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William Rayner: memories of Great Yarmouth & Gorleston cinemas in the 1950s

The Empire

The Empire

As a small child I came to live in Great Yarmouth in 1949. The sea front still had barbed wire and warnings against land mines. I particularly remember a shipwreck that caused the smell of malt to pervade the town, which was littered with bomb sites. It always seemed to be very cold and coal was expensive. For many people going to the pictures was the alternative to sitting in a chilly house listening to the radio, or wireless as it was then called.

I vaguely remember seeing Bambi and Dumbo but the first film I remember was Hoppity Goes to Town which I didn’t like much and had to be taken out of the cinema as I was crying. The cinema was the Empire on the sea front which occasionally showed older films from the early 1940s. The Empire had been built in 1911 and had a monumental façade. It had been taken over by cinema entrepreneur Jack Jay. My uncle displayed film posters in his shop so we got free seats. I remember we usually had to queue up in the cold to get in. The interior of the cinema was heavily perfumed: I later learned that this was to disguise the stink of the audience as in those days most people only had a bath about once a week and showers were unusual. Many people had a bath on Friday night and changed into weekend ‘best’ while work clothes were cleaned. In the bleak and austere days of the late 1940s, I suspect many people went to the picture because cinemas were warm and reasonably comfortable and because everyday reality was so unpleasant. No wonder the picture houses were packed out and the joke went “Ladies and gentlemen, bugs and fleas, take you seats in the cinema please!” People of all ages went to the cinema, probably for a bit of colour and escapism from a bleak everyday life of austerity.

Mr Jay also owned the Windmill, originally the Gem. One of the first purpose built picture houses in the country. It was originally built by C B Cochrane, later a famed West End impresario and rumour had it he originally intended the building to be a menagerie. The Windmill functioned as a cinema in the winter and stage variety shows in the summer. Tommy Trinder and Charlie Chester were frequent performed but I never went to see him as their humour was “rather rude” and my mother thought it a bit vulgar. In the summer holidaymakers queued up to get in.

The Gem/Windmill

The Gem/Windmill

As the Empire and Windmill specialised in western and war films, John Wayne frequently appeared on their screens. Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, Audie Murphy and James Stewart were other western stars. The films were written to a formula and always ended with a gunfight. The heroines were tacked on for decoration and were usually about twenty years younger than the heroes, a fact that caused my father great hilarity.

The first films I really recall were biblical epics, as Ma must have figured anything from the Bible must be suitable for a child. Victor Mature pulling the Temple of Dagon down made a great impression. I saw the film at the Regal cinema, a huge building in the centre of Great Yarmouth. The Regal was rather cold, which was all right in the summer but not in the winter. In summer there were some variety shows and I remember seeing Monsewer Eddie Gray, Arthur English the Spiv and the Crazy Gang. My father later told me some of the jokes were a bit rude so they went over my head. He had already seen the show while working in Portsmouth.

The queues to get in were huge and in my short trousers I often got chapped legs. But by then I was hooked on the pictures. I collected model figures of characters from British films called ‘Argosy’ figures which included Henry VIII, Hamlet, Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, and Henry V. I missed the films they represented and only saw them on television years later. The Regal was a bit strict on letting unaccompanied children in to see A films, so I didn’t go there much.

I did manage to con my way into The Regal on one occasion to see a film unsuitable for young people. I was 13 and sneaked into a film called Simba starring Dirk Bogarde as a settler in Kenya confronting the Mao Mao. The murder of a family shocked me deeply, as I knew it was based on actual events reported in the newspapers. I have never seen the film in cinema or on television since.

