Crichton’s hospital thriller in my 14-year-old diary with great eloquence: “Boy it was an ace film. Good nasty bits e.g. dead bodies in plastic bags in the freezer, maintenance man getting electrocuted, operations, autopsy, suspended bodies, great ‘AA’ stuff.”)

Paul Garner and I also saw Blade Runner at Lings, having already seen and been captivated by it at the ABC. The experience was made especially memorable by the lone gentleman who sat across the aisle from us on the left and laughed uproariously and in random places in the dark throughout. Either we were too scared of the social embarrassment to leave, and didn’t want to draw the man’s attention, or we were simply too dedicated to seeing the film again. We stuck it out.

All these memories are thanks to Lings, which still only charges £6.50 for a non-concessionary peak-time ticket and has Silver Screenings on a Tuesday morning – an offer my Mum and Dad often take them up on – and £3.50 on Fridays.

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My most memorable evening at Lings was, however, horrific. Again, it’s a symptom of the pre-video age that major theatrical releases were re-issued and sent round the block again. This is obviously how I saw Jaws in 1977, two years after release; still one of the scariest films ever made, it carried an “A” certificate, watermarking it as less scary than Coma. There was no such wriggle room in 1980, when The Exorcist had another outing, clearly stamped with an “X”, and a group of us from Weston Favell Upper School decided we’d all go and see it on weekday night.

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I was 15, and looked 14. Most of us were 15, but some boys are bigger than others, and girls, who had it easy, could mature instantly with makeup. I was below average height, facially hairless and my voice hadn’t broken. Others among my male circle of friends were early shavers, or had the vertical axis on their side. Anyway, eschewing the prospect of a house party I think thrown by a girl called Joanna – with parental veto – an ad hoc gang of us marched up to the Forum and attempted nonchalance as the queue shuffled forward to the box office window. The hopeful eight. (There’s only one screen at Lings, so there was only one film we could have been queuing up for.) My memory of the ritual and inevitable humiliation that followed is that I was asked my age by the woman behind the window with the ticket-spewing machine. I told her in my soprano that I was 18, and she didn’t believe me. So I surrendered and skulked off. I didn’t have the conviction to lie, and in any case they can smell it on you. My recollection, hazy with self-loathing, is that a couple of us didn’t get past the window, and didn’t see Linda Blair’s head spin round while she projectile-vomited Satanic green bile.

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Not old enough to drown our sorrows in a pub, which wouldn’t have served us, I suspect the rejected among us hung around the “viewing area” above the pool and watched other kids splashing about, which counted as something to do in the late 70s and early 80s. A year after my dispossession at The Exorcist, this time aged a world-weary 16, Dad took me to the ABC in town to see Kentucky Fried Movie, a fabled, racy, “X”-certificate comedy compendium from the director of Animal House (which had itself been a racy enough “AA”). When challenged by the lady at the box office, he admitted that I was not 18 (no better a liar than I turned out to be), but firmly assured her that, as his father, he was happy for his son to see the film. This did not wash. We stormed out. I think I eventually rented The Exorcist and Kentucky Fried Movie on VHS during a spree in 1983, when, ironically, I was old enough.

Fortunately, I had joined a local Film Society, where, as a member, you could see “X” films without challenge, for intellectual and academic reasons. But that’s another blog entry.

 

 

The Odeon, Northampton

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This is the first cinema I ever went to, the Northampton Odeon. Just there, at the back of my hometown’s historic Market Square, the building with the awning and the “CAFÉ” sign on top. As old as you think I am, it wasn’t as long ago as the year this charming photograph was taken. The cars didn’t look quite so Laurel and Hardy when I crossed the picture palace’s threshold, although if they had, I wouldn’t have minded. I was taken there, possibly by car, by my granddad – my mum’s father, known to us as Pap Reg, who worked for the Amalgamated Engineering Union and needed a car for the job. I was taken there to see the 19th Walt Disney feature animation The Jungle Book, released in the United States in October 1967 after a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, but not until March 1968 in the UK, around the time of my third birthday. It seems like a very young age, but evidence points in that direction. (It must have been on that first theatrical outing as records show that The Jungle Book wasn’t sent back out into cinemas here until 1983.)

Thanks to the website Cinema Treasures, and specifically to contributor Ken Roe, I know more about the Northampton Odeon than I did in 1968. Originally a Corn Exchange, it opened on 29 March 1851, and boasted a “barrel vaulted wooden ceiling” and an organ, which was upgraded at various stages. Mainly used for meetings and functions, it hosted its first travelling film shows from 1900 and became a fully-fledged cinema on 2 August 1920, with seating for 2,020 in stalls and circle. Improvements over the decades included lifts, a roof garden and tea room. The Exchange Cinema, as it was then known, was the first outside London to put on a talkie, The Singing Fool.

The Exchange became the Gaumont, then, in March 1964, the Odeon. It was converted into a Top Rank bingo hall in 1974, a seismic event I remember vividly.

