No outside food

 

The Coffee Cup café in London’s Hampstead has been in business since 1953, and has been very popular since I first remembered it in the early 1960s. I have visited it several times, but never before noticed the sign at its entrance, which reads: “Please do not bring food or drinks from outside into these premises.” This instruction is not seen frequently in restaurants and cafés in the UK. Seeing this sign reminded me of what is very common in eateries in India, namely, signs reading: “Outside food not allowed.” Customers are forbidden to bring into the estblishment food or drink they have obtained elsewhere. That is fair enough, I suppose.

Cinemas in India, like in many other countries, try to sell food and drink to their customers, often at outrageously high prices. Apparently, watching a film is for many people more enjoyable if you are stuffing popcorn into your mouth at the same time as spilling it on the floor in the dark.

Back in 2001, my family, my in-laws, and my wife’s brothers family went to watch the recently released Bollywood blockbuster Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at a large cinema in Bangalore (India). After purchasing the tickets, we had to wait in a queue before all of our baggage, shopping baskets, handbags etc., were searched by uniformed security personnel. I wondered what these officials were looking for. Was it guns or explosives, I asked my sister-in-law after we had reached the auditorium. No, it was not that, she replied. They were looking for food and drinks brought from outside the cinema. She told me that outside food was not allowed into the cinema, and then showed me inside her shopping basket, All I could see was a shawl (some cinemas are too cool because of air-conditioning). She moved the shawl aside to reveal that her bag was filled with sufficient drinks and snacks to easily satisfy all eight of us during the three and a half hour film. So much for the security check! Had we been carrying anything more dangerous than ‘outside food’, this would have also been missed by the not so vigilant security people.

It is odd how a chance sighting of something like the sign in the Coffee Cup can bring back distant memories.

A theatre resurrected…

Early in November 2018, I saw the opening performance of a new production of “Love Lies Bleeding” by Don de Lillo, which was premiered in 2005, at the Print Room in London’s Notting Hill Gate. The play deals with the question of euthanasia in a situation of a person with persistent vegetative state. The playwright deals with moral and other questions relating to this in a sensitive way. As with most Print Room productions I have seen, the acting was superb, at times gripping.

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The Print Room theatre began its life in 2010 in a converted printers’ warehouse in Hereford Road, close to Westbourne Grove. We attended several excellent performances there, seated on not very comfortable chairs. In summer the warehouse, which was poorly ventilated, could become very hot. I remember watching “The Kingdom of the Earth” by Tennessee Williams one hot May evening. The heat in the theatre complimented the seediness of the characters. A year or two ago, the Print Room shifted to the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate.

When I began living near this place, the Coronet was a cinema. It was the last cinema in London to permit smoking in the auditorium. Smokers had to sit in the balcony seats, not in the stalls below them. The cinema had two screens, the larger of which was in what looked like an Edwardian theatre. Indeed, the Coronet started life as a theatre when it was opened in late 1898 (see: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm).    It was designed by a theatre architect WGR Sprague (1863-1933). Eighteen years later, the theatre began to be used as a cinema. Many of its original features were retained. By 1923 it became a full-time cinema.

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In 1972, the Coronet was threatened with demolition. It was saved and made subject to conservation regulations following local residents’ successful protests. In 1993, when I first came to live close to the Coronet, the cinema looked run down but romantically picturesque. The local Kensington Temple Church bought the Coronet in 2004, planning to use it as a place of worship (as has happened with so many former cinemas in London). As a digression, it is interesting to note that cinemas in London have been converted to churches, whereas in Communist Albania the reverse was true during its period of official atheism.

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The Kensington Temple spruced up and restored the Coronet, but kept it running as a cinema. They used it occasionally as a place where their congregation could listen to preachers. Once on a Sunday morning I passed the Coronet, whose doors were open, and looked into the auditorium where a very enthusiastic clergyman was rousing his lively audience.