The Regent

The Regent was a large elaborately decorated cinema built by the cinema pioneer Frederick H Cooper. Internal decoration featured swags and scrolls in the style of Louis XIV. It was very highly perfumed and had a tea room attached. I was told you could get kippers for high tea, which many people had instead of dinner. The Regent showed children’s films on Saturday mornings in what was known as the threepenny rush (actually sixpence or ninepence) called the ABC Minors as The Regent and the Regal were then run by Associated British Cinemas. Most costume epics were shown at the Regent, but not all. My mother thought the kids who went to ABC Minors were ‘rough’ so I didn’t go for fear of catching fleas or boils off the seats. I got taken to suitable films though at the Regent, though mainly costume dramas. Burt Lancaster in The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate were huge hits with local children. Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers was another. Treasure Island was memorable for Robert Newman’s Long John Silver and kids hobbled about croaking “Argh, Jim Lad!”. The Regent later showed Ivanhoe, which for some reason I missed, and Knights of the Round Table with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. Timpo Toys made model knights of characters in these two films and I collected them.

By this time (about 1953) I was going to the pictures on my own. My father had come back from India and we moved to Gorleston. The nearest cinemas were the Coliseum, an Art Deco building in Gorleston High Street owned by another East Anglian cinema pioneer, Douglas Attree who had started out as an electrician, then as a projectionist, then as manager of the Regent. The Palace, a modern building was further up the High Street, replaced a previous cinema of the same name which had been destroyed in WWII. These cinemas showed the same films as the Yarmouth picture houses but about two weeks later, and I didn’t have to pay for a bus fare. My parents, like many older people, didn’t go to the cinema much. Audiences were getting younger as the ’50s progressed. Nearly all films shown were American and the young were attracted by the glamorous American lifestyles portrayed in many films.

In those days you usually got two films for your money. Programmes changed on Thursdays. The usual performance was a B movie, sometimes a British film made to fulfil a quota, or a cheap US ‘cops and robbers’ film. There was a Movietone or Pathé newsreel, runners for forthcoming features and sometimes a cartoon (if a short documentary replaced the cartoon there was often a loud groan), then the B film, then the main feature – all this without much of a break. Sometimes bored old people would go in during the afternoon and stay the rest of the day, seeing the whole programme twice. There was always a rush to get out before you had to stand for the National Anthem. The programme generally finished at about 10.30pm, giving people time to have some chips or catch the last bus home. The Regal was right next to the central bus stops so country people could get the bus straight home.

From the age of 11 until I left university at the age of 22, I went to the pictures twice a week. Ma forbade me from going to the cinema on Sundays as it was “disrespectful”. This was no great disappointment as the films shown on Sundays were usually third-rate horror movies or dramas. The audiences were largely composed of courting couples who went along for the dark and ‘Teds’, who made trouble, bellowing advice to the rampaging monsters on the screen. The manager of the Coliseum, Douglas ‘Earl’ Attree and his staff sometimes tried to control the mayhem but in vain. Respectable people didn’t go to the cinema on Sunday so the unrespectable did. The ‘Colly’ was a bit of a social centre for Gorleston’s youth.

The films I preferred were war films or cowboy films. The majority of these were from Hollywood. The Empire and the Windmill showed these before they came round to the Coliseum and Palace. My father sneered at both genres, calling Westerns ‘horse operas’. Dad was always on the Indians’ side, and said that the conquest of the West was just a massacre. I went off cowboy films as I grew older as there was too much love interest with superfluous women, and the heroes tended to have some deep Freudian angst or trauma that they were trying to live down. Most ‘oat burners’ were a waste of eyesight but there were occasional gems like Shane, Gunfight at the OK Corral and High Noon. Young men often copied Western heroes and entered coffee bars scowling as if expecting someone to draw on them. The advent of the ‘crazy, mixed-up kid’ later made me suspect many Hollywood producers fancied themselves as psychiatrists manqué.

American war films varied. Some like Battle Cry, The Caine Mutiny or Attack! were excellent but many were just chauvinist melodramas. One of the greatest war films of all time was turned down by most studios and had to be financed by Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, Paths of Glory directed by Stanley Kubrick, which was the supporting film for a gangster movie at the Empire; the execution sequence held me breathless in my seat.

