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.

 

 

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