The Coronet cinema closed in 2014. It had been bought by the Print Room, which had shifted from Hereford Road. Thus, the Coronet became a theatre once more. The Print room have preserved many of the decorative features of the original theatre but have made some major internal modifications. A new stage has been built to cover the space where the original lower level stalls were once. This stage extends to the lower level of the raked seating that had formerly been the original theatre’s Dress Circle. The seats in this Circle have become the new auditorium. Although much has been done to preserve original features, the theatre has been decorated to give its walls a fashionable distressed appearance. The place reminds me a little of what I remember of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris when I saw it in the 1970s soon after the British director Peter Brook re-opened it.

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Although the theatre and its productions are wonderful, the bar must not be missed. It is located beneath the new stage in the space where once the stalls were located. Its concave floor reflects the raking of the seats that were once affixed to it. A grand piano serves as the bar where drinks are sold. The dimly lit bar is decorated quirkily with all manner of bric-a-brac, largely chosen by the staff and, no doubt, sourced from the nearby Portobello and Golborne markets. The bar is open an hour before and an hour after a performance. It is closed during performances because its ceiling is the theatre stage. Even if you cannot manage a play, a visit to the Coronet’s bar is a treat.

Bollywood in Albania

Films from India made in Bombay, the so-called Bollywood productions, are popular all over the world. When we visited post-Communist Albania in 2016, 31 years after the death of its long-time dictator Enver Hoxha, we encountered Albanian Bollywood fans in several places. The following three excerpts from my book “Rediscovering Albania” describe some incidences when we met local lovers of Bollywood.

In the northern town of Pukë:

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“Our shopping expedition continued in a tiny stationery/gift shop, where I bought a notebook. The sales lady wanted to know where we came from. When she learnt that Lopa came from India, she pointed at a small television set hidden under her counter. We saw that she was watching a Bollywood movie with Albanian subtitles. Every afternoon on Albanian television, there is an episode of a Bollywood TV soap opera. Those ‘in the know’ never ring ladies between certain hours in the afternoon so as not to disturb their enjoyment of this addictive show. The inter-continental cultural traffic is not one-way: in 2013, the Albanian actress Denisa Gokovi starred in a film (Phir Mulaquat Ho Na Ho) directed by the Indian Bobby Sheik.”

In the southern city of Korçë:

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“Weary and hot, we tried to retrace our steps back into the centre. Quite by chance, we began walking along a road that led straight to the Mirahorit mosque, which was closed when we arrived. However, some men were gathering outside it, and soon the imam arrived to unlock it for afternoon namaaz (prayers). They were all friendly and welcoming. While we were waiting, we were joined by a German lady, who was keen to see this mosque that dates back to 1496. Restored by a Turkish organisation in 2014, it was worth waiting to enter it. The interior was decorated with attractive frescoes depicting various mosques and Muslim pilgrimage places including the Kaaba.  One of the men who was waiting with us to enter the mosque asked Lopa where she was from. When she said India, he exclaimed “Rye Kapur”, that being his pronunciation of Raj Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood film star. As we had already discovered in Pukë, Bollywood is popular in Albania.”

In the large seaport of Vlorë:

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“This small building of great historic importance was dwarfed by huge cranes and ocean-going freighters in the nearby port area. Its windows had slatted wooden shutters, and there was a balcony projecting over its main entrance. It was from this balcony that Ismail Qemal read the declaration of Albania’s independence in 1912. Vlorë, which was invaded by the Italians in 1914, was the country’s first capital. In 1920, Tirana assumed this role.

We were guided around the museum, and shown photos, documents, and furniture, connected with the historic events that occurred around 1912. Driton kindly translated our lady guide’s interesting commentary into English. Sadly, we were not permitted to stand on the historic balcony because it has become too fragile. As we moved from room to room, I noticed that our guide was becoming more and more interested in Lopa, touching her occasionally. At the end of the tour, she told us that she loves watching the Bollywood films and soap-operas broadcast on Albanian television. It was a pity, she said, that Lopa had not been dressed in a sari. Lopa’s arrival in the museum had meant a great deal to her. It was as if one of the characters in the films, which she enjoyed watching, had stepped out of her television and into her museum. She said that Lopa was the first female Indian visitor to the museum since she began working there eleven years earlier.”  

