My beautiful picture

From June 1980 to October 1981 I worked as a part-time cashier at Screen on the Hill cinema in Belsize Park, London. It was somewhere between a first-run art house and a repertory cinema: the main programme would be a first-run independent or European film (My Brilliant Career, Raging Bull, Maîtresse), and then at weekends there would be late shows and the occasional all-nighter, consisting of cult favourites (Pink Flamingos, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eraserhead) or golden oldies (The Crimson Kimono, Yojimbo, The Legend of Lylah Clare).

The Screen on the Hill, built on the site of the former Odeon Haverstock Hill, was first opened in 1977 by Romaine Hart, who ran the distributors Mainline Pictures, and became a sister cinema to the Screen on the Green (opened 1970), and later of the Screen on Baker Street. In 2008 the Screen on the Hill was taken over by Everyman Media Group and renamed the Everyman Belsize Park.

Needless to say, I got to see the films, and also took advantage of a sort of unofficial cinema mafia, a reciprocal arrangement by which I could get to see films at other rep cinemas (the Scala, the Electric, the Everyman and so on) for free. So on my days off, when I wasn’t taking photographs or doing the rounds of the art departments, trying to find photographic work, I would go to the cinema.

My job as a cashier consisted of sitting in a little booth and selling tickets, making sure the numbers added up correctly (they always did – I may not be a maths genius, but I’m OK at basic arithmetic, and I’m very conscientious) and answering the phone. As in many cinemas, there was a high turnover of part-time staff, working under a manager. Other employees tore tickets and sold refreshments, and there was also a fancy mirrored bar, which did a roaring trade at evenings and weekends. There was also a projectionist, but he kept himself to himself.

Judy Davis eating Sam Neill’s bogey.

Periods of frantic activity, coinciding with the start of the programme, alternated with periods of nothing much happening, which suited us all just fine. I used this dead time to teach myself how to do the Times cryptic crossword. I also experimented with my new photographic flash (sometimes with horrible results – just look at some of the pictures in the gallery). Other employees, when they weren’t selling coffee or what we used to call “hippy harvest” snacks or taking inventories of chocolate bars, posed for me, or plaited each other’s hair, or read magazines, or ate, or helped me do the crossword. Actually, I’m not really sure what they did. Everybody smoked, all the time, though the auditorium itself was a no smoking zone, which at the time was unusual for a London cinema.

It might not seem it from these photos, but we were all quite efficient at our jobs – except for the time the on-duty staff somehow all ended up inside the auditorium, all at the same time, watching a late-night screening of Fellini’s Casanova, allowing an opportunistic thief to make off with the box-office takings. I was present that night, but I don’t think I was on duty. I hope not, anyway.

I was part of a core group of staff members who – and I’m not proud of this – used to gang up against some of the weaker-minded employees. However, I’m not sure our victims ever actually realised they were being bullied, since our tactics consisted of things like getting the projectionist to play Joan Fan Club by Skafish repeatedly on the audio system between screenings. Sample lyric: “You’re so fat, Fat fat fat fat, You’re grotesque, That’s why we make fun of you.”

When I first started working at the Screen, the film showing there was Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career. There are two things I remember about this: 1) This was the first time someone told me I looked like Judy Davis. I don’t see it, myself, but she’s fabulous so I’m not complaining. And there must be something in it since an American theatre impresario once came up to me in a London restaurant and said he’d just been watching me in a film with Clint Eastwood. 2) On the poster, it looks as though Judy Davis is eating Sam Neill’s bogey.

In 1980, the BBFC refused to grant a certificate for the uncut version of Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse, obliging the Screen on the Hill to temporarily become a cinema club in order to screen it under club conditions. Customers routinely asked for tickets to see Mattress or Matrix. Ralph Richardson came to see it, his motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm, and paid for his ticket by cheque. One of my co-workers (she’s not in these pictures, and I can’t remember her name) stole the cheque, for the autograph, and replaced it with her own cash. I have a feeling this might have been illegal, but my numbers still added up, so I didn’t remonstrate.

