East End Life

Mayfair Cinema Brick Lane

Following my recent post, here’s the Mayfair Cinema in Brick Lane. It is now a curry restaurant.

Down Memory Lane: The Cinema

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.

Cinemas everywhere

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.

Mayfair Tales

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.

Queuing Up

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.

Happy Filmgoing

The man in the Ivory Tower

The Tower in question sits atop the Barbican Centre , where the man up there churns out gush aplenty praising new films playing in the cinema below.

The one thing in his favour is that he is always consistent, every movie shown there is a masterpiece, even when given short shrift by the critics. I think he should be moved down into a less uncomfortable room in the basement, which should, pardon the pun, bring him down to earth a bit more. If he’s then more honest in distinguishing a Sylvester Stallone movie from anything by Eisenstein then who knows the Barbican authority might re-open the other cinemas they closed down, thus giving fans of rubbish and fans of Soviet masterpieces their respective movie houses.

Well having solved that particular problem its drinks all round; but not in the Barbican… too bloody expensive…

By the way have you eaten in any of their restaurants? What, you haven’t? Then let me tell you something… oh I’ve just looked at the clock… its bedtime, and I must have my marmite sandwich before retiring.

I’ll tell you all about the haute cuisine next time round.

 

A different type of tour

Something new on the many guided tours of London is that organised by the Occupy London protesters.

This includes visiting financial sites in the square mile and the highlight will take in prowling around Canary Wharf, where the tourists will read in their programme that Tower Hamlets has the second highest rate of child poverty in the UK. This should be digested when reading of the millions paid out to the bankers who have set up shop in the borough.

To make any Americans on the tour feel at home we have our very own financial shysters with Damon Runyon names… for starters, how about Fred the Shred.

Image courtesy of LawfulRebellion.org

The 2012 Olympics

Ok so you can’t get tickets for any of the events at the Olympics…but don’t despair…help is at hand.

Here’s what to do – buy a 50 inch TV…

You’ll not only see all the events close up rather than specks in the distant if you were present, but enjoy a bottle or two of your favourite brew which you can’t indulge if you were there…and of course you can watch anything else long after the event…sounds common sense to me.

Lauren Bacall… Rise and Fall

Lauren Bacall’s first appearance with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944) drew raves for the Bogart-Bacall combination, especially for Bacall. The film broke all records when opening in America and was the “talk of the town” even topping the earlier Warner Bros movie Casablanca, would you believe.

Her entry into Hollywood was a stroke of luck. The wife of film director Howard Hawks saw her photo modelling clothes in Harpers Bazaar magazine and, impressed by Bacall’s striking looks urged her husband to sign her to a film contract, which he did.

Hawks was one of Hollywood’s top flight directors (Bringing up Baby, Rio Bravo , Scarface (1932..starring Muni…probably the best gangster movie ever made)).

When screen testing, her voice was described by Hawks as “thin and reedy” and not the low timbre he wanted for the role. Bacall achieved the desired effect by going to a deserted open air spot and read aloud from a book, deliberately making her voice lower . So now you know when watching the film again, how she did it.

Many actors and singers do this exercise – if you have a weak voice try bawling out in your bathroom tra la la la as loud as you can for around ten minutes, then sing your favourite song, I guarantee you’ll be quite surprised. It helps of course to have a pleasing singing voice, if not try something unmusical, like Shakespeare’s Henry V speech to the army before the battle at Agincourt “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slip” etc etc. There is a scene in the picture where she sings a song whilst standing beside the composer Hoagy Carmichael at the piano.

Some accounts allege the actual singing was done by a very young Andy Williams. But the studio later made it clear that the voice on the soundtrack was definitely Bacall. Because of the film’s success, Warner Bros – who financed and distributed it – wanted a split of her contract with Hawks. A deal was agreed upon – 50/50. But as we shall see the deal eventually took a disastrous turn for the new superstar.

Meanwhile everything was rosy for all the players. The new arrangement provided Bacall with a Warner Bros salary plus five thousand dollar bonus, a lot of money in those days. Her next film was with Bogart in The Big Sleep based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. The film began production October 1944, directed once again by Hawks and finished shooting in January 1945.

To Have and have Not having only been shown at selected previews had yet to be screened nationally; this was planned for early 1945. Warner Bros already had another film lined up for Bacall to start in June ’45. Little did anyone know what lay ahead when that film went into production. Meanwhile The Big Sleep had only played overseas to American troops still based in scattered islands in the Pacific zone.

