DURING MY TWENTIES AND THIRTIES, I enjoyed slow moving, European ‘art house’ movies, in which little or nothing happened. Good examples of these included “Claire’s Knee” and “Kings of the Road”.
After marrying my Indian wife in 1993, my tastes in film changed radically. She introduced me to Bollywood films. These visually dazzling productions are brilliant. Most of them incorporate moral and political messages; romance; religion; adventure; tragedy; comedy; music and song; dancing; daredevil acts; and much more. As they are designed to be seen all over India by people who speak a wide variety of differing languages, they are produced in such a way that they can be followed by audiences who cannot understand even one word of Hindustani. In fact, because of this and their visual appeal, they are popular all over the world.
Recently, we saw the new Bollywood film PATHAAN in Bhuj. It is one of the most exciting action films I have ever seen; it makes James Bond films seem static in comparison. The audience in the Surmandir cinema screamed and yelled at every possible moment, especially when the principal male star Shah Rukh Khan appeared on the screen. Both the film and the audience were fun to experience. The film was so gripping that we left the cinema feeling exhausted.
OVER THE YEARS, many cinemas that were opened in the first half of the 20th century have either been closed or converted to be used for other purposes. A substantial number of them were built in the Art Deco style, which flourished in the 1920s and ‘30s. Some cinemas, such as the Ionic and the ABC in Golders Green and the Odeon in Temple Fortune, have been demolished. Others became bingo halls or meeting places for religious groups. The Coronet in Notting Hill Gate began life as a theatre, then became a cinema, and is now a theatre again. During a recent visit to Christchurch in Dorset, I saw a cinema, designed in the Art Deco style, which is still in business.
The Regent Cinema stands on Christchurch’s High Street. It is in pristine condition – a fine example of Art Deco architecture and internal design – it looks as if it has been built recently. Opened on Boxing Day 1931, it continued showing films until it closed in July 1973. After that, like so many other cinemas, it was operated by the Mecca company as a bingo hall and social club. This functioned until it closed in 1982. Late that year, the building was purchased by Christchurch Borough Council.
The local authority together with over 100 volunteers restored the Regent to its original Art Deco glory. In June 1983, the Regent Centre with its cinema were opened for use. Since then, the restoration of the cinema has continued and technological improvements have been made (e.g., digital cinema has been introduced). Very recently (in 2021) further work has been done to recreate the original cinema (e.g., the cinema’s seats, carpet and colour schemes, have been restored to their original appearance, and 35 mm projection has returned). Given all this loving care the cinema has received, it is no wonder that it looks like new. Now, it is mainly run by keen volunteers. It is very heartening to discover a cinema that has survived closure and repurposing and lived to return to being used for the purpose it was originally designed. On the Sunday morning that we visited it, we were unable to enter the auditorium because it was filled with children enjoying the screening of a film. However, the ticket office contains a good set of photographs of the restored cinema’s interior.
A COLOURFUL FABRIC artwork, a tapestry, by the artist Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) hangs on a wall overlooking the grand staircase at the Institut français (‘IF’) in London’s South Kensington. Born in Odessa (Russian Empire) as Sarah Elievna Shtern, she spent most of her working life in Paris (France) after having studied art in both Russia and Germany.
The stairs lead from the ground floor to the first. It is at this level that the IF’s main and biggest cinema, the Ciné Lumière 1, is located. This airy cinema has rows of comfortable seats each with enough legroom to satisfy even the tallest person. We had come (on the 3rd of September 2022) to watch a Spanish film called “Official Competition”, starring amongst others Penelope Cruz. Frankly, I found this much-hyped film dull, disappointing, and somewhat puerile. The plot revolves around filmmaking and competing egos. The audience is treated to too much philosophising (actually, navel contemplating) about acting and moviemaking, the content of which would be considered almost infantile by high school children. However, the cinema’s comfortable seating made watching the film almost bearable. In the past, we have seen far better films at the Lumière, to which we will return to see other films in the future.
Apart from the poor film, the visit to the IF was fun. It was great seeing the Delaunay and we enjoyed cool drinks in the pleasant Café Tangerine on the ground floor.
