1. Going back
One afternoon in the autumn of 1933 the writer J. B. Priestley drove north from Manchester towards Preston and Blackpool. Priestley was then England’s most successful young novelist. Not yet forty, with five novels and the international success of The Good Companions behind him, he had decided as many novelists do to take a break from his desk and forsake fiction for a bit and become an enquiring traveller, so that (in this case) he might describe the condition of England. The book that he made from the experience is called English Journey and in it he wrote of that particular afternoon’s travels in Lancashire: ‘We went through Bolton. Between Manchester and Bolton the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there.’
What did he mean by ‘ugliness’? The answer from my own memory suggests that what Priestley saw was: two dark rivers, the Irwell and its tributary the Croal, their surfaces crowded with little icebergs of industrial foam; a railway line and an abandoned canal along the valley; a power station and various bleach works, chemical factories and sewage beds beside the rivers; a coal mine or two on the valley’s western edge; many cotton mills, some five storeys high, with even taller chimneys; streets of small Victorian houses with doors that opened straight on to the pavement; meat-pie, fish-and-chip and tripe shops; a few people who still wore clogs; smoke.
My father moved from Scotland to the centre of this landscape in 1930. He was a fitter, a mechanic, and he’d found a job in a Farnworth textile factory that made canvas belting and hose pipes. Unemployment was severe in Scotland at the time, though in Lancashire it was hardly much better (‘We were going through the country of the dole,’ Priestley wrote). He lived in digs for some months, and then returned to Fife for his wedding—Christmas Day, 1930, when the minister came to the bride’s house for the ceremony. Husband and wife were back in Farnworth by the turn of the year. Had Priestley gone by train rather than by car, he might have looked out of the window at Farnworth and seen their first proper home, 139 Cemetery Road. The street ran over the railway and down the hill towards an old brickworks, the black junction of the Croal and the Irwell, the disused canal—and the cemetery. Their house was one of the last in a terrace which came just before you reached the cemetery’s entrance lodge and the monumental home of the dead. Later, when they moved away, my parents used to speak wryly of this location.
Unless it was a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon, Priestley would not have seen my father, who would be repairing looms or crankshafts inside the weaving sheds of George Banham and Co. But he might have seen my mother, as one of the thousands of things that cross the eye’s threshold every day, most of them ignored and lost to mind and memory. The eye may be a lens, but the mind, with its random fixative, is not a film. A crowd, a face; he might have seen her from his car as it bumped across the tram lines on Market Street or Manchester Road, a twenty-six-year-old woman of fair Scottish complexion, out shopping for that night’s tea. In the autumn of 1933, she would be ‘getting over’ the death that spring of her first son, George, aged ten months, and seized with the happiness that she was pregnant again (and with another son, though she was yet to know that).
All four of her and my father’s sons were born there, in this complete, almost exhilarating ugliness. Two of us survive. Earlier this year, in March 2004, my elder brother Harry and I got off the train at Farnworth, a place we left in 1952. What did we look like? Like a man of fifty-nine and man of seventy, greying or grey, a little lost, walking up the slope from the empty platform and into empty streets, looking for things that were no longer there. We might as well have been the ghosts of old Trojans, coming back a thousand years later to walk on the soil that buried old Troy. Our childhoods had been here somewhere.
Harry, as usual, pulled out the maps. He loves maps, he used to draw them for a living, and he rarely travels without them. Here was Cemetery Road, now crossed by the Manchester to Bolton expressway. Here was Railway Street, where he remembered Sally O’Lalley the abortionist (truly, a back-street abortionist) had lived. We found the steps that had once led to Banham’s factory and the house in Lime Street that was once home to Nurse Grant: Nurse Grant, the town’s ‘nitty nurse’, who combed children’s hair for lice, Scottish, from Grantown on Spey, a family friend, her friendship enshrined in my parents’ gift of ‘Grant’ as my middle name. What do I remember of her? That she had long hairs above her upper lip and lived with another old woman, Mrs Haydock, plump and black-shawled and infirm, who never stirred from her chair beside the fire.
