Thursday, 3 July 2014

Cinema - the ultimate theatre

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my first day at primary school. For some unfathomable reason the experience remains indelibly ingrained in my memory. I can still recall waiting with my mother to be introduced to my teacher and then being shown around the school with its glazed brown wall tiles, faded parquet floors and distinct smell of disinfectant, and eventually bursting into tears on being shown the gymnasium. I'm not entirely clear what triggered those tears, but I suppose it must have had something to do with an aversion to any form of physical exercise; a trait that, for good or ill, has remained with me to this day.

And I suppose it must have been shortly after this traumatic school episode that I was taken by my mother during a particularly wet and miserable afternoon to the local cinema - The ABC in Ilford High Road. My mother used to love the cinema, and this would have been the first of many such visits. The film being screened was 'The Wizard of Oz' starring a very young Judy Garland. It seems odd now to think that back then, seeing old movies screened on the High Street would have been par for the course. (Today old classics are only ever screened in art house cinemas.)

On taking our seats and being treated to the wonderful opening scenes of the storm, something really quite extraordinary happened: the real heavens opened and torrential rain hammered down with such force that within minutes, and just as the little wooden cabin on the big screen was being uprooted by the storm and tossed in the air, it began to rain quite literally through the light fittings in the ceiling. As a young boy of five years of age, it must have seemed all rather marvellous, until, of course, this indoor rain caused those sitting beneath it to put up their umbrellas and obscure my view.

This surreal state of affairs was not to last for long. The film ground to a halt and the lights came on. (In retrospect, I don't know how the lights didn't fuse with all that rain water cascading through their housings.) The disheveled manager of this rundown flea pit eventually appeared from nowhere and, like a startled hare caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, made some kind of halfhearted apology to the audience and asked us in no uncertain terms to leave the auditorium and collect a refund from front of house. As it happens, I have never got round to seeing 'The Wizard of Oz', even though both of my children have. But from that inauspicious introduction to the cinema, the bug for sitting in the pitch dark and being mesmerised by moving images, had taken hold.

Like all young children at that time, I was soon to discover the world of Walt Disney whose enduring animated masterpieces including 'Snow White', 'Pinocchio' and 'Lady and the Tramp' never failed to enthral and get those tear ducts working again. (Years later, I'd learn that Disney himself was not perhaps one of the nicest people to walk this planet, and had at times displayed racist, antisemitic and misogynistic tendencies.)

Then, of course there were the family holidays, which would invariably include a trip or two to the cinema. On one of many summer breaks to Devon I recollect sitting in a majestic picture house and witnessing before the screen, a man playing an illuminated Wurlitzer theatre organ, which gently sunk into the bowels of the building once the curtain was raised. The film being shown was 'The Longest Day', the 1962 epic black and white second world war movie based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, about D-Day and the Normandy landings.

My introduction to the world of cinematic comedy came a little later thanks to an uncle who was himself a keen cinematographer. He would frequently show us his extremely amateur holiday films, which usually had a sound track of my grandmother unintentionally narrating over the wobbly camera angles with complaints about some aspect of the holiday. The effect, whether intentional or not, was hilarious, and decidedly Pythonesque. This very same uncle introduced my cousin and I to the genius of Woody Allen one Sunday afternoon at the Gants Hill Odeon where we had the entire cavernous auditorium to ourselves and were treated to Allen's newly released comedy, 'Sleeper.'

It was some years later while in the sixth form at school that my enthusiasm for cinema moved up a gear when I discovered the joys of the National Film Theatre. Here one could become a fully-fledged movie geek and step back in time to watch silent films shot by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch to brilliant piano accompaniment, and hear live talks by luminaries of the film world. Two of these talks stick in my memory for very different reasons. The first was a talk given by Donald Sutherland, the wonderful Canadian actor. Before the great man greeted us with his presence, the lights were dimmed and the screen came to life with a manic scene out of some ghastly B-film in which Sutherland was playing a demented axe murderer. To describe this clip as mind-numbingly dreadful would be something of an understatement. Thankfully, we were spared the discomfort of watching this drivel for too long, and the lights faded up as a tall figure strode onto the stage and then chose to sit on the edge of the stage with his long legs dangling. He looked at us, shrugged and in that distinctively rich voice of his declared, "Well... we all have to start somewhere, don't we?" What ensued was one of the most entertaining and engrossing talks I've ever heard anyone give to a live audience. Mr Sutherland is not only a brilliant actor, he's an incredibly funny and natural communicator, and has that rare ability to speak to a packed house as if he were talking to his mates. He was also remarkably generous with his time, over-running the scheduled time slot to answer countless questions. Someone asked him if there was a scene from a film that, in retrospect, he might have played differently. Sutherland responded that yes, there was certainly one particular scene that he'd have refused to play at all had he known at the time what he was to subsequently discover. He then went on to talk about the scene out of the chilling supernatural film 'Don't Look Now' directed by Nicolas Roeg, in which Sutherland's character had to fall from a scaffolding while carrying out restoration work to a cathedral in Venice. The scene was down on the shooting schedule for a stunt man to play. However, due to some disagreement over the stunt man's contract, he had refused to do it and Roeg was furious. The scene required Sutherland's character to swing safely from a safety harness, so Roeg begged Sutherland to do it himself. To lose the scene, he argued, would be compromising the artistic integrity of the entire piece. Sutherland who suffers from acrophobia wasn't having any of it. But Roeg persisted, making it absolutely clear that there was no risk involved as the crew would be employing the very strongest steel cables for the stunt. After much heated debate, Sutherland very reluctantly agreed. During shooting, Roeg was apparently quite difficult, insisting that Sutherland had to twirl several times on the wire to capture the right dramatic effect in camera. After much sweating and swearing, the scene was in the can and Sutherland could sigh an almighty sigh of relief. But it was only some years after the event, while in conversation with a stunt-man on the film set of another film that Sutherland was to learn how fortunate he'd been. Apparently, the steel cables that Roeg had employed are in fact remarkably safe - so long as you don't twist them by twirling. Sutherland explained that he went a little pale on hearing this. "So what happens if you do twirl?" he asked. "They just snap," came the blunt and shocking reply.