FROM THE STREET, the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill Gate does not look like much from the aesthetic viewpoint. However, although the box-like building containing the cinema is typical of unexciting 1960s architecture, the auditorium is a real treasure. Its beautifully decorated interior was converted in 1911 from a former Italian restaurant, which had been designed in 1861 by William Hancock. The ceiling is adorned with plaster mouldings depicting fruits and foliage. The dull exterior housing this lovely auditorium contains in addition to the cinema, the foyer, and offices. It was built in 1962 by the architects Douton and Hurst. Unlike the walls and ceiling, the seating in the cinema is modern and comfortable. One small problem is that there is not much of a rake so that if you are unlucky enough to have someone tall in front of your seat, your view of the screen might be obstructed if you do not lean to the left or right.
To celebrate the 1st of August (2022), we watched a prize-winning film made in Iran in 2021. Its title (in English) is “Hit the Road”, and it is a ‘road movie’. Its four main actors, who are the characters making a long journey across Iran, are superbly credible. Although it portrays the stunning landscapes of Iran beautifully, there is much more to it. Subtly and intelligently, it reveals how delicately the filmmakers view the sophisticated nature of Iranian life and culture. It is easy to make the mistake of viewing Iran solely as a menace and threat to western civilisation. This film and others that I have seen, which were made in Iran after the downfall of the Shah’s regime, might occasionally have aspects critical of the current status quo, but they also demonstrate that the great cultural heritage for which Persia has been known for many centuries persists today. “Hit the Road” does allude delicately at several problems that plague Iran today, but so gently are these allusions made that they were either missed or ignored by the censors in the country where the film was made.
“Hit the Road” should not be missed. If you are in London, why not see it at the Gate, and before the lights dim enjoy the well-conserved early 20th century décor of the auditorium.
IN THE LATE 1930s, my mother studied commercial art at the Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town (South Africa). One of her earliest jobs after leaving college was hand-painting posters advertising cinema films. Many years later, long after her death, I began visiting India and have been making regular visits there since January 1994. During the first few years of making trips to India, I used to notice the huge hand-painted cinema posters both in and out of towns. I recall seeing men perched on precarious looking bamboo scaffolding painting these enormous images. To someone, like myself, used to seeing printed cinema posters, seeing these men in action was an eye-opener.
A few years ago, I was walking near Shepherds Bush in west London when I saw a group of men colouring in details of a poster beneath a railway bridge. Like the painters in India, their scaffolding also looked slightly precarious, given the current preoccupation with health and safety in this country.
These memories of hand-painted posters came to mind a couple of days ago (late July 2002) while we were walking towards Lower Marsh (near Waterloo Station) from the Young Vic Theatre, where we had just watched a poorly acted, and badly written play called “Chasing Hares”. We spotted two ladies perched on a very adequate scaffolding device painting a colourful mural on a large expanse of brick wall above the Cubana Restaurant. It was good to see that in an age where machine produced images are common (and have largely replaced hand-painted adverts in India), traditional methods are still being used to create large images for attracting the public.
MUSEUMS OFTEN CONTAIN interesting surprises for visitors. The small museum in Burnham on Crouch (in Essex) is no exception. It amused me to see that amongst the exhibits there were several early examples of so-called pocket calculators – too large to fit most pockets. I was given one of these (made by Casio) in about 1974, and at the time this was a wonderful gift as well as being a useful tool. I was able to replace my slide-rule with my Casio. These calculators, along with other things that were regarded as being ‘the latest thing’ in the 1960’s and ‘70s, were not what surprised me most at the museum. Hanging on the wall of one side of a staircase, there was a huge piece of cloth with advertisements printed on it. It is part of the fire safety curtain that was used in the local cinema, The Rio (see: https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/11/13/a-small-cinematic-survivor/) , in the 1930s.
Fire curtains are usually made of metal or heavy materials containing asbestos (or some other fire retardant). They are designed to be lowered (often automatically) should a fire break out on the stage of a theatre or cinema in order to prevent the fire spreading to the auditorium. In 1613, a cannon misfired on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, causing the thatch on the building’s roof to catch fire; the theatre was destroyed. There were no fire curtains in those days.
