I’ve taken a break from recycling this week to offer a *BRAND NEW* blog, by special request of my friend Betty. This week’s blog, then, is a trip down memory lane, starting in my childhood and wending all the way up to the imminent arrival of my son, Ben. I will warn in advance, it’s a biggun today (oooer, missus, but then we are covering an awful lot of ground. Right, preamble done, who fancies coming with me to the pictures?
My local newspapers have been full of late with pictures of the abandoned and unsightly cinema that the good burghers of Tunbridge Wells have been moaning about for well over a decade now. The reason for this new spate of interest is that workman have recently moved onto the site to start stripping it of asbestos in what is the first stage of its eventual destruction and redevelopment. While most are rejoicing, I can’t help but feel a bittersweet sense of loss over the demise of a building that has been part of the local landscape since before I was born, and where I spent many a happy hour with a variety of friends and a fair collection of young ladies (and a few not so fair!) during my courtin’ an’ a’sparkin’ days…
Over the years the cinema had many names, from the grand sounding ‘Ritz’ to the workaday ABC, but to me it was always ‘The Essoldo’, which it was named before I was born and the name I remember from childhood, when I would go and watch films there on Boxing Day with my older brother and even older sister. I didn’t get to the cinema much when I was a child (we were VERY poor), but the boxing day ‘treat’ was one that all of my family were happy to chip in for, for the simple reason it got me and my brother out of the house for a few hours and gave everyone bar my poor press-ganged-into-baby-sitting sister a brief period of peace and quiet. I was a maniac at the time (they didn’t have names back then for the things I was struggling with, but that didn’t make it any less of a struggle), and my brother was a wind-up merchant who took great pleasure in lighting my blue touch-paper and retiring to a safe distance to watch the fireworks, so you can imagine what two days of cabin fever with a high-on-chocolate-and-sugar-mice me was like. They really needed that break.
To be honest I don’t remember much about the Essoldo from that period or the films I saw there – I had (and still often have) the attention span of a gnat, so details like architecture and furnishings went by-the-by –, but I do have vague recollections of miles of highly polished wood lining the red carpeted main entrance and a grand, sweeping staircase leading up to ‘The Gods’. It was a single screen cinema in those days, and those who couldn’t afford or didn’t want to watch the film from upstairs would file either side of the staircase and through a large set of double doors into the main auditorium.
To my child’s eyes the room seemed the size of the Albert Hall (my brother tells me there was a brief fashion for sneaking in Air Bombs and letting them off, which suggests either an impressive height to the ceiling or a total disregard for the laws of physics and the ‘ricochet effect’) and every bit as glamorous. Once inside, I would rush to find three seats in the Goldilocks Zone right in the middle of the front row, where the screen would fill every inch of our field of vision. I’d spend the next two hours fidgeting, farting, slurping Kia-Ora, lifting my seat up and down and generally annoying the hell out of everyone within a twenty foot radius (probably reducing my sis to tears of shame and embarrassment) while Technicolor Disney GIANTS paraded in front of me. If it was a film you liked you could stay and watch it again – and again and again – for the price of a single ticket, but for some reason my sis and bro always seemed reluctant to do this, no matter how much fun I was having running and leaping around in the ‘mosh pit’ on either side of the huge organ (ooer missus) located under the screen.
When the lights went down (I seem to remember them being mounted in the ceiling above and twinkling and dimming like stars, but suspect that is probably a memory my brain has borrowed from a more recent era to fill in the gaps) there would be an excited ‘ooooh…’ from the entire cinema, which would segue into catcalls, wolf-whistles and groans as the Pearl and Dean ‘pa-pah-pa-pah-pa-pah-pa-pah-pa-pa-pa’ theme kicked in and a popcorn snowstorm filled the air as those in The Gods bestowed their gifts upon those seated below. Popcorn, of course, was only one of the many gifts they might bestow, and consequently there were three or four rows of seats directly below the balcony that largely went completely unoccupied, regardless of how ‘big’ the movie might be. If you did happen to find yourself with nowhere else to sit it was advisable to put up a brolly and draw your knees up under your chin: the smaller the target the better, and watch out for low flying mivis after the interval.