While Sutherland's talk was riveting, the other talk I shan't forget in a hurry (but for altogether different reasons), was by the late Ken Russell. Russell was very much the enfant terrible of the film world and was not one to do interviews or talks. And he certainly had no time for critics. So when the opportunity to hear him speak arose, I was probably one of the first to book my seat. Derek Malcolm the film critic would interview Russell on stage and the film director would then be invited to take questions from the audience. Malcolm took his seat and fiddled with his microphone. Then we waited... and waited... and waited a little more. Eventually Russell showed up looking rather worse for wear and clasping a plastic Sainsburys carrier bag; and it became clear from the off that he simply didn't want to be here. Malcolm, the ever polite and patient interviewer, took all this in his stride and handled the interview with aplomb - but my goodness, it was hard going, and one couldn't help feeling for him. Russell would answer questions in a gruff and slightly detached fashion, and wasn't keen to elaborate. But once questions were opened to the floor his mood was to change for the worse. The questions seemed to rile him. One gentleman in thick spectacles wanted to know if Mr Russell thought it important to film music being played for real, and pointed out that Richard Chamberlain didn't appear to be playing Tchaikovsky's piano score in the close-up shots of 'The Music Lovers.' Russell by this point had had enough and displayed his annoyance by implying that the question was a futile one. And with that he picked up his plastic bag. "I think we're done, don't you?" he declared, and with these words, stumbled off the stage. Malcolm was a little taken aback, thanked his interviewee as he disappeared from view and the lights faded up. There was a pause and then the audience began to slowly make its way to the exits. But in the confusion, the projectionist had forgotten to show clips of Russell's films, so now as everyone was trying to leave, the lights faded down yet again while the various clips were screened, and several hundred members of the audience found themselves stumbling around in the dark. It could have been a scene straight out of one of Russell's own movies, and one I'm sure he'd have found rather amusing.

Not very long after my discovery of the National Film Theatre, I was to stumble upon one of the oldest and, in my view, loveliest cinemas in London's East Finchley. The Phoenix was first opened as the East Finchley Picturedrome in 1912 and its first film was a rather sombre account of the ill-fated Titanic, which had tragically sunk that year. Today The Phoenix retains much of its original character including its famous vaulted ceiling and Art Deco reliefs. Over the years, however, the cinema has come close to being demolished, but thanks to the support of local residents and various high profile campaigners including Maureen Lipman, Michael Palin and Mike Leigh, it has survived in tact. And since 1985 has been run as a charitable trust for the community - its profits going towards its educational work and maintenance. When I first discovered it I was living in East London and would think nothing of driving halfway around the North Circular to see a movie here.

It's probably the only cinema in the UK in which you might book a seat and then be treated to a live performance of Morris men before the screening, followed up by a talk by the director. This was precisely what my wife and I were treated to when we decided on the spur of the moment to see a film neither of us had ever heard of called 'Morris: A Life With Bells On.' The reason we hadn't heard of it was because it hadn't yet been released. But The Phoenix clearly liked it enough to give it an airing. Rightly so as it is in fact a very funny spoof documentary with a few familiar faces including that of Sir Derek Jacoby. I can honestly say that I've yet to see a duff film at The Phoenix.

If like me, you love the cinema but can't abide watching films in the large impersonal chains that attract noisy gangs of kids and are perpetually littered with the detritus of popcorn and fast food packaging, head for this delightful haven in East Finchley. And if you really must insist on munching something, I'd recommend the home-made chocolate cake.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

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