The first fire curtain (it was made of iron) to be installed in the UK was in 1794 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. A large fire at the Theatre Royal in Exeter in 1887 led to the wider use fire curtains in British theatres, and later in cinemas. However, these safety devices were not infallible. A fire that began on the stage of the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago (USA) led to the deaths of about 575 people when the fire safety curtain snagged and could not be fully lowered. This led to the invention of an improved automatic fire curtain by John Clancy a year later in 1904.
Fire curtains, which must be lowered at least once during every performance in the UK can be plain or decorated. Plain fire curtains, when lowered, can serve as screens on to which advertisements are projected. The example at the museum in Burnham has advertisements printed or painted on it. Local businesses paid the cinema to have their adverts printed on the curtain that hung in the Rio during the 1930s. The Treasurer of the museum explained that of the many Burnham firms, who placed adverts on the fire curtain, only one of them is still in business. Thus, the old fire curtain (or at least the half of it that is in the museum) not only protected Burnham’s cinemagoers from burning but also serves as a valuable record of the town as it was almost 100 years ago.
SOUTHALL LIES NOT far from Heathrow Airport. Despite its architecture being mostly typical of dull London suburbs that developed between the two World Wars, it is far from being a run-of-the mill west London suburb. Recently, in March 2022, we visited Southall after several years since we last went there.
The centre of what was once the tiny village of Southall is about 1.7 miles north of Osterley Park house. The manor of Southall was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 14th century. Separated by countryside from its neighbours, it lay on the road from London to Uxbridge and Oxford. It was only in the 1870s that the village began expanding southwards to the Great Western Railway line. Today, the place has been fully incorporated into London and retains little or nothing of its former rustic nature.
On arriving by train at Southall station, the observant traveller will notice that the station name signs are bilingual; they are in both Latin and Punjabi scripts. Southall is sometimes aptly referred to as ‘Chota Punjab’ (Little Punjab). The three Punjabi brothers, Charan Singh Bilga, Jagar Singh Bilga, and Lave Singh Bilga, began living in Southall in 1938. They were followed by Pritam Singh Sangha, who opened a shop in Southall in 1954, having arrived in the area in 1951. His shop was then the only shop in west London, if not in the whole of the metropolis, purveying Indian provisions. Pritam Singh Sangha in partnership with his friend and business associate, Jarnail Singh Hura (also known as “Ghura”), established the first known business in Southall and Fakir Singh purchased numerous houses which he rented out to his countrymen.”
Vivek Chaudhary, writing in the Guardian in April 2018, recorded:
“By the time my own father arrived in 1960, local authority records show that there were approximately 1,000 Punjabis living in Southall, nearly all men. He would joke that one of the reasons why they settled here was because of its proximity to Heathrow airport, only three miles away, and “if the gooras [whites] ever kicked us out, it would be easy to get on a plane and return home”. It was a light-hearted reference to the uncertainty that was generated by the chronic racism of the time. It was the R Woolf rubber factory in neighbouring Hayes that attracted Punjabis to Southall – the general manager had served with Sikh soldiers during the second world war and was only too happy to recruit them…”
“Punjab was partitioned by the British in 1947; part of it fell within Pakistan with the remainder in India. Punjabis can be Sikh, Hindu or Muslim, and while all three demographics settled in this outpost of west London, it was the Sikhs who came in the largest numbers and gave Southall its distinct identity.”
Chaudhary mentioned that at the time he wrote his article, although at one stage Southall’s population was 70% Punjabi, this has decreased to about 50% and the descendants of many of the original settlers:
“…have prospered and moved to wealthier pastures, replaced by new communities from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia. At its heart, though, this corner of west London remains an indelibly Punjabi town.”
And so, it is. Southall is like the Punjab and other places in India or Pakistan, but with the often-dull English weather and rather pedestrian suburban architecture. The main streets, South Road and the Broadway (Uxbridge Road), are lined with shops, small bazaars consisting of several tiny shops, and eateries. Judging by the profusion of colourful, often glittering, Indian (and Pakistani) style party clothing on sale, one might be excused for thinking that the people of Southall do nothing apart from attending ‘glitzy’ weddings. If you wish to sample shopping as it is in India without leaving the country, then Southall is the place to do it in London. It seemed to my wife and me that the quality of the clothing on sale was high, better than much that is available in India. A Sikh salesman explained that what is on sale in Southall is made in India but unlike what is on sale over there, this is export quality.
