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 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.