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.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 poster 1

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

TheExorcist

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.