One building is worthy of special mention in Southall, apart from the area’s gold-coloured domed Sikh gurdwaras. This is the former Himalaya Palace cinema. Built in 1929, it is unique in Britain in that its façade is in the form of a Chinese Temple. It has a pagoda roof which is flanked by dragons. It used to screen films from India’s Bollywood studios until it closed in 2010. It has now become an indoor market called Palace Shopping Centre. Fortunately, the building is protected by a preservation order and the façade is likely to remain a wonderful landmark in the foreseeable future. Not far away in a less distinguished building is another mall, the Himalaya Shopping Centre. Entering these malls, and the others in Southall, is like stepping into a typical indoor shopping bazaar anywhere in India. The air in these Southall shopping centres has the special fragrantly perfumed odour I associate with India.
Near the former cinema, stands the former Southall Town Hall, which was constructed in 1898. On its wall, there are commemorative three plaques placed by an anti-racism group called Southall Resists 40. They are dedicated to Gurdip Singh Chaggar, who was killed in 1976; Blair Peach who was killed in 1979; and ‘Misty in Roots & People Unite Musicians Cooperative’. Each of the three bears the words “Unity against Racism”.
THE COUNTY OF Essex is traversed by numerous rivers (http://essexrivershub.org.uk/), one of which is the Crouch. This lies south of the Blackwater and north of the Thames. The small town of Burnham-on-Crouch with its picturesque river front and much-favoured by yacht owners lies on the north bank of the estuary of the Crouch, about five miles from the North Sea. So near London, the town feels so far away from the metropolis – another world. Once home to several boat-building yards and various factories, Burnham appears to have become a centre for leisure activities. If you are staying in the town and have had your fill of pubs, cafés, and bistros, there is also a small cinema that shows the latest films.
The Rio cinema, despite its name, is not on the river front, but not far from it. Its decorative façade and foyer are backed by a shed like building with a corrugated iron roof, which contains the auditorium and screen, which I was not able to enter as we visited Burnham one early morning. The cinema has a long history (http://burnhamrio.co.uk/history.php), which I will summarise.
Burnham’s first cinema, The Electric, opened in 1910, making Burnham-on-Crouch one of the first towns in England to have a cinema. In 1931, this ran into problems when a rival, a purpose-built cinema, The Princess, was opened. The Electric closed and the larger Princess thrived. In the late 1960s, its name was changed to its present one, The Rio.
Burnham-on-Crouch is one of the towns and villages in the Dengie Peninsula, which until quite recently was a relatively impoverished part of Essex. During The Great Depression when money was scarce and people lived literally ‘from hand to mouth’, they had little or no money to buy cinema tickets. In those difficult times, the cinema was prepared to accept goods instead of money for tickets. The history relates:
“A Jam Jar would get you admission for the Saturday morning picture shows. Something as uncommon as an orange would admit a whole family midweek…”
Things have changed in the Dengie Peninsula. Today, many of its inhabitants and visitors are:
“… fat merchant bankers, Hooray Henrys, Minor Celebs and eastern Europe nouveau rich.”
The Rio was one of the last cinemas in England to have a gas-powered emergency lighting system. Reading this reminded me of my visits to The Everyman Cinema in Hampstead during the 1960s. I saw many films there. My enduring memory of the auditorium was that it always smelled of leaking gas. I now wonder whether The Everyman, like The Rio, also had a gas-powered backup lighting system.
The Rio in Burnham has survived two of its rivals, The Flicks in nearby South Woodham Ferrers and The Empire in Maldon, also not far away. The latter, which was housed in an Art Deco building, has sadly been demolished. The Rio’s website makes it clear that the 280 seat cinema is not in the Art Deco style. I am not quite sure which architectural style, if any, can lay claim to it. However, next time we visit Burnham, we will make sure that we watch a screening at the long-lived Rio.