|The glory days of the Croydon Focus.|
A repertory cinema, as defined by Kevin Jackson’s The Language of Cinema (Carcanet, 1998), is a cinema “which specialises in showing a wide variety of old and new films from around the world, rather than the far more restricted fare of first-run Hollywood releases.” But rep in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was more than just a few movies – it was an attitude, a way of life, and it extended into the big cinema chains as well. As a teenager, growing up in Croydon, I saw Death in Venice and Black Sabbath at the Croydon ABC. I saw Theatre of Blood and Solaris at the Croydon Odeon, Modesty Blaise and Casino Royale at the Fairfield Halls, Carry on Camping and The Music Lovers (the first film I ever went to see on my own) at the Croydon Classic. And that was just Croydon.
Ask anyone who misspent at least part of their youth in London during the 1970s and early 1980s. (And apologies if you find this piece too London-centric, but tough, because London’s what I know about.) We’re talking BV – Before Video. Before late-night TV as well, and pre-Channel 4. Pubs closed at 11pm. Nightclubs were too expensive. What was a skint young Londoner to do? Rep cinemas were relatively cheap hang-outs with non-stop entertainment. Often, payment of a nominal club membership fee meant you would be able to see hardcore oddities, such as Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack! (men, women, gorillas, cucumbers) among the cult items and golden oldies.
|The Odeon Swiss Cottage.|
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, whole pages of Time Out (and, for a limited period, rival London listings magazines City Limits and Event) were devoted to details of midnight screenings and all-nighters. Regulars at these post-pub beanos became adept at smuggling in cunningly disguised alcohol, while the cinemas themselves offered indigestible hippy-harvest snacks such as flapjacks and samosas. I still have nightmares about the aduki-burger from hell, which was on the verge of being sold to an unsuspecting customer at the cinema where I worked in the 1980s, until one of my colleagues spotted the luxuriant mould sprouting from its base like a ponytail from the head of an ageing rock star.
The importation of takeaways into auditoria was discouraged, but hot food was usually the last thing on anyone’s agenda. In those days, the projector beam had to slice through a solid curtain of smoke in order to reach the screen – and it wasn’t always the smoke from regular cigarettes. Unsurprisingly, Reefer Madness was a perennial rep favourite. How we laughed hysterically at the characters on screen who were laughing hysterically, before recovering just long enough to chuckle to one other, “This is so hilarious! Stoned people don’t behave like that at all!”
Rep cinema, like fringe theatre, first came into its own towards the end of the 1960s, when an interest in all things retro (Art Nouveau, old posters, second-hand devoré velvet frocks) expanded to embrace music (The New Vaudeville Band, “Pictures of Lily” by the Who, Sergeant Pepper) and old movies starring Hollywood icons such as Humphrey Bogart (as namechecked in the lyrics of Roxy Music’s “2HB”) But this New Wave of Nostalgia was balanced by a healthy enthusiasm for the films of radical French, Japanese or East European film-makers, anything that stuck it to The Man, or anything that smacked of rock ‘n’ roll, especially cod-psychedelic tosh like La vallée or Wonderwall. In the 1970s I exhibited what seems to me now an astonishing tolerance and willingness to tackle cinematic Mogadon like Numéro Deux, Riddles of the Sphinx or India Song (John Waters once wrote that Marguerite Duras “makes the kind of films that get you punched in the mouth for recommending them”) or endless worthy documentaries about, say, China or Vietnam.
|The Electric Cinema, Portobello Road.|
The Imperial Playhouse in Portobello Road, where John Reginald Christie once worked as projectionist, was renamed the Electric, which ran as a sort of co-operative. The night’s takings were just as likely to go towards a new sleeping-bag for Eric, a local tramp, or to causes such as London Street Commune, as find their way into the hands of the capitalist running-dog film distributors who provided the prints. Occasionally, when no film was forthcoming, or when the seven-man collective couldn’t reach a consensus on which film to hire, it would simply trundle out its trusty old 16mm print of Yellow Submarine. No-one ever complained. In those days (I’m told), you could get a tab of Strawberry Fields for ten bob, which would no doubt have helped ease the pain of Yellow Submarine for the umpteenth time.