I enjoyed American crime films, particularly those based on fact such as Baby Face Nelson, starring Mickey Rooney and Rod Steiger as Al Capone. A series of short films about notorious British murders narrated by a lugubrious Edgar Lustgarten interested me particularly, but British crime films were not really memorable. I only remember The Blue Lamp and Gideon’s Day. I thought The Lady Killers was silly though everyone raved about it because it had Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in it. I must confess I found the famous Ealing comedies tedious and only mildly funny. The American comedies with Huntz Hall and the Bowery Boys and Ma and Pa Kettle were far more amusing; a Ma and Pa Kettle film in which farm animals got drunk on moonshine mash had the audience howling with laughter.

Great American films were made in spite of people like Sam Goldwyn and Louis B Meyer, by renegades like John Huston. I saw both The African Queen and Moby Dick at The Regent. American musicals and comedies with stars like Doris Day were very popular. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma and South Pacific had large queues when they opened. Women went to musicals, usually in pairs or groups to avoid harassment or with a husband or boyfriend.

British war films varied but were somewhat bland. The officers were usually the heroes and the other ranks were comic Cockneys (Brian Kerr or Sidney James) or faithful Scotchmen (Gordon Jackson). These films all seemed to have the same stars: Richard Todd, Anthony Steele, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills, Kenneth More, Donald Sinden, John Gregson and Brian Philips. Nasty Germans were often played by Anton Diffring, an Australian actor. I enjoyed Dunkirk, Battle of the River Plate and The Malta Story. The stories about prison camps like Stalag 17, The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story were good. Although the special effects in The Dam Busters were dire, the film was hugely popular at my school and prompted several of my friends to join the RAF. Someone said ‘bloody’ in the film, which was the first time I recall swearing on the cinema screen. The propensity of film-makers to put American actors in the main roles in some war films caused offence among veterans. Ever since the notorious Objective Burma in 1944, an American actor in a British war film prompted outrage from ex-servicemen, particular Alan Ladd in The Red Beret. It was usually young men who watched war films. Veterans I knew referred to them as ‘Yank rubbish’ and avoided war films as they had seen “enough of that bloody stuff” in reality. Old blokes seemed to have anti-Americanism left over from the War. No one had a bad word to say about The Cruel Sea, though, which had me rigid in my seat at the age of 12. I had read the book before I saw the film and both were gripping; I think it is the greatest British war film.

A film about the RAF placing a bombing range in a bird sanctuary was made at Hickling in the 1950s. It was called Conflict of Wings, starring John Gregson. The heroine, Muriel Pavlow, was supposed to be a Norfolk country girl but she spoke with cut glass tones like most Rank starlets. Only comic characters spoke with regional accents. It was a rather pointless film but featured The Pleasure Boat pub at Hickling which was kept by my grandfather before the First World War.

The Royal Aquarium

The Royal Aquarium

By the mid-1950s fewer people were going to the pictures. To attract dwindling audiences into the cinema, CinemaScope was invented. The first CinemaScope film, The Robe, was shown at the Royal Aquarium on the Yarmouth sea front. It was a large building and did indeed have a large fish tank in the foyer, a reminder of the fact that it had originally been an aquarium when it was built in the 19th century. It put on live shows in the summer for the visitors, as did the Regal and the Windmill. The Robe was followed up by Demetrius and the Gladiators, and then The Regent and The Regal got big screens. The Regent showed some 3D films including The Charge at Feather River, in which the audiences ducked when an Indian threw a tomahawk straight at the camera, and House of Wax, which was an X so I couldn’t see it as I vaguely remember this was one of the few occasions that The Regent refused me admission. 3D film was not a success. Epics and blockbusters continued throughout the ’50s with films like El Cid, Land of Pharaohs, Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, all with casts of thousands. Epics slowed down when Cleopatra, which had cost a fortune, bombed at the cinema. I saw it at The Regal; Elizabeth Taylor had scars from a recent operation.