Prior to 1991, Albanians would not have been able to watch Bollywood or even Hollywood productions. Under the dictatorship created by Enver Hoxha, which lasted from 1944 until late1990, the Albanian population was almost completely isolated from external influences. A few people watched Italian TV at their peril. If discovered, they would have risked dire punishment. Today, everything has changed; Albania is wide open to foreign culture.

 

REDISC ALB cover

REDISCOVERING ALBANIA by Adam Yamey is available from:

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The Red Balloon

The first film (movie) that I remember seeing was “The Red Balloon”. Directed by Albert Lamorisse (1922-70), a French film-maker, it was released in France in 1956, and then worldwide a year later, by which time I was five years old. After seeing the film, I was given a book with the story, which was illustrated by stills from the production.

Thinking back on it, the plot (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Balloon), written for children, is a little bit  too sad for young children. Nevertheless, the short film won awards all over the world.

 

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My parents were not frequent cinema-goers. However, they took me to see the film at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. This cinema, which still exists, was first a drill hall, then a theatre, and in 1933 it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films. I loved these. In those days, the cinema’s auditorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled gas.  Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. The Everyman is located in Holly Bush Lane, which is close to Hampstead Underground Station and is, I am told, now a very luxurious place. The seats are comfortable and have tables beside them, at which waiting staff serve food and drinks. This is a far cry from what I can remember of the rather basic cinema in the 1960s. Back in those days, the Everyman, like the now long-gone Academy cinemas in Oxford Street, favoured screenings of ‘arty’ films rather than the more popular films that most cinemas showed. My parents, who tended to avoid popular culture, probably selected the “Red Balloon”, an arty French film, because it was a little more recherché than the much more popular Disney films that appeared in the late 1950s.

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The “Red Balloon” kindled my love of cinema. For a long while I preferred ‘off-the-beaten-track films’ of the sort that were shown at the Everyman and on the three screens of the Academy. I used to enjoy slow-moving films like Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”, and Wim Wender’s “Kings of the Road.” Now, my taste in film has changed dramatically.

The change began in mid-1993, shortly before marrying my wife, who is from India. She took me to meet an Indian couple, who lived in south London. After feeding us a great lunch, we watched the Bollywood film “Sholay”, which was released in 1975. After seeing this, I could not get enough of Bollywood films. Also, my love for slower-paced European and American films diminished.

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What is it that attracts me to Bollywood films? First, they are colourful, lively, fast-paced, and filled with strong emotion, music and dancing: never a dull moment. They are also filled with meaning at various levels. There is the story, often complicated and ridiculously unlikely. Parts of the plot are often based on aspects of Hindu mythology. Then, the films often convey important moral or civic messages. For example, the 1977 film “Amar Akbar Anthony” is about inter-religious tolerance. More recently, the 2018 film “Padman” is about the importance of using disposable pads to promote women’s health.

I prefer to watch Bollywood films with subtitles, but great enjoyment can be gained without them. Many of the films have dialogue in Hindustani. However, many viewers in India have little or no understanding of this language. Therefore, the films are produced in such a way that much of the message of a film, maybe not the finer details, can be understood by people with no knowledge of Hindustani. In fact, Bollywood films are not only popular in India, but in many other countries of the world. Once some years ago, some Uzbek neighbours invited us for dinner. After serving us  a national dish, plov (like pilaff), they sat us in front of a television and played a DVD with a Bollywood film. They told us that this kind of film is very popular in Uzbekistan and, also, in most parts of the former Soviet Union.