All photographs were taken by me, Anne Billson, or Tom Dawson. I scanned black and white negatives and colour transparencies with an Ion Film2 SD Pro scanner, with mixed results. If anyone knows of a better (preferably affordable) gizmo for digitalising negatives and slides, please let me know.

If you once worked at the Screen on the Hill, feature in one or more of these pictures and would prefer that it’s not made public, please don’t hesitate to contact me (either by leaving a message here, or on Facebook or Twitter), and I’ll remove it ASAP.


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JAPAN 1979

11 thoughts on “SCREEN ON THE HILL: PHOTOGRAPHS 1980-81

  1. Maggie looks fabulously gamine in that pic, if she’ll forgive me saying so. And you in the black frock/cardie combo is fab, very mid period Terence Donovan.

    (We can have a chat about film scanners if you like, but I’m not going to inflict it on you 😉 )

    • Alas, Maggie is no longer with us. But she was very stylish, and I’m sure she would have been tickled that you thought her “gamine”.

      I wouldn’t mind a leisurely scanner chat. This one is not great, but a bit of rudimentary research suggests that anything I can afford is not going to be a whole lot better at reproducing detail, dialling down the contrast et cetera. Exactly how much would I have to pay to get good results?

      • Well the output is not bad, it doesn’t give you a great level of manual control at the scanning stage only film/slide/monochrome and exposure up and down in preset amounts. And you will have played with those already.

        Let’s take a minute to decontruct the scanner.

        It is the guts of a cheap point and shoot camera and a light source in a fancy box with a slot you load slides into. It will auto adjust the exposure using whatever method, probably averaging across the whole image and not spot metering or anything clever so it will flatten out the image. Even if it did manage a decent image, that is then mangled by being compressed into a jpeg format to cram as many as possible on the SD card. (The advantage is that it is fast and cheap.)

        My personal next step would be to improvise something quick and cheap to see if is worth spending any money at all, or if it would be better to wait for technology to improve.

        (You bought a new camera recently but I can’t remember which, so I don’t know if this is possible out of the box.)

        In essense, tape a slide to a light box, camera on tripod in macro mode, shoot in RAW or highest quality available and see how they compare to the output from the scanner.

        (The light box could be improvised from a small piece of etched glass from a glazier, the sort that looks white; with a light souce behind it, (or at a push a couple of bits of a plastic milk bottle (if they exist in Belgium) stacked one atop the other). Just be careful of stray light bouncing off the front of the lens onto the slide and back into the camera, darkened room and mask off the light around the slide with some gaffer or card.)

        The point of all that flapping around is it gives you all the control that the camera will let you have to capture the best image. And control over the amount of compression applied.

        (if the standard macro doesn’t go that close, do you have a manual slide viewer, the handheld sort? put that on a table and zoom in on that with the camera, again stray light might be a problem but it just needs an improvised tent/duvet over the top to block out the light.)

        If they are better then there is a solution out there for about £60, BUT if you are going to correct each image manually it will take a loooong time to get through them all.

    • *giggle* Well you did say contrast was an issue.

      The zero beans way to compare scanner vs camera is to tape a piece of A4 to a bright window pane, tape a slide to that and take a few test images. (It’s not an exact test, but it’s a place to start.)

      If they are better then a basic copy stand and a simple decent quality light box for slides and negs will set you back about £40.

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  3. Hi,

    This is Cathy Crawford. I worked at the Screen on the Hill from 1981 to 1988, as usher, then later took over from Tom running the bar. I am guessing I am one of the weaker minded employees, and you are right, I never noticed being ridiculed, I am not even 100% sure I worked at the same time as you.

    I have many fond memories of the place. Probably different to yours, My husband Antoine Condino also worked there from 1983. He reminds me of the premiere of Blue Velvet, Isabella Rosselini and David Lynch turned up. Apparently staff were our usual pissy selves until he recognized them.

    One of my best memories of the Screen is the Dig Deep for the Miners benefit that Joe Kerr (also not included in the photos) organized. It was an amazing night with the auditorium filled with miners fighting Thatcher.