I didn’t notice at the time but by the end of the 1950s you didn’t have to queue to get into the cinema. The BBC built a transmitting mast and there was good reception. The Quartermass Experiment was the first TV series to pull audiences out of the cinemas. As Ma wouldn’t let us have a TV set because it would put me and my brother off homework, I still went to the pictures twice a week. I could get into A films and lied about my age to get into X films. Nearly all the box office ladies handed me my ticket with a wry smile when I said I was over 16; I was a good customer. The first X film I saw legally was Dracula, the first of the famous Hammer films starring Christopher Lee at the Regal just after my 16th birthday. Most of my class had been watching X films for at least two years and some boasted of having seen Brigitte Bardot’s nipples in God Created Woman at the Empire in 1957. I missed it, though I saw Les Bonnes Femmes, which I thought was excellent, and which was said to be highly unsuitable for young people. I was deeply moved when the poor girl looking for love gets strangled at the end. Local watch committees were originally formed to check safety in cinemas and should never have been concerned with morality and suitability, and the right to ban films.

Towards the end of the 1950s there were many press articles about the morality of some films about the need for censorship so that young people would not be ‘corrupted’. The Man with the Golden Arm about drug addicts was banned outright in 1956, Peyton Place was threatened with a ban because it mentioned a stepfather seducing his stepdaughter, and Tea and Sympathy only just made it past the censors even though it was about a boy suspected of being homosexual. I saw the latter two and they were completely harmless. Compared to the sentiments and vocabulary I was used to at school, these films were mild. There were serious efforts to prevent the film Rock Around the Clock from being screened at the Regal, but it was shown with only a small amount of trouble from Teds, who tried to dance in the aisles. There was no riot. I sometimes suspected film distributors exaggerated the trouble they had with censors as labelling a film as shocking doubled audiences.

There was an excellent film club in Great Yarmouth which met once a month at the old art school and I joined. I saw The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, All Quiet on the Western Front, Brief Encounter and the Santajit Ray films. It was at one performance that a local clergyman ostentatiously walked out because a nature documentary showed frogs mating on the screen to the accompaniment of lustful croaks. That’s the only time I saw someone offended at a film.

Only a few foreign films made it to the cinemas in Great Yarmouth. I heard a Ted say that his mate had nearly fainted when watching a French horror film called Les Diaboliques at the Regent in 1954. It was certainly scary and had an X rating. Though I was only 13 I lied my way in and didn’t faint. One or two humourous films were shown.

People were attracted to films by the names of the stars. No one made a big thing about the names or directors; that came later. The names of the stars told you what sort of film it would be. ABC cinemas sold a fan magazine and articles in the Daily Mirror by Donald Zec featured stories of the stars’ private lives. I didn’t bother to read them though many youths copied James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and there were many articles about his death in a car crash.

I was never aware of being corrupted by films. Indeed, I suspect the influence of the cinema on me was wholly beneficial. I saw The Student Prince at the Regent with Edmund Purdom and the voice of Mario Lanza, and decided it would be good fun to be a student. I actually bought the drinking song record and after seeing Hardy Kruger in Bachelor of Hearts decided Cambridge would be a good place to be a student in. I determined to work harder at school and actually got in in 1961. For the next three years I swapped the Yarmouth cinemas and the Gorleston Coliseum and Palace for the Rex, Kinema and Arts Theatre in Cambridge and went twice a week to them. Many of my fellow undergraduates were also hooked on films and audiences were usually large. The young ‘gentlemen’ were sometimes as rowdy at bad films as the Teds in the Gorleston Coliseum.

I enjoyed cartoons, like everyone else, but preferred Woody Woodpecker, Tweety and Silvester, Foghorn Leghorn, Tom and Jerry, and Bugs Bunny to the Disney characters.

1 Response

  1. Jill Taylor

    I have just returned from a trip to Great Yarmouth and the Golden Mile. I knew very little about the area as this was my first visit but was fascinated by the early 20th Centuary architecture struggling to show its face behind the current commercial ventures. I was also surprised to learn that so many of these buildings started life as cinemas and theatres.

    On my return I found your article about Norfolk at the Pictures. It has been such an interesting read and dare I say refreshed a lot of my own childhood memories, although my own cinema trips were in south London.

    Thank you again for the all the detail contained in your memories. I do hope The Empire in particular will be able to find new life while retaining some of its original character.

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