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Photo: Paul Bland

This was the first act of cultural vandalism I had encountered in my short life, equivalent in its power to chip away at a nine-year-old’s existential innocence as the death of James Beck, Private Walker on Dad’s Army, had been a year earlier. Thankfully, Northampton still had the ABC, which served my cinemagoing needs until I left for London in the mid-80s.

In the 90s, the former Odeon was sold off again and transformed into some kind of Rock Café, albeit Grade II listed.) The website Playing Bingo (a “UK Retail and Online Bingo Resource”) has a Press Cuttings section that contains pleasingly grainy newspaper clippings relating to bingo. On it, I found these testimonies to the heinous closure of the Odeon from our local paper the Chronicle & Echo (presumably less heinous to the booming bingo sector).

My memories of the inside of the Odeon cinema are quite murky. I was very young. The past coagulates. I remember the dark. I remember the B-picture, a Disney live-action yarn called Charlie the Lonesome Cougar (which was technically the first film I ever saw in a cinema). And I remember The Jungle Book. Its famous songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (except its most famous, The Bare Necessities, which was written by Terry Gilkyson) quickly felt like standards, excerpted and featured on Disney Time on the BBC throughout the 60s and 70s and thereafter. From ’67, rarely did one of these celebrity-hosted Bank Holidays clip compendiums go by without a dose of The Jungle Book. This film was in our DNA.

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I feel like I was given the Storyteller version of the soundtrack LP concurrently with being taken to the film, as the two merge in my mind. That this handsomely packaged record’s narration was not even by Sebastian Cabot (who narrated the film as Bagheera), but another actor, did not dim its vitality for me. I was too young to notice, or care. From the booklet I learned all the dialogue and most of the lyrics off by heart, through repeated plays, and it took The Aristocats to knock it off my personal number one spot in 1970. I remember for a birthday treat, my dad borrowing Uncle Brian’s cine projector and renting some spools of Disney cartoons – where or who from, I cannot imagine; I trust they were legit – which included a substantial clip of The Aristocats (the part where Roquefort the mouse has to locate Scat Cat and his gang in some scary alley, and the English, guitar-playing cat with the shades and the beads appears upside down at the end of a tunnel created by a dustbin). That must have felt like a significant seizure of the means of production: being able to show a film on a bare wall through a whirring, glowing, overheating projector. And, perhaps more importantly, show it again and again, and, when we got bored, spool it backwards to bottomless merriment.

I’m off at tangents because my first steps inside the carpeted foyer of a picturehouse are lost to me, other than I know I made them, it’s Collins family lore. I remember the film being big and loud, and being swept up into it, more than swept along by it, and I remember the LP as it was my personal stake in the franchise. But I also accept that I’ve come to memorialise and perhaps mythologise this momentous visit in the years since. I know now how important a step it was.

My other granddad, Pap Collins, took my younger sister Melissa to see her first film at the cinema some years later, presumably the Odeon. The film was the remake of the Shangri-La musical The Lost Horizon, released in 1973, when she must also have been three. She complained to Pap that it was too loud and they had to leave the cinema. One imagines that three-year-olds today are more media-savvy than we were, and are probably already watching feature films on their parents’ phones.

Here, thanks to the armchair archivists at Cinema Treasures, is the Odeon again, by the looks of the Instamatic photo, snapped in the 70s. Already behind an armature of scaffolding, it is doomed to a future of clickety-click and hot wings. (I wish I could read the titles of the two films it was showing.)

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Today, Northampton is amply served by two out-of-town multiplexes, and two smaller cinemas, the suburban Lings Forum (which we’ll cover in a separate post, as it also weaves into my childhood), and, closer to the centre of town, the splendidly named Errol Flynn Filmhouse, which opened in 2013, has one screen with room for 90, and boasts leather seats. I have never visited it, but know its subterranean location as it’s housed with the impressive Derngate Theatre complex. Note to self.

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Neither have I ever patronised the nine-screen Cineworld in the west, which heralded the new American age of car parks, escalators and a two-for-one cocktail in Frankie & Benny’s in 1995, located amid a redevelopment called Sixfields which also encompasses Northampton’s football ground of the same name, a bowling alley, all the big branded eating and drinking holes, a gym and some big shops. (Cineworld started out as an MGM, then turned into a Virgin, then a UGC, as is the bloodless, boardroom-shuffling way of corporate entertainment conglomerates.) There is also a Vue (formerly a UCI) multiplex, with ten screens in Mare Fair in the centre of town. It used to be the headquarters of Barclaycard, one of the big employers in Northampton, which moved out of town to Brackmills in the east, ironically like cinemas usually do. The Vue’s in the Sol Central complex, which also boasts a hotel, spa and gym. It’s walking distance from where the Odeon used to stand.

(Thanks for Dave Thacker for the detail. I don’t get back to the town as often as I once did.)

And that, in a redevelopmental nutshell, is progress. To quote The Jungle Book, “Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found.”