The Ghosts Of Christmas Past

This time of year the world is awash with lists. Everybody wants to tell you what the best films of the year were, I was reading the one in Sight and Sound this week. Man, there’s some showing off in there. In essence pages of critics trying to out do each other in finding the most obscure top five films they possibly can.

So here’s a weird set of lists that I guarantee no one else in the world can come up with.

It’s Christmas, in case you hadn’t noticed, and it’s a tricky time for exhibitors. Before Christmas it’s difficult to get you interested and after Christmas you all want to come so I have to make sure I’ve got the right film on.

We can discuss how successful or otherwise I’ve been this year at a later date. What I thought you might like is a trip through the time tunnel to visit Christmases gone by. I’ve found it a fascinating exercise and a perfect snapshot of how dramatically things have changed in the last 40 years.

It may be a little dry in places, but let’s put it in reverse and get this blog up to 88 miles per hour….

15 Years Ago

Dec 13th: 101 Dalmatians/First Wives Club
Dec 20th: 101 Dalmatians/Matilda
Dec 27th: 101 Dalmatians/Matilda
Jan 3rd: 101 Dalmatians/Evita

Box office wise not a bad christmas at all by the look of it. We only had two screens back then, so I seem to have plumped for the obvious (and probably only) choices, Disney’s horrible live action 101 Dalmatians, the rather better Roald Dahl adaptation Matilda and Evita, Alan Parker’s big ass screen version of the hit show.

101 Dalmatians was the winner by some margin remaining strong throughout the holiday period and beyond. In fact it didn’t come off until February, playing weekends until Fly Away Home took over the matinée reign on Feb 7th.

For some reason Matilda came off after just two weeks. What happened there? I bet there was a barney involved somewhere along the line given how well it had done Dec 27th week.

Presumably Entertainment insisted on all shows for Evita and because Dalmatians was too strong to take off, it had to go.

Maybe Columbia wouldn’t reduce shows on Matilda? For the life of me I can’t remember. Seems a bit bonkers though. There was certainly a lot less flexibility regarding coupling films up back then.

Personally I can’t say anything sticks in my mind from Christmas 1996, my children were all small. My brain was probably soup.

25 Years Ago

Dec 12th: Top Gun/Howard The Duck
Dec 19th: Basil The Great Mouse Detective/Howard The Duck
Dec 26th: Basil The Great Mouse Detective/Top Gun
Jan 2nd: Basil The Great Mouse Detective/Labyrinth

Oh Wow! I remember this one. Everything really went tits up. Two really big flops, and my old man booked them both. To be fair a new Disney cartoon feature was still considered a must book.

Basil was the second in a string of flops that started with Black Cauldron in 1985 and wouldn’t be stopped until The Little Mermaid reinvigorated the studio in 1989, and it was Christmas when families go to the cinema. So we can let that one go. But Howard the Duck? Really?

Labyrinth had been released on November 28th and he obviously made the decision to play off date, to get George Lucas’ infamous duck based turkey in. This is a perfect example of how booking cinemas back then was still ruled by fear and politics. I can only think keeping UIP sweet was part of the problem.

It was one of the few times I went to an advance screening with my dad, and I managed to cause a bit of a fuss. We trooped in to see Howard the Duck and it was awful beyond anyone’s expectations. There were about 20 of us at the start of show, but the screening room door opened regularly as another exhibitor could stand it no more and leave.

By the end there was just me at the front and an old school character, Bill Jones, fast asleep in the back row. In fact he snored loudly all through the last half an hour. I crept out not wanting to wake him and in the lobby of the screening room was Barry Norman. Then at the peak of his Film programme powers, he asked me how it was? So I told him.

Apparently this was the wrong thing to do. The balloon well and truly went up as the crowned heads of United International Pictures tried to find out who had told Barry Norman that Howard The Duck was beyond awful. I’m not sure they ever found out it was me.

So given that experience, which honestly is very rare. Why go ahead and book it anyway? We’ll never know. And boy did it die, admissions for the first week; Fri 5 people Sat 31 Sun 25 Mon 10 Tues 7 Wed 6 Thurs 0. That’s 84 people in a week. The second week 39 people show up.

Fortunately Labyrinth pulled things round a bit on Jan 2nd. 1547 admissions for the week. Basil never really got going 515 admissions and 719.

A Christmas best forgotten.

35 Years Ago

Only one screen back then remember, and films changed on Sundays.

One weird Christmas.

Sun Dec 12th – Wed Dec 15th Confessions of a Window Cleaner/House of Mortal Sin (Double Feature)
Thurs Dec 16th – Sat Dec 18th Confessions of a Pop Performer/Alvin Purple (Double Feature)

Sun Dec 19th Lust for a Vampire/Hard Ride (Double Feature)
Closed 20th – 26th Inclusive (!)
Mon Dec 27th – Sat Jan 1st  The Jungle Book/Diamonds on Wheels (Double Feature)

Sun Jan 2nd Wild Angels/ Return of Count Yorga (Double Feature)
Mon Jan 3rd – Sat Jan 8th The Slipper and the Rose

Where the hell do you start with a line up like that? This was in the days when you could still bring films back, although why he though the knackered out soft core Confessions movies still had life in them, God only knows. They didn’t. 229 admissions for the whole week. the most interesting thing about that week are the second features.

House of Mortal Sin was one of British horrormeister Peter Walker’s more bonkers films. Alvin Purple was a well-regarded (at the time) Australian comedy and a huge hit down under. It originally played as a second feature to Blazing Saddles in 1974.

Then to put you in a fully festive mood, a Hammer vampire movie and an old (even then) biker movie.