How small this world had been, and how convenient. The factory, the railway station, Nurse Grant, the pub, the market, Mum and Dad’s house—all only a few minutes’ walk from each other. Not much of this survived. The factory and the pub had gone, the station buildings had been demolished, many streets of straight terraces had been replaced by new houses and gardens built in less regular and more spacious layouts. It was no longer a dense Lowry townscape, but it was not country or a suburb either. Really, the only way to look at it was as an ex-town, a place shorn of its dynamic ugliness, but also of its newspaper (the Farnworth Journal), its school (Farnworth Grammar), its five cinemas (the Ritz, the Savoy, the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Palace). Cotton-spinning in more than thirty mills had made all this possible. Cotton was no longer spun here, or anywhere else in Lancashire. Farnworth had become a place of absences.
Harry looked at the map again. Where the devil was Peel Street? Where was our first cinema, the Ritz?
2. The Ritz
My father first visited the Ritz in 1930, my brother in 1938 or 1939 (to see the Three Stooges in Back To The Woods!), myself in the late 1940s. Had any of us of heard of Cesar Ritz and his grand hotels when we first went through its doors? No, of course not, and not for a long time after. Cinema names seemed independent of any history. They may have been intended to suggest luxury, romance, good birth and breeding, foreign parts, ancient history, and therefore to be fitting vehicles for the films shown inside them; escapist images within escapist architecture. But how many among their audiences could have connected the Hippodrome to horse racing in ancient Greece, or the Rialto to Venice, the Alhambra, Granada and Toledo to Spain, the Lido to Mediterranean bathing, the Colosseum to Rome, the Savoy to the Strand, the Odeon to Paris, the Regal to majestic behaviour? Not me, certainly. Before they were anything else, they were the names of cinemas. Cinemas were what they described.
When my father came to Farnworth, the Ritz had been known by that name for only three years. Before 1927, it was the Queen’s Theatre, a Victorian palace of varieties which continued as a venue for live stage acts after its screen was installed, films one week and hoofers the next. It was in this way that my father encountered the Glen Louise Girls, who were appearing at the Ritz in a variety bill which also included a snake charmer and The Three Aberdonians (‘Too Mean To Tell You What They Do!’). The troupe and my father stayed in the same lodgings at a Mrs Walker’s in Church Road. He was a twenty-eight-year-old bachelor; the situation might have been fun—just as it is in The Good Companions, when the working-class hero of Priestley’s novel falls in with a group of touring theatricals, the eponymous Good Companions, and his view of life is thrillingly challenged and expanded. That didn’t seem to have happened to my father. Many years later he would sometimes entertain us with stories of late-night card playing, of the surprise of discovering sloughed snake skins inside sideboard drawers, of actors who turned up unexpectedly from late-night trains and were found the next morning bedded down in the bath. But at the time he must have wearied of it, because quite soon he moved on to less chaotic lodgings. He was, after all, a man who needed to rise early to get off to the factory and his chisels and files, unlike Glen and her girls and The Three Aberdonians, and their evening shifts at the Ritz.
Glen must have liked my father, though, because she gave him or sent him half a dozen postcards of herself and her girls, and he must have liked her, because he kept them. She wrote on each of them—’to our Scoty’ or ‘Choose your girl, Jack!’ or ‘Stand easy deary. To Harry. From Glen.’ (In the picture she is the one with the modern legs on the right.)
‘What do you reckon Mum made of those cards?’ I said to Harry as we turned into the bit of Peel Street that survived.
‘We’ll never know now,’ Harry said. ‘But she might have thought it was a funny business.’
Of course, the Ritz wasn’t there. At first we thought it must have occupied a gap site next to the Farnworth Christian Spiritualist Church, and then Harry looked at the map again and decided no, it had been further down the street where there were some new houses and a parking bay. He remembered the building had a glazed red-brick exterior and a sign with the letters R I T Z arranged vertically, one below the other. Later, at our hotel in Bolton, he took out a notebook and did a quick little sketch of the Ritz’s proscenium arch, together with sketches of Farnworth’s four other cinemas.