    I am a photographer who lives and works in NYC, I have old photos I took whilst working at The Screen on the Hill and studying Photography at London College of Printing of many of the staff of the Screens including the projectionists. Please let anyone know who might want to see them.

    Thanks Cathy Crawford

    PS Lovely to see Maggie looking so great, we had fallen out of touch in NY for many years before her death but had seen each other with Debbie not long before she died.

    • Hi Cathy, I’m not sure either that we worked at Screen on the Hill at the same time; I had definitely left long before Blue Velvet came out, because I interviewed David Lynch for Time Out (the interview is on this blog somewhere), so I must have been working as a freelance journalist for several years prior to that.

      In any case, you sound too smart and self-aware to have been a victim. I really only remember one young woman (I don’t think I ever took a photo of her) who would continually come out with statements like, “I’m so glad I’m a woman, because it means I don’t need to worry about things like that.” (She would have been referring to something like, I don’t know, changing a lightbulb.)

      But that’s no excuse, and I would like to apologise to that young woman, whoever and wherever she is now, even if she wasn’t aware of being the object of our scorn. Together with the time I made our music teacher cry by getting everyone in the class to replace the words of a German round song (“Glocken Glocken Glocken”) with “Dustbin dustbin dustin dustbin, dustbin diddle-i diddle-i pom”, this was the nearest in my life I’ve come to being a bully, and I’m not proud of it.

      Please do let me know if you ever post your photographs online, and I’ll run a link to them from this page.

  4. Hello again Anne,
    I just realised the weblink with the previous posting is incorrect, so if you’re able please delete it (and this explanation) and run with this amendment. Cheers Phil

    Hello Anne

    Deb’s Weinreb pointed you in my direction via Facebook.

    I’m Phil Grey, we worked together briefly at Screen on the Hill in 1981 after I started as a lowly usher in August. I did try and make contact with you about five years ago when I was gathering together ex-Screenies for a farewell party following the Everyman takeover. If you’re interested there are some photographs from that on my Flikr site:
    Unfortunately I was unable to track you or Richard and Tom down, who were really the only people I remembered from those really early days. As you can see I found Adrian Pope, but both Howard and Dave Ellis were going to come but for some reason didn’t turn up.

    Seeing all your fabulous photographs is like stepping into a time machine and makes me feel that I ought to trawl through my archives and scan in some of those 80s memories. Wonderful to see that mirored wall, all those stylish dressers and the playfulness that typified the working day.

    I continued to work at the SOTH until 2009 when it was rebranded and reopened as Everyman Belsize Park, initially as a cashier like you, and eventually in 1984 becoming one of the managers. I still have surprisingly clear memories of those crazy times in the early 80′s and like to think that the extraordinary sense of family that existed among the staff then continued throughout my tenure. While I tend to be in more regular contact with staff from the nineties and noughties, there are those from the early days that I still see from time to time.

    Like Cathy, I too am a photographer who worked at the Hill while completing my degree at the Polythechnic of Central London. Nowadays I teach photography rather more than taking photographs.

    I don’t know where to start with the memories. Undoubtedly one of the absolute highlights was David Lynch and Isobella Rossellini popping in unannounced and Lynch saying how he liked the feel of the cinema. Lauren Bacal stopping by for a drink and Spielberg and his rediculous entourage. But then there are also the couplings and the children that can be thought of existing largely because their parents met at the SOTH.

    Since sharing Deb’s FB posting earlier today I see that four past Screenies have already ‘liked’ it. Who could imagined this technology 35 years ago? Ironically I am having lunch with Romaine the day after tomorrow. I’m sure she’ll be fascinated by this and touched think that the spirit of the cinema continues to like on.

    Thank you for your wonderful posting Anne, and let me know if you’re interested in seeing any of the mountain of SOTH material I accumulated over the time I was there.

    • Hi Phil,

      Good to hear from you, and thanks for the link – I think the first one worked OK, but I removed it anyway, as advised.

      Only people I recognise from your photos are Romaine and Adrian! Though clearly the Screen has a lot of history before and after I worked there, which after all was only for just over a year.

      Please do give my regards to Romaine.

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