When To Have and Have Not was finally released to public acclaim, Warner Bros, (who by now had bought out Bacall’s half contract with Hawks) sensing they had a gold mine in their ranks, put Bacall into the film which they thought could be another in the same mold asTo Have and Have Not and rushed it into the cinemas hoping to clean up.

Confidential Agent was a novel written by Graham Greene, and centred on a group of spies in London during the time of the Spanish civil war. But the magic of the earlier film was absent. For starters Hawks was not there to direct the woman he made into a superstar, the story was dated, WW2 had just ended, the leading man was a former great French lover of the silver screen of the 30s, Charles Boyer, who, to put it kindly, sleep-walked through his role, all this plus a convoluted script…which added up to what’s called a “turkey”. And to say Bacall was lost in all the goings-on after her sensational roles in the earlier films (though The Big Sleep was still waiting for release) proved her undoing as a superstar. Universally panned by the critics the public stayed away in droves…..the film eventually sank being shown only on very minor occasions on TV. (I have a copy and will dig it out for a screening to see if my comments still hold up).

Fortunately The Big Sleep made its public opening in 1946 to world wide acclaim. Ironically because of their sensational pairing in the first film, extra scenes were shot and added that gave more prominence to the highly skilled banter between the two. But the damage had been done. Bacall became argumentative with the studio and refused to appear in movies she considered inferior….this led to her being put on suspension and later the studio washed their hands of the whole mess and finally let her go.

Though making many more films for other studios none captured the magic of the first two.

Who was Jack the Ripper?

Jack the Ripper

Observing the endless Jack the Ripper tours every evening around Spitalfields reminds me of the time many years ago when as editor of a local community newspaper I interviewed the author Stephen Knight who had written a book “Jack the Ripper…The final Solution“.

Who was the Ripper?

Mr Knight in his investigations had access to documents relevant to the case from both the government and the police. Since then (1977) more files have been released adding to the mystery which to this day still engrosses thousands. It is not uncommon to witness on average 4 tours a night, each guide giving an interesting spiel on the gruesome events that took place 130 years ago.

There have been many theories about the identity of the Ripper…so it’s a case of you pay your money and you take your choice. I have to admit Mr Knight has come up with an interesting explanation putting forward the motives that the crimes should be seen in a much wider context than the murder of seven prostitutes might imply….namely the fate of England.

Bizarre

This might seem like a bizarre and ludicrous statement. How could a few prostitutes have any direct bearing on the destiny of a country? England in the 1880s was in an advanced stage of the Industrial Revolution. The first stage i.e. textile/cotton had already reached its peak and the emphasis then centered on what was to make England the workshop of the world …..based on the capital goods industries; coal, iron, steel, and the age of railway construction.

Revolution

This new age saw the beginning of the modern labour movement. Workers in factories were getting organised, socialist ideas were spreading. To the government of the day, this awakening by the new working class was not to be dismissed lightly. Revolution was thought to be in the air. So now the stage was set for the next important link in the chain leading up to the murders. Despite all the economic change, Britain still had something unaffected by the progress, namely a Monarchy, headed by Queen Victoria. With republican ideas flourishing many thought she would be the last remaining monarch. The Royal family was also mistrusted because of its German origins.

Prince Eddy

The Queen had a grandson, Prince Eddy. His father would later become King Edward VII. Eddy was considered to be more artistic than academic, and eventually involved himself in the world of art.

Affair

In 1884 he was introduced to a young shop girl, Annie Elizabeth Cook. They began an affair and were eventually married. Annie soon became pregnant. A girl was born the following April. The family set up home in Cleveland St, the centre of London’s art world. There was a difference in attitudes about the affair. The Queen just wanted the couple parted, and the Prince’s part in it hushed up. The Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, saw things in another light. “The Prince had been sowing not only wild oats but the seeds of revolution”.

Apart from the social upheaval there was strong anti-Catholic feeling in the land which precipitated violent demonstrations with the police and army involved in the conflict. If the news ever leaked to the public that a member of the royal family had married an illegitimate Catholic girl and had a baby by her, then this, in the eyes of the Prime Minister, would be the last straw. He then staged a raid in Cleveland St, and the lovers were parted. The Prince was taken back to court, his wife confirmed as a lunatic by the royal physician to get her out the way.

Blackmail

Mary Kelly, the nanny looking after the couple’s child, escaped from the raid and fled to the East End where she fell in with some prostitutes to whom she told of her forbidden knowledge. They decided on a course of blackmail which was to end eventually in their downfall.