Later, when the Essoldo was split into three separate screens, the Pearl & Dean ads came to acquire cult status on the strength of the local ads it presented. There was one for a local curry shop featuring a stack of still photographs of curries that, colour contrast wound up to max as was the food-advertising standard of the day (now, sadly, only ever seen in Kebab shops), looked remarkably like the kind of thing you might see squirting from the rear end of a cat with an upset stomach, which a glamorous blonde in a silver dress was offering on a fork to her dinner-suited companion. There were also shots of Lamb Kebabs on skewers which were lit in such a way that they looked like massive turds nestling in wicker basket lined with an expanse of white linen, and several of an Asian waiter who looked stereotypical and politically incorrect even then.
While the curry-shop shit fest was inspiringly awful the Big Gun in the Pearl & Dean arsenal was the ad for a local Gentleman’s Outfitters called ‘Stanford’s’. This featured two Jason King lookalikes (see image) dressed in pastel polyester flares and psychedelic frilly shirts admiring themselves like a couple of twittering gurlies from a Carry On film in a mirror. As they danced and twirled (I kid you not) to some hep tune or other the voiceover would fade in with the killer strapline ‘That’s the gear, maaaaaan, real cool and trendy…’ and the cinema would erupt with laughter. I don’t know whether the owner of Stanford’s just never went to the cinema, or whether he/she just had a good sense of humour and didn’t want to spoil everybody’s fun, but this ad ran for at least two decades. It was probably just about credible in the late sixties/early seventies, but I swear this was still on when I went to see Jurassic Park 2 there in 1997, just a couple of years before the Essoldo (by then the ABC) closed its doors for good. It may well be that Stanford’s had even closed by then and the ad was just run for ‘old time’s sake’ as a special treat for loyal patrons, or purely because the cinema had fallen on such hard times that they had no other ads to offer and it filled a gap in the schedule.
By the way, if anyone happens to have the Stanford’s ad sitting in a show reel tin in their attic I know a local blogger and part-time amateur historian who would do pretty much anything to get her mucky little hands on it. No names, no pack drill, but she’d probably be willing to let you see her Ladybits (though to be honest she lets anybody!), while her husband stood by taking commemorative photos.
One other very special feature of the ABC was its third cinema, which retrospectively seems even odder now than it did back then. It was, effectively, an afterthought added on when the cafe area of the expanded two-seater cinema proved commercially unviable, and was little larger than the sitting room of a housing association mid-terrace two up / two down. It was so small that it couldn’t even accommodate a projector, and the film had to be reflected through a strange sort of periscope device emerging from the top of a plinth at the back of the room, which just about provided enough focal length to fill a screen that was probably smaller than flatscreen you have bolted on your living room wall today.
Cinema three was the pits, the final resting place of blockbusters like Star Wars when the larger crowds had drifted away but the distributors still wanted their pound of flesh. It was also the ‘art cinema’, where anything with a bit of tit and bum in it would be screened for the dirty mac brigade. I don’t know if you can fairly describe ‘Emmanuelle’ or ‘Confessions of a Window Cleaner’ as art, but Sylvia Kristel and Robin Askwith were both regular headliners in cinema three, along with many a fine British character actor or actress whose career had slipped into decline, forcing them to earn a crust by adding a degree of credibility to what amounted to little more than wanking fodder for those too timid to buy a jazz mag from the local newsagent. Whether it was that or an unresolved damp problem I don’t know, but cinema 3 definitely had a certain fecund smell about it, too, that made non-pervs doubly reluctant to squelch down into its grubby little seats.
Talking of ‘art films’, I remember going to see a blockbuster in cinema one with one of my brothers and encountering a strange little pre movie ‘short’ called ‘Blue’. The story was, ostensibly, about a struggling artist who became obsessed with using the colour blue in his artworks, but blue was also a metaphor for the movie itself, which was in effect soft-core porn. From the opening scenes we were both aware that we knew the lead actor from somewhere, but for the lives of us we couldn’t remember where, because the images we were seeing on screen were so out of context from the usual setting we saw him in. Eventually the penny dropped, and it was while he was (to coin a phrase) nuts deep in a lovely young lady he was taking roughly from behind on a rather splintery looking kitchen table that I, putting on my very best Basil Brush voice, shouted ‘I Say, Mr Roy… BOOM! BOOM!’ I was very proud – it got a bigger laugh than the Stanford’s ad – and as the laughter died down I heard people all around me whispering ‘That’s who it is – of course…’ If you’re still alive and reading this, Mr North, thank you for giving myself and an entire cinema audience in Tunbridge Wells an evening to remember. I have no recollection of what the main feature was, but ‘Blue’ has remained with me to this day.
