Movie Going Then & Now

One of my biggest pleasures – still is, for that matter – was going to films during the day. There are certain theatres I like to go to because I know I will be one of the only people in there. Matinees on a weekday are my favourite times to see films, or in the late afternoon. I did that a lot when I was writing as a teenager. After school was when I would go to see a lot of European films. I also discovered the nouvelle vague when I was in high school – at revival houses. They don’t have those any more. Well, there aren’t any in L.A. anymore. I don’t know about New York.

Bret Easton Ellis in conversation with Don DeLillo, “The Believer”, Vol 9, No. 7, September 2011.

I marked this passage up at the original time of reading – if for nothing else, it signified the only thing, being writers aside, I could imagine Easton Ellis and myself having in common – as it struck an immediate chord. Not that there’s anything so remarkable about writers going to see afternoon movies – what on earth else are they going to do? It was more the idea of it as a habit that began during one’s relatively early years. School years.

One way or another I devoted a lot of time between the ages of, say, 12 0r 13 and 15/16, to skipping school. [Though never on Wednesdays, for that was sports day when, in a ragged crocodile, we would troop down Hornsey Lane to the school playing fields on Hurst Avenue.] If it were an especially fine day, I might take the tube up beyond Highgate, where the school was located, to East Finchley, and spend the bulk of the day on a meandering route through Cherry Tree Woods into Highgate Wood and from there into either, or both, Waterlow Park and Hampstead Heath. More usually, I would head off in the other direction, seeking out one of the many second- and third-run cinemas that proliferated my area of north London  in the 1950s. [As was the case, of course, elsewhere.]

I headed for these cinemas for several reasons. For one thing, as mine was one of the last of those movie-going families who went to the cinema every Friday night without fail, I would have already seen a goodly number of new releases with my parents – which meant the choice was invariably theirs; whereas in the smaller cinemas, which were cheaper and thus within reach of what I could afford from my lunch money, I could make my own selection. Nothing highbrow in those early days, but with the kind of zealous devotion that would make me the film buff I was to become, I made a point of seeking out particular films at particular venues.

So, it was to the Holloway Grand that I went to catch up on Doris Day musicals and to the Electric Pavilion (or was it the Empire in those days?) at the other end of the Holloway Road to see George Montgomery westerns; for more westerns, my favourite genre in those days, the Gaisford in Kentish Town had a strong line in Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, while the Court on Malden Road (where the usherettes had a habit of parading the aisles with bug spray between screenings – I kid you not) was the only place where I could regularly track down Wild Bill Elliott. And the only time I managed to see Lash La Rue (no, he was a cowboy star, too) was on my sole visit to the Essoldo, Caledonian Road.

None of these cinemas were to outlast changing habits. [Not mine, other people’s.] The Grand closed in 1961, the Gaisford in ’60; the Court showed its last films in 1958, the Electric Palace in ’57 [to become an Irish dance hall]; grander than the rest, the Essoldo soldiered on until 1965. Another casualty of the late 50s was the Astoria near the foot of Highgate Hill, where, as part of a mass school visit, I saw “Scott of the Antarctic”, and where my friend Trevor Halpin and I plucked up our courage to see “The Blackboard Jungle”, despite newspaper reports of older teenagers dancing on the seats and rampaging in the aisles to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

But by the end of the 50s I was in the sixth form and mixing with a more intellectual crowd and starting to watch the kind of European movies I imagine Easton Ellis was also watching, Bergman and Goddard and Antonioni – which, in my case, meant frequent trips to the Everyman in Hampstead and the posher and more expensive Academy in Oxford Street. The Everyman’s repertory programme, sadly long abandoned in favour of armchair seating and waiter service, with commensurate prices, and a similar – no, more off-the-wall – programme at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, went on to feed my lust, and that of every other capital-based film buff, for everything from 40s film noir to the arcane and avant-garde, right through into the 70s.

Like Easton Ellis’ L.A., it’s difficult, if not close to impossible now to find anywhere in London, outside of the BFI Southbank, which bothers to show a consistent revival programme any more. [And to those who say what does it matter? You can watch everything on DVD or on download, I’m sorry, but you just don’t get it.] Thankfully, there are a small number of exceptions. The ICA programme is worth keeping up with, as is that of the recently reopened Regent Street Cinema – would you believe a recent Sam Fuller double-bill? And now there’s the Close-Up Film Centre in Sclater Street, E1, just off Brick Lane and near enough to Shoreditch High Streeet Station, with a dedicated repertory programme that’s well worth checking out. https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com Just a shame there are no afternoon screenings.

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