A small cinematic survivor

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.

The kiss

SHE LAY ON A RUG on the well-trimmed lawn of the Ootacamund (Ooty) Golf Club, propped up by one of her elbows. Dressed in a colourful sari, her long black hair was partly hidden by a picnic box filled to the brim with fruit. There was a thermos flask and a cylindrical container for warm food next to and in line with the fruit filled box.

Soon, a bespectacled young man with well coiffured hair and dressed in a white shirt with brown trousers began crawling towards the lady’s feet. Then, he manoeuvred his body over her knees and towards her face. Then, just as he was about to kiss her, both of these figures lowered themselves so that their heads were hidden from view by the picnic box, the hot food storage and the thermos flask.

This amorous couple were neither alone nor unobserved. Apart from my wife and me, local women carrying unwieldy bundles of wood on their heads passed by. Also, the couple were surrounded by a large film crew with lights and cameras.

Soon after their heads disappeared from sight, they reappeared as the film director came running towards them. He talked to them and they repeated what we had just watched after a man with a clapperboard bearing the film name “Andaz” had stood close to them for a few seconds.

“Andaz”, a Bollywood film, was released in April 1994. By chance we had stumbled on this outdoor film shooting in January 1994 during our honeymoon, part of which was spent in Ooty.

In 1994, and certainly until quite recently, intimate displays of affection were not included in Bollywood and other Indian films. What we saw in rehearsal was one of many ways from which film audiences would be saved from seeing an intimate moment. At the moment the audience would expect the male actor was about to plant a kiss on the young lady, they disappear from sight behind the picnic items. Nowadays, the audiences in India get to watch the intimate moment, often in surprising detail for someone, like me, used to watching the older more prudish Bollywood productions.

Although my love of Bollywood films began around 1994, seeing this scene being shot only increased my affection for them. My addiction to Bollywood films began in 1993 when in London some Maharashtrian friends of my wife-to-be insisted that watching the Bollywood film “Sholay” (1975) was important for acclimatising me to the Indian milieu I was about to marry into.

Although many of the latest Bollywood films are extremely good, my preferences is for the older ones. Though often with very complex plots, they have, I believe, an enjoyable innocence that transports the audience temporarily away from the harsh realities of the world beyond the walls of the cinema. Many of the more recent films do the opposite: they remind the audience of the problems they are facing.

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.

 

BALLOON 1

 

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.

BALLOON 3

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.

BALLOON 2

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