Facebook followers will have seen this already, but last week while removing the old worn out floor from screen two, previously the balcony in the single screen days, we found an old programme from November 1941. Quite a thrill. Not so much because of it’s age, I have some that are older, but because it’s been sitting under there all those years, waiting to be discovered.
It also comes from a time when cinema was a very important part of life in the Britain. This was a dark time, it was in November 1941 the Ark Royal was sunk off Gibraltar and the Nazi attack on Russia was in full flight. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was a few weeks away, finally bringing the United States into the war.
I wonder who was it that dropped the programme? Someone local, someone who still lives in the town, or someone who went off to war to die? We’ll never know, but holding it in my hand this week, particularly in light of the V.E day celebrations, it feels like a direct physical connection with that far off, yet still vivid time in our history.
It’s a minor piece of ephemera of course, but it’s a wonderful window on an era when cinema wasn’t just the place to see newsreel footage, it was also a vital form of escapism. The ability of cinema to transport you from your own life and it’s troubles, the delicious vicariousness of the big screen was at it’s most essential during the grim times of war.
How incredibly exotic Down Argentine Way must have appeared, in glorious three strip Technicolor. A colour process that made ladies lips glow an irresistible scarlet and the impossible glamour of a Buenos Aires nightclub, so far from bomb ravaged southern England, come vividly to life.
Remember, no T.V then, no constant barrage of entertainment round the clock. To go shopping for the meagre rations the people of Britain lived on at the time and stop off to watch a couple of hours of handsome Don Ameche making love to sweetheart Betty Grable must have been not merely diverting, but positively invigorating. Unless it had the opposite effect of merely underlining the desperate situation we were in. I doubt it though, cinema rarely seems to work in that way.
Some of the films are lost in time, some of them were old favourites returning as second features, such as Ronald Coleman’s Captain Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond in Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back.
Because in those days, you got two films for the price of one. There’s another British favourite in the cockney detective played by Gordon Harker, Inspector Hornleigh, another colourful musical, Tin Pan Alley with Susan Hayward, actually retitled for UK cinemas from it’s US title With a Song in My Heart.
The plot of Public Deb No 1 has to be one of the most bizarre listed on IMDB. “When a waiter gives a society girl a public spanking for attending a Communist rally, her soup-tycoon uncle makes the waiter a vice-president of his company.” As elevator pitches go, you have to say it’s original.
The eagle eyed among you will notice the second feature for that show is Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise. Inconceivable as a portrayal of a US Chinese today, nevertheless the detective series was incredibly popular during the thirties and forties. Sydney Toler would play him in no less than 11 Charlie Chan films, proving that Hollywood’s propensity to repetition is certainly nothing new.
The best film that month, by some margin, is The Mark of Zorro. A 24 carat classic, the swashbuckling story of a young 19th century aristocrat, Don Diego Vega, who leads a double life in Mexican California. By day the foppish son of wealthy land owners, by night as El Zorro, the righter of wrongs and the champion of the common people.
A top drawer 20th Century Fox production, produced by the great Daryll F Zanuck himself and directed by Robert Mamoulian, it really is rip roaring, sword fighting fun, not least because of the tremendous central performance by Tyrone Power and a fantastic moustache twirling baddie played by the inimitable Basil Rathbone. If you’ve never seen it then I urge you to seek it out, it beats the pants off the Antonio Banderas version and invents the dual identity concept copied by Batman all those years later.
You may also notice we weren’t open Sundays then either, in fact it was my father who finally started opening Sundays in the mid sixties. Also the concept of continuous performances is something almost impossible to describe to people today, the idea that you came in at any point and could sit round until the point you arrived. Very strange, but there’s another blog post in that.
It’s almost impossible to imagine us showing The Mark of Zorro as a run of the mill thing, being the classic it is, but we did. That’s what I find one of the most affecting things about such an innocuous looking piece of cardboard, I have a direct line back to that time as the person looking after the cinema now and programming the films. The man listed on the front as proprietor, P V Reynolds, is the previous incumbent to us and he took it from the original owner.
It also illustrates how relentlessly the old girl has sat at the top of the hill presenting the world in all it’s glory to the people of Uckfield and it’s surrounding towns and villages. Through the good times and, as then, through the bad, sometimes taken for granted but more often treasured by the local community.
So as I look at this thing that has survived, like both Britain and The Picture House, against all the odds, if it’s not to grand a thing to say, I feel just a little of the weight of history, and I feel proud.