What did he see at the Ritz? ‘The Wizard of Oz, Bambi, and The Four Feathers twice in one week—or maybe more than three times if you add on the bits we sat through again.’ The cheap benefits of the ‘continuous programme’ over the separate performance. What had I seen here? Captain Kidd (Charles Laughton and Randolph Scott, 1945), Oh, Mr Porter! (Will Hay, 1937), Annie Get Your Gun (Betty Hutton, Howard Keel, 1950). From each I remember one scene. From Captain Kidd, a sailing ship becalmed; from Oh, Mr Porter! some washing hung over a railway line and getting entangled with a train; from Annie Get Your Gun, either a silver gun or a piece of bright jewellery on a bed of dark velvet—and a song about there being ‘no business like show business’, whatever that was. Mum took me to see the last one in the afternoon. It was bright when we came out—sunshine bright, a different kind of brightness from the film.
3. The Savoy
A British audience saw a moving picture for the first time in 1896. Early shows were in fairgrounds, music halls, shops, railway arches, anywhere that a projector and a white sheet could be set up and chairs arranged. Fires were a problem; nitrate film was highly combustible. In 1909, Parliament passed the Cinematograph Act which imposed fire safety regulations on venues. That was the real beginning of the purpose-built cinema and the architecture of escape. By 1914, London alone had 400 cinemas. By 1927, twenty million cinema tickets were sold every week. By 1940, there were 4.2 million cinema seats. By 1946, nearly one out of every seven British adults went to the cinema twice a week or more. Then, between 1945 and 1960, cinema admissions fell by more than two thirds, and a third of the 1945 total of 4,700 cinemas closed. An article by Sue Harper and Vincent Porter in the Journal of Popular British Cinema (volume two, 1999) refines some of these statistics by gender and class. In 1946, sixty-two per cent of the adult audience had been women. By 1960, they were only forty-seven per cent. The number of sixteen to twenty-four year olds in the audience doubled between 1946 and 1950. In 1939, the skilled working class and the classes below comprised sixty-nine per cent of the audience. By 1954, that proportion had risen to eighty-two per cent. That was a peak year for the cinema as a British working-class entertainment. Television culled audiences thereafter, though our family didn’t get one until 1961 and so ‘the pictures’ remained a big part of our lives for longer.
We were, in any case, cinephiles. Dad was born in a small Scottish town in 1902, seven years, after the Lumière brothers showed their first film in Paris and six years after they brought their box of tricks to Britain. He watched his first moving pictures, one reelers, on screens set up in public halls before the First World War. He loved Chaplin—had anyone ever been so funny?—and Douglas Fairbanks (Snr) and Pearl White. Later, during my childhood, historical pictures were his thing: Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Robe, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, The Vikings. Not musicals—perhaps this was why Mum snuck me into Annie Get Your Gun on her own. Not comedies, unless by visual comedians who had perfected their acts on stage (Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and, for a brief time, Norman Wisdom). As a late child, I had missed his middle period. Harry said: ‘I think Dad’s taste in films remained in the silent era. The first talkies he saw were just all static-camera yak-yak-yak. I think that must have been an awful let-down after some of those well-made, so-called artistic silents. He had his favourite performers though—Paul Muni, Claude Rains, Will Rogers, Wallace Beery, Charles Laughton, Will Hay, Will Fyffe.’ All men and too many Wills, though I remembered a coloured print of Greta Garbo he’d carefully preserved in his keepsake book, whereas the Glen Louise Girls seemed less well regarded and were kept in a shoebox.
Harry and I had turned out of Peel Street and were now walking down Market Street, which becomes Manchester Road. He was remembering things. He has a beautiful memory—photographic is the only word. Here was where the trams turned, here was the ice cream shop, here the site of the hoarding that used to say britain’s bread hangs by lancashire’s thread and for a secure future, join the palestine police.
I thought about how much I owed him in terms of films and books when I was in my early teens and he in his twenties and we were living back again in Scotland, when Lancashire (in my case, though not in his) was no more than a smudge on the horizon behind me. Teaching himself about the cinema, he bought little blue Pelican paperbacks—Roger Manvell’s Film, Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now—and I would look at their black-and-white stills from Intolerance, Battleship Potemkin, Drifters, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. We shared a small bedroom. Lying late in bed on a Saturday or a Sunday morning, he’d tell me the stories of the films he’d seen at screenings by the local film society or in stop-gap bills at remote suburban cinemas or on trips to London. If you lived in Fife in 1958, to see Eisenstein or Renoir or All Quiet on the Western Front took character and strength of will.