Although I have come to love Bollywood films, I am not sure that they would have been to my parents’ taste. They never took me to see Disney films when I was too young to go alone. Had there been more ‘sophisticated’ children’s films like “The Red Balloon”, maybe I would have been taken to the cinema more often in my earliest years.

 

Image source: YouTube

Seeing John Travolta in Serbia

The film “Saturday Night Fever”, starring John Travolta, was released at the end of 1977. It reached the UK in 1978, the year that I first spent a lengthy holiday in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia. In this excerpt from my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, which is about Yugoslavia before its dismemberment in the 1990’s, I recalled some aspects of socialising in Belgrade. (The photos of Belgrade were taken in the late 1970s, early 1980s).

B2 BEOGR 82 Terazije with intourist

We spent every evening eating out in restaurants such as Vuk, Doboj, and Mornar, as well as visiting Mira’s friends. Her father was a diplomat, and many of her acquaintances were the children of members of the upper echelons of Yugoslav society. Almost all of them lived in spacious apartments, which made many middle-class British homes seem modest in comparison. My knowledge of the Serbo-Croatian language was almost non-existent during this first visit to Belgrade. Most of the people to whom I was introduced spoke English with varying degrees of competence; many of them were almost fluent. Naturally, most of the conversation was in their mother tongue. I listened quietly, imbibed the (often smoky) atmosphere, and sipped numerous glasses of almost neat vodka, which was my favourite alcoholic drink at that time.

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We used to return to Strahinjića Bana late at night or in the early hours of the morning. We often encountered the workers who were hosing clean the main streets long after most people had gone to bed. Sometimes, in jest, they aimed their powerful jets of water at our feet and made us dart out of their reach. Once or twice, I remember waking up the morning after an evening of particularly heavy vodka consumption and noticing that the surface of the skin of my limbs and digits were slightly numb. I know now that temporary paraesthesia of the skin is a common after-effect of this particular drink and is the cause of many deaths in Russia. When someone ‘sozzled’ with vodka lies down in the snow, they are unable to feel its coldness because of this anaesthetic effect of the drink, and they are literally chilled to death.

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Just before setting off for my first stay in Belgrade, I accompanied one of my numerous cousins to the cinema in London in order to watch the recently released film “Saturday Night Fever”. It was not a film that I would have chosen to see. In those days I preferred intellectual arty films, many of which were screened at the now long since demolished Academy Cinemas in Oxford Street. However, to my surprise, I enjoyed it. In Belgrade, Mira asked me whether I minded seeing “Saturday Night Fever”. Her cousin Ana, who was much younger than mine in London, wanted to see it, and she was taking her with Peter. Out of politeness, I did not say that I had already seen it in London; I agreed to join them. The cinema was of a design that I had not seen before. The seats were not raked, but the screen was placed high enough so that no one sitting in a seat behind another would have his or her view blocked. I saw the film again, but this time with Serbo-Croatian subtitles. It was not dubbed. Had it been, it might have been an even more amusing experience.

B1 BEOGR 82 Kalmegdan path

Once when visiting friends in Budapest in Hungary many years later, I watched a Benny Hill show dubbed into Hungarian, which greatly improved its entertainment value.

B5 PASS Crossings YU GR

After my first visit to Belgrade, I joined my parents in Greece for a driving holiday around the Peloponnese peninsula. Wherever we stopped, music from “Saturday Night Fever” was being played in the background. It was all the rage that summer. During our journey we stayed at a hotel in the southern town of Gytheion. The hotel’s restaurant had a gramophone, which was playing a rather slow, slightly mournful tune. Soon, I realised that it was a number from Saturday Night Fever. It was being played at the wrong speed, 33 rpm instead of 45! Nowadays, the film not only brings back happy memories of a trip to the Balkans …

 

Once upon a time in Yugoslavia

Scrabble with Slivovitz” by Adam Yamey is available as a paperback or Kindle from Amazon. The paperback is also obtainable via lulu.com, Barnes & Noble,  and Bookdepository.com