Blimey, I’ve just realised I’ve written over 1800 words which is a bit excessive even by my long-winded standards. There are, however, several other memories I’d like to squeeze in, so if you’ll indulge me a little further I will try to deal with them as heavily summarised bullet points.
- Sneaking in: The bogs had a fire exit in them and one of us would pay to get in and open the doors so another six could sneak in, Once in, you’d find an old ticket on the floor and chew it up, so that if the usherette asked you had ‘evidence’ (albeit unreadable evidence) that you had paid.
- Mr Lawrence on the door would walk the length of the queue down Mount Pleasant hill and warn you when you weren’t going to get in. The cut off zone was somewhere midway between the Newsagents and Gamley’s, and if you were standing in that block of people you would be silently praying as he walked towards you counting heads. He seemed to know everyone, and would always ask me how my brother or sister was. With hindsight I suspect this may have been a bluff, because he never named names, but at the time this pretty much insured that I was on my best behaviour (which, to be fair, was still pretty bad) lest I get a whack from one of my elder siblings when he grassed me up.
- When I was about twelve I used to take my niece (then about five) to ‘Looey the Lion’s Club’ on Saturday mornings. My brother, her dad, would give us the entrance money, bus fare and a few pence for sweets. Every week my niece would beg me to spend the bus fare on sweets (she was a bit of a piglet), but I wouldn’t as I didn’t trust her to walk all the way home. After many weeks (and I think she actually cried, so desperate was she for a packet of opal fruits) I relented, and within minutes, as the last opal fruit went into her mouth, she stopped dead in the middle of the street and said ‘I can’t walk any further’. We’d gone about a hundred yards… I tried everything, but couldn’t get her to move. I think she might have wet herself, which further complicated things. In the end I had to phone my brother – reverse charge from the callbox opposite the cinema – and get him to come and pick us up. I got a right bollocking (and probably a slap up the side of the head too) and Looey the Lion’s Club lost two regular members.
- I lost my virginity for the second time to a woman who was old enough to be my mother (long story, but technically accurate) after bumping into her on the steps of the ABC while queuing to see ‘The Song Remains the Same’ when I was sixteen. I hadn’t the courage to tell her I was (effectively) a virgin and she was largely unimpressed with my performance. I did, however get a consolation prize of the album ‘Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, which I borrowed but never got round to taking back after she broke my heart by not letting me have a second stab at it the next morning.
- The last film I ever went to see at the ABC was, as previously mentioned, Jurassic Park 2. My girlfriend was heavily pregnant with my son, Ben, who took exception to the tyrannosaur roaring on the screen and tried to kick his way out of her womb. During a pregnancy that was fraught with blood pressure problems and the threat of preeclampsia, together with concerns that the baby was ‘a bit quiet’ this was very reassuring, and though I missed the end of the film I have never held it against him. Hmmm… thinking about it again now, though, perhaps that sudden flurry of foetal activity wasn’t such a good thing after all. Who knows what the impact of such a shock might be to a developing foetus: perhaps Ben is the world’s first case of dinosaur-induced autism?
Right, I’ll stop there, having largely exorcised the ghost of cinemas gone along the way. Remember, though, people of Tunbridge Wells – especially you Johnny-come-latelies who think Tunbridge Wells is an affordable alternative to W11 and want to see it remodelled accordingly – that when the bulldozers move in it is MY memories they are rolling over, and those of many others who can’t hear the words ‘that’s the gear, maaan, real cool and trendy’ without smiling wistfully. It might be an eyesore now, but for those who remember its glory days that crappy building holds lots of happy memories.
Consider, too, that David Bowie’s mum and dad met in that very building (his mum was a waitress in the restaurant and his dad asked her out on a date while she was taking his order), and THAT particular encounter has a resonance that will echo through the annals of musical history long after whatever shop or eatery replacing the Essoldo has sold up and moved on…