- Thursday 11th July 2013
- Friday 9th August 2013
The Mayfair cinema stood at the Whitechapel end of Brick Lane. Built in 1936, it could seat 1,500. There was even an opening ceremony attended by the Mayor of Stepney (now Tower Hamlets). I went that first week, to see Escapade… starring a popular Hollywood star of the time, William Powell.
There was no shortage of cinemas in Stepney (now Tower Hamlets) during that period, all boasting classical names; Rivoli, Olympia, Paragon, Luxor, Troxy, Ben Hur, etc. This last cinema was unique because of its tin roof, which was a target for stones thrown on it by local kids. I remember being there on one occasion, watching a Roman epic – The last days of Pompeii – when the pelting started. It was well timed to coincide with a big battle in progress on screen. The clash of swords together with stones landing on the roof gave the film a more realistic look. My favourite moment at the Hur occurred whilst watching the movie She, about a group of adventurers discovering a lost city. A popular song of the 50s was…If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake …the title was not lost on the Hur audience when the adventurers entered the lost city and was greeted by its Queen with the words “If I knew you were coming…” the rest of what she said was drowned out by everyone shouting – in perfect unison – the last five words of the song.
Audience participation also came to the fore at the Mayfair, when showing a film version of a 40s BBC radio programme The Brains Trust, a static movie consisting a group of intellectuals sitting round a table discussing subjects ranging from, according to its blurb, ‘the most erudite and serious to the most irreverent and comedic’. One item under discussion was ‘How does a fly land on a ceiling?’ silly I know, but just think about it… HOW DOES IT?
The panel were actually limited in what they discussed; religion and politics were banned because of complaints from the Church and the Government – so much for free speech. However, free speech was not on the mind of the audience the evening I was present. We were there to see the latest Hollywood musical, not some egg-heads pontificating on flies landing on ceilings. So we showed our distaste by continuously booing till the film was stopped before it could finish. How I wish that audience was around today, just to se their re-action to the stultifying Pearl & Dean ads we have to sit through before the big film… Oh well, I can dream can’t I.
As a footnote, one of the intellectuals round the table, Professor Joad, the most famously known because of his quirky personality, and becoming what we now call a personality, became overnight a tragic figure in April 1948 when he was caught travelling on a Waterloo-Exeter train without a valid ticket. Apparently he was a consistent fare dodger. It made front page news in all the newspapers; he was fined £2 (today worth £54) it proved the end of his career, drastically affecting his health, becoming confined to his bed plus being fired from the BBC. He died April 1953, a sad end to a colourful character.
A favourite sport at the Mayfair was local kids ‘bunking’ in through a side door without paying. Despite a warning light that flashed every time the young scamps bolted in, very few were caught by the attendants, who were much slower in the running stakes. Sometimes, if the film was very dire, the chasing round the stalls was a pleasant distraction.
I remember going one afternoon to the Mayfair to see Hamlet, starring Laurence Olivier. I sat in the circle; looking around I observed there was no one up there except me. I wondered if that Brains Trust audience were frightened into thinking another dose of culture was in the offing and decided to give it a miss . Such a shame they were missing a landmark film. It would be a shame to say their loss was my gain… well at least I could watch the film without any distraction around me, and looking over the balcony into the stalls, I couldn’t believe my good luck, that too was deserted. Silence all around…
The lights went down, the curtains parted, unfortunately I had to sit through the boring ads, eventually the film started, then up came the credits accompanied by the cries of a baby completely overwhelming the film sound track. I thought the cinema, except for me, was empty, how did I not see this interloper giving a reaction to the film before it got started? I stopped speculating and attempted to discover where the screams were coming from. Certainly not in the circle. I looked over the rail down into the stalls, and sure enough there was the culprit, held by mother, I obviously overlooked them earlier. They were the only ones down there. As far as I could see in the semi-darkness mother was oblivious to the little one’s anguish. I remember calling out “why don’t you stop your baby crying”, back came a reply “why don’t you mind your own bloody business”. I would like to have added “you’ve made a mistake, Mickey Mouse is on all next week”. Meantime there was no appearance by any attendant, the film was still running, and there I was calling out can anyone do something about that baby down there. An attendant then came in flashing a torch and began talking to the woman, after what seemed like eternity the crying stopped. But despite that, I was still fuming for missing the opening of the film. As a dedicated filmaholic (something tells me I just invented a word) I want to see a film from beginning to end. My afternoon with Hamlet was ruined by a tiny tot – who may very well have grown up to be a great actress and played the mother of Hamlet. Of course I did go again to see the movie, but not at the Mayfair.
Its very rare, if it happens at all, to see queues waiting to enter a cinema. Years ago it was the norm. People lined up in an orderly fashion; if you were waiting outside a West-end cinema in central London you were usually entertained by street buskers, some of whom were very talented. After their performance they would walk along the queue with a tin cup hoping you’ll give a little contribution. One such performer was Mutton Eye who played a harmonium and accompanied his playing with aside comments, my favourite was “I’m playing for a good cause ladies and gentlemen… save me from getting up early in the morning”.
Another busker would walk along the queue, playing a violin, and a sign round his neck with the word BLIND in large capital letters printed on it. He would go along the queue again with his tin cup, and do quite well . One would notice he seemed to know his way around without stumbling……a closer look at the sign revealed the word ‘nearly’ in extremely small letters above BLIND.
For stories about cinema queues – one particular afternoon outside the Mayfair must take pride of place. I can vouch for it, being there at the time. It was usual for many London cinemas to show different films on Sunday other than those shown during the week. Unlike today when you only get one film, back then it was always two films; the second feature referred to as a ‘B’ movie. Most times the ‘B’ stood for, to put it mildly, bad, and I mean bad, though many of them still have a cult following. (Probably the most famous is Detour made on the cheap but full of movie magic… catch it on DVD) So, back to that Sunday outside the Mayfair, there were two queues – those for the dearer seats at one end, and those for the cheaper seats the other end. Wolfie the doorman resplendent in his uniform, peak hat, long coat, and white gloves was at the ready to let us in. When opening time arrived it reminded me of Henry the fifth’s speech to his troops at Agincourt ….I see you strain like greyhounds at the slip….there was a mad rush to get to the box office a la charge of the light brigade.
The surge took two of the foyer doors off their hinges and they crashed to the floor. For some time it was called the battle of Brick Lane. When I tell you it was just to see two lousy movies one can only wonder why. I like to think tastes have changed since that inglorious day, and yet I don’t know…
One last recollection about the Mayfair; like many cinemas at that time the seating arrangements were atrocious. Seats were directly behind each other ensuring you didn’t have a clear view of the screen. The last seats one wanted to occupy at the Mayfair was sitting at either end of the first few front rows, which meant straining your face at an angle of 45 degrees to view the movie. An osteopath would have done a roaring trade setting up shop next door.
Well, those were a few memories of going to the pictures…The Mayfair and Ben Hur I’ll conclude this short series with tales of the other cinemas, very soon.