No-one ever complained, either, when the ceiling fell down, or when the basement was flooded by sewage, or when a whole row of seats collapsed. (I must have been the only person in the audience who didn’t scream with laughter when my seat in the front row of the Screen on the Green suddenly tipped me on to the floor midway through The Man Who Fell to Earth.) The Electric was probably my favourite rep cinema; it provided me with an education in Jean-Pierre Melville, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, King Hu and a mad samurai movie called Shura, which I’ve been dying to see again ever since.
The absence of luxury never seemed to put off the celebrities. Regulars at the Electric included Brian Eno and, when he was in town, Dustin Hoffman. Peter Firth was once spotted bringing his girlfriend to a screening of Equus (starring Peter Firth, mostly with his clothes off) and Ingrid Bergman, bless her, had to be rescued from the queue at the ICA, where she was patiently waiting in line to see her own film, Viaggio in Italia. My own memories include Ralph Richardson turning up, motorcycle helmet under his arm, to see Maîtresse; one of my co-workers surreptitiously swapped her cash for his cheque, so she could keep the autograph.
Facilities were basic, though it was still a shock to Scala stalwarts when Shane MacGowan of The Pogues rose from his back-row seat during a William Castle all-nighter to relieve himself on the floor. The steep rake and force of gravity did the rest, resulting in a descending Mexican Wave of activity as those sitting downhill were obliged to scramble out of the way. It’s little wonder, then, that the Scala, which in 1981 moved from Tottenham Street to King’s Cross, was notorious for the way its carpet adhered to the soles of your shoes, so that by the end of a long film-watching session, you would literally have to peel your feet off it. The place was also famous for its ill-tempered cat, which once clamped its jaws around my forearm during a programme of horror trailers and clung there, like a pitbull, for the duration of several grisly coming attractions.
|Another view of the Odeon Swiss Cottage.|
Mostly, though, rep cinemas were manned by more congenial types – students, oddballs and people like me, who couldn’t seem to get proper jobs, no matter how hard we tried. (I did wonder, many years later, whether this might have had anything to do with my Skinhead Number Two haircut and scorpion tattoo.) We were in it more for the films and the flexi-hours than for the pay, which was just as well since it wasn’t very much (though if you played your cards right and returned the favour, you could get into other London rep cinemas for free). One of my favourite rep stories concerns the opportunistic thief who made off with the evening’s takings while the entire late-night staff were watching Fellini’s Casanova. I’ve also heard tell of the mirrored surfaces of bars being used to chop up various substances in full view of the clientèle (though obviously that never happened when I was there) and a substitute manager running up and down the aisles, shrieking in terror, during a midnight screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
But what you have to remember is that, once upon a time, there were cinemas everywhere. There was one in Trafalgar Square – the Jacey, where I once caught a Sonny Chiba double-bill. There was the Clapham Junction Ruby on St John’s Hill where I saw Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires; you could see its neon ruby glowing red in the dark as you passed in the late train from Victoria to East Croydon. The Oxford Circus branch of Marks & Spencer used to be the site of the Academy, one of the best arthouses ever; I saw Providence and The Lacemaker there, and further along Oxford Street, towards Tottenham Court Road, was the Oxford Street Classic where I saw Novecento, and down past Piccadilly was the Cinecenta where I saw Slaves.