The royal physician, Sir William Gull, was given the job of dealing with the blackmailers. He was a Freemason of high standing, as was the Prime Minister. The story has it that the plot to silence Mary Kelly and the others was made unknown to the Government and Crown, but at the instigation of the Prime Minister. Freemasonry was seen as the power behind the throne and government. If the throne went and Britain became a Republic then the Masons would go too. The plotters had to be silenced.

Tracking them down

The method of tracking them down was by way of a coach. On his journey the royal physician was accompanied by two other men. When they found their victims they murdered them .

Hence the story of the Ripper and, according to Stephen Knight, his identity.

Food and Drink

Saw an enjoyable stage musical – Crazy for You – at the Regents Park open air theatre….Went to the bar during the interval …..two glasses of white wine in plastic tumblers….£10.40 Went to France for short break holiday……bottle of very decent Rose……2 euros ……..cheers & down the hatch.

One of the Sunday newspapers I buy is the Observer. A regular feature is an almost full page restaurant review…the food at these eateries is beautifully described and usually given the maximum amount of stars by the reviewer…..you’ve probably guessed it ain’t cheap…….For some reason all without exception are -for Londoners at least -always hundred miles away in the North or South of England So…if you’re a Londoner and tempted to go I’d like to know how much the bill for the evening came to…..including petrol for the car….and possible Hotel or B&B ……….come to think of it….have a week-end in Paris instead.

Introducing the Spitalfields Crooner

I chose the heading because:

  • My life began in Spitalfields (and still does)
  • A life-long love of music

My age is not important… whenever asked the question my stock reply is “I’m still breathing, so let’s see what tomorrow holds.” Besides, there’s too many movies to see before that last gasp. One you have to see, if you haven’t already, is a Czech film The Shop on Main Street. Get it… a masterpiece.

That enough of films for the moment…

Brunswick Buildings

Brunswick Buildings, near Middlesex Street

The photo alongside is Brunswick Building which was sited just a few metres from Middlesex Street; the divide between the East End and the City of London, and home for me from my birth until its demolition in 1974 when the buildings were falling apart because of neglect by the private landlord. In its heyday before neglect set in it was the prince of all the other tenements in the area, and famous enough to have three books written about it by a former tenant, the author Ralph Finn (see No Tears in Aldgate).

The main body of inhabitants comprised Jewish families of characters dispensing great wit and humour day after day.
“Mr Eisner, how much do you charge for making a suit?”
“I make a lovely one for 150 guineas, or I can make a nice one for 75 guineas”
“That sounds reasonable, can you make me one for 50 guineas?”
“No problem, but listen – don’t you want sleeves?”
Wentworth Street Market

Wentworth Street Market in the 1930s

In starting this column I would like to make it a mixture of past and present and maybe get some intake from whoever on some of the things I feel strongly about. For instance, let’s take bagels, or more correctly, beigels, here comes a little bit of nostalgia… to paraphrase the title of a Lionel Bart show “Fings ain’t what they used to be”. The tasteless thing that passes for one today ain’t a patch on how they once tasted. The lady in the picture is selling the real thing in Wentworth St market (circa 1930s) when 95% of all the stalls there sold food with real taste. Sadly they all disappeared by the end of the 1960s. The beigel bakery situated on the corner of Brick Lane and Hanbury Street went much earlier. Good enough reason to lower flags at half-mast.

A while ago the London Standard freebie had a two-page spread on the problem of the homeless. Turning several pages I was confronted by 20 or more pages devoted to luxurious homes of all types – bungalows, penthouses, beautiful cottages, etc, etc for sale at the most astronomical prices imaginable. Leaving aside the few who the pages were aimed for – could only bring forth from those highlighted in the homeless article “when I win the lottery”. Where’s Robespierre when you want him?

May I ramble a bit? Thanks. I love reading, always have done. Not all subjects, but like you I can pick and choose. Many years ago a cousin (Ruby if you want to know) gave me a copy of a detective novel by Ellery Queen (actually a pseudonym for two American writers, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B Lee). I’ve put that in detail because they are without doubt the best mystery writers one could wish for in the idiom. A problem of deduction. In fact they are known as the American equivalent of Sherlock Holmes (also a dab hand at deduction). Needless to say I have almost all the Ellery Queen novels (he is also the name of the detective). You’ll never guess who did it.

I take my leave for now, with a couple of my favourite songs.

MY GIGS


  • Saturday 6th December 2014

Water Poet, Folgate St


  • New Year's Eve - Wednesday 31st December 2014

Bethnal Green Working Mens Club


MY MUSIC

My Funny Valentine


That Old Black Magic

MY SOCIAL MEDIA

Mike Myers Spitalfields Crooner

Mike Myers, The Spitalfields Crooner

MY DOG

Lily