To give this booking some context, back then Sunday was the biggest day of the week. In fact Sunday quite often took more than the rest of the week put together, so it was really important to play to the audience, namely “The Herberts” as he called them. Young men between 17 and 25 basically, and they came most Sundays in varying numbers. Sometimes up to 600 of them for a crappy Hammer double bill. My dad was terrified of having two Sundays the same, even when a big film like Oliver came out, he point blankly refused to play it for two Sundays. Hence a 13 day booking.

So we had to have something that appealed to The Herberts, because it was a Sunday. We usually did all right with vampires and bikes I recall. 97 people showed up. Not bad, not great.

Then presumably because there were no films, he closed for a week! Beats me.

The Jungle Book reissue was as usual a steady hit. 1075 admissions in five days. Chances are there were no evening shows either that week. Diamonds on Wheels I remember being quite good fun. There were jewel thieves and lots of British character actors.

Then it was back to vampires and bikes again. Count Yorga Vampire wasn’t that good really, why they felt the need to have him return I’m not sure. At the time Robert Quarry just seemed a laughable old man to me. Having just looked him up, he was three years younger than I am now. Arse.

Wild Angels, of course, was the classic Roger Corman biker movie with Peter Fonda that predated Easy Rider. I always enjoyed that one, and we played it a lot. 112 people bought tickets.

All of the films so far have one thing in common. They were all old even then. Not one of them was released in 1976. In fact Wild Angels was released in 1966! By that token, we’d be playing the first Harry Potter movie next week.

So Jan 3rd was the first new film over the whole of Christmas. Even then notice how he wouldn’t play it on Sunday.

The Slipper and the Rose was a big success. A big budget British musical version of Cinderella with just about everybody in the British film industry involved. Directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Richard Chamberlain and a youthful Gemma Craven. Annette Crosbie was good as Fairy Godmother I remember. I don’t know, it’s years since I’ve seen it.

Anyway, Monday and Tuesday were good, then I imagine the kids went back to school. It went from 300 admissions a day down to 100. Should have played it Sunday.

Despite strong returns, it went back up Saturday, there was no such thing as a holdover in those days. Nope, off and on to the next film. If a film had legs you brought it back another time. (The next film was Black Emanuele, jeez.)

Given I was 14 years old and would have seen all of the above films, even the X certs I’m afraid, can you wonder I’ve grown up so twisted. Soft porn, vampires and a singing bear for Christmas. Great.

45 Years Ago

Sun Dec 18th – Mon Dec 19th Cat Ballou/Fail Safe
Tues Dec 20th – Sat Dec 24th Wizard of Oz/Tomb Thumb

Tues Dec 27th – Sat 31st Dec Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

Sun Jan 1st The Cracksman/City Under the Sea
Mon Jan 2nd Wed Jan 4th Peter Pan/Greyfriars Bobby
Thurs Jan 5th – Sat Jan 7th That Darn Cat/Born to sing

I didn’t think I was going to remember 1966 as I was only four years old, but I most definitely remember seeing the Wizard of Oz and Tomb Thumb double bill. It took money too, 703 admissions in 5 days. Given that Oz was made in 1939 it’s a bloody miracle. See, if only they hadn’t invented telly I could still be showing it.

Would you believe 233 people showed up for Cat Ballou and Fail Safe, that’s a double feature I would pay to see now. Flying Machines was good, 1711 over five days it took £311.15.0. Brilliant.

Didn’t hold over though did it?

The Disney mish mash week could have been worse. 1598 admissions over the week. Again all these films were really old even at the time. The Cracksman was a crappy Charlie Drake comedy from 1963. Who remembers Charlie Drake?

Thought so.

6 thoughts on “The Ghosts Of Christmas Past

  1. Did you get your sense of humour from your Dad? You manage to make what could have been a dry list of stats into a blog full of laughs. Thanks for this welcome break in the mad rush to get Christmas cards written and out by the post deadlines. Oh, and I will add The Artist to my musts list now I’ve found out about it. Hope others feel the same.

  2. Those Magnificent Men (1966) – I was there! I was slightly over 11 years old. Probably shouldn’t have been allowed to see such racy fare at such a tender age. It was a Christmas treat and I remember it vividly, for one reason: My dad took me and, as a former Hollywood stunt flyer in the 1920s (Hell’s Angels, Wings), he was able to point out every last inaccuracy of the various bi-planes, overlooking the fact that they were all replicas from The Shuttleworth Collection. The other members of the audience were distinctly underwhelmed by his comments. I cringed with embarrassment, of course. If any of you out there in Uckfield, or its environs, suffered during that screening, accept my belated apologies. Be grateful you didn’t go and see Battle Of Britain with him…

    • That’s great! Flying Machines made many appearances for a good few years after that. I was watching well into the 70’s. It’s wonderful that you can remember seeing it at Uckfield.

      It was followed by the equally bonkers Monte Carlo or Bust, which we used to play endlessly in a double feature with The Italian Job. Happy days.

      Battle of Britain was a temporary obsession of mine as a seven year old, I had the soundtrack album with music by Ron Goodwin and William Walton. Wish I knew where it was now.

      • Flying Machines? Monte Carlo Or Bust? These films can mean only one thing: it’s time for a Gert Frobe retrospective! Throw in Chitty, Goldfinger and perhaps High Wind In Jamaica (or Is Paris Burning) and away we go. Madness. But fun.

  3. That’s twice in 2 days HOWARD THE DUCK has cropped up. All those years in therapy trying to expunge the memory of time spent sitting in a darkened cinema in Bury St. Edmunds watching Lucas’ all- time howler have all been for nowt! It’s back to the blanket chewing and head-bashing with heavy book for me!

    On the plus side: another entertaining blog.

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