|The Croydon Focus again; may I draw your attention to the name of the bar.|
Then there was the Eros in Piccadilly Circus, immortalised in the last reel of An American Werewolf in London as a hangout for zombies, and rumoured to have been temporarily boarded up as Lady Di’s carriage passed by on its way to St Paul’s. When I started writing about films professionally, distributors occasionally held press shows there, though the projectionist never seemed to make any extra effort for reviewers and was nowhere to be found when the film once slipped so the sprocket holes were visible on the screen. It was there, during a press screening for Lucio Fulci’s Conquest, that an eminent film critic got out out his Zippo and threatened to set fire to a punter who put his hand on my knee. I also got molested in The Moulin, on Great Windmill Street, famed for its hunchbacked ice-cream lady who had a habit of entering the auditorium and parading her wares just as whatever softcore smut was showing was reaching its climax; I saw Antony Balch’s Secrets of Sex there, but I also spotted Barry Levinson’s name in the credits of Street Girls, and Claude Chabrol popping up in a cameo in an arty French slice of erotica distributed in the UK as Naughty Blue Knickers.
Often, if you wanted to see a specific title, you had to be prepared to travel. Thus it was that I trekked all the way across London to Hendon to catch the only screening in town of Daughters of Darkness, to the Elephant & Castle Odeon to see Death Line and, many years later, to the same cinema (but with a different date) to see Southern Comfort, after which we got our money back because a quarter of the image had been out of focus. I remember going to the Kilburn Gaumont for a Bruce Lee all-nighter, to the Holloway Road Odeon to see Grave of the Vampire (which made me faint), and to the Biograph in Victoria, where I watched such splendid double-bills as Hatchet for a Honeymoon and The Flesh and Blood Show, and naïvely assumed that the unceasing line of men marching back and forth to the lavatories was due to an epidemic of weak bladders.
|Edie Sedgwick Me in movie-going mode, 1981.|
I remember Yojimbo and Wildwechsel at the Paris Pullman in South Kensington, which in 1983 was demolished and replaced by a block of flats, and the dinky 68-seat Minema in Knightsbridge, where I saw Lino Ventura and Jacques Brel in L’emmerdeur, which made my date laugh so hard that fizzy drink shot out of his nose, or the cinema in the basement of the May Fair Hotel, where I watched Kagemusha for the second time, pining for Japan. Or the Odeon Westbourne Grove, where a shock moment in The Evil Dead (or was it The Beastmaster?) made my companion jump so much he showered the front three rows with Pepsi. I remember the Royal in Charing Cross Road, where I saw Tenebrae and Dr Jekyll et les femmes, and where the soundtracks of all-nighters were counterpointed by the snoring of tramps, attracted by a warm auditorium and the tea and biscuits included in the very reasonable ticket price. Every so often, one of the sleepers would get an attack of the DTs in his sleep and start screaming, which somehow only enhanced movies like Campsite Massacre.
Rep cinemas were once an inextricable part of the fabric and history of our capital; they were quirky village London, as opposed to faceless corporate multiplex London. But it was too shambolic to last. In the mid-1980s, rep started to go the way of the steam-engine. With the proliferation of video, people who wanted to watch old movies late at night could finally do so in the comfort of their own living-rooms, instead of in smelly old fleapits in the company of people who threatened you with knives if you accidentally kicked the back of their seat (as once happened to a friend of mine at the Electric). With increased opportunities in ancillary rights (video, satellite, cable and so on) the companies holding distribution rights became less inclined to hire their films out to impoverished rep houses. In addition, the quality of available prints degenerated to such a degree that rep programming started to revolve around the new prints struck from reissued classics.
One by one, the rep cinemas and arthouses went dark. A few stalwarts such as the Rio (where I saw Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain) and the Ritzy (The Tomb of Ligeia) clung on, and I hear the Electric is still going strong – but as a first-run cinema, with nary a Yellow Submarine in sight.
I still dream sometimes about the old places, and about the films I saw there. But it’s no longer a way of life.
|Germany, Pale Mother: another gem of early 1980s arthouse cinema.|
Parts of this post first appeared in 1999, in an article on repertory cinema published in ES, a now defunct magazine once given away with the Evening Standard.
See also FRONT ROW CONFIDENTIAL, in which I explain why I like sitting in the front row at the cinema.