‘And then [my brother might say] you see the meat that the crew have to eat and it’s crawling with maggots… And then the Cossack brings his sabre down and this old woman’s glasses are smashed and there’s blood in her eyes… And then he reaches out to catch this butterfly and you hear a shot and he’s dead… And then Mister Hulot tries to play tennis like he thinks he was taught in the shop.’ And then, and then.
Now we were in a street called Long Causeway and facing the Savoy, once the Ritz’s rival as Farnworth’s most superior picture house and now a ‘Nine Ball Pool and Snooker Centre’ with a Stars and Stripes painted on its sign. It looked like a 1920s building; high on its red-brick facade was a series of porthole windows. What did I see here? I think Oliver Twist (Alec Guinness controversially as Fagin, 1948). What do I remember of it? Only the first scene, as Oliver’s mother struggles to the workhouse, and then not for her but for the storm and the bending trees, which were frightening. In fact I remember more of the cinema itself than any film I saw there: the orange light behind its translucent curtains, fading before the curtains drew apart; and the art deco rising sun above the screen. Whenever I see or hear the word Savoy, I think of the colour orange, and not of the hotel or the province in France.
My brother saw many, many films at the Savoy. One in particular was the Arabian Nights (Jon Hall, Sabu, Maria Montez, 1942). He saw it on the night of Monday, August 2, 1943, with Mum and Dad and our brother Gordon, two years before I was born. Gordon was seven and Harry nine. The war was on, but the family seemed settled. Mum, Dad, two little boys, a decent house with a bathroom and three bedrooms, a big garden with an air-raid shelter, a tandem equipped with sidecar so that all four of them could cycle off to the country on a Sunday, down quiet roads emptied of cars by petrol-rationing. Little George’s death had, as it were, been conquered.
After the performance that night, Gordon said that the Arabian Nights was the best picture he’d ever seen.
Now, outside the Savoy, this was too sad to talk about.
Harry pointed out the Sundeck Tanning Studio and said it used to be a shop that sold foreign stamps to schoolboy collectors, and jokes—joke dog turds, for instance, which could be put on a salad plate and cause domestic consternation, though only once (‘Oh not that thing again, Harry, please!’). Then we turned right and began to walk down Albert Road. It was dusk. Occasionally the great square bulk of an abandoned mill stuck up above the houses and stood in silhouette against the sky. Down Kildare Street we saw one that still had its chimney attached. ‘The Century Mill,’ Harry said. ‘Ring-spinning, whatever that was’—not needing to add that Dad would have known. That everybody in Farnworth would have known, once.
4. The Empire
It was difficult to find the exact site of the Empire, a cinema which had been cheaply converted from a tram depot. The story was that the tram rails still existed under the carpet in the front of the stalls. According to the Kinematograph Year Book for 1940, it was the cheapest cinema in Farnworth with a top price of ninepence. ‘Cowboy films and a bit of a bug-house,’ Harry said. I remembered the story of the last words of George V, or possibly Edward VII, and the debate over whether he said ‘How goes the Empire?’ or ‘What’s on at the Empire?’ We walked on past the municipal park and thought of having a drink in a pub we both remembered called the Shakespeare, but it was shut.
5. The Hippodrome
At last, the Hippodrome. At the corner of Egerton and Cawdor streets we discovered a level rectangle of concrete where the Hippodrome had once been—perfectly level, perfectly matching the cinema’s boundaries, as though it were a kind of minimalist monument to the cinema-going habit, the tomb of the unknown audience. We went inside—that is, we left the pavement and walked over the concrete—and Harry began to describe what had been here. ‘We’re going down the aisle now,’ he said. ‘Up there on the ceiling’—he pointed at the sky—’there was a big disc of naked light bulbs, which dimmed before the start of the show. The ones at the centre of the disc dimmed first, and we looked out for that, and when it happened a big cheer would go up.’ He was remembering himself as a child among an audience of children. ‘Some kids would ask the manager, “Is the Three Stooges on, Mister?” and the manager would say, “Wait and see, wait and see.'”
We paced around the square of concrete for another few minutes. The Hippodrome had been our local. Towards the end of 1933 our parents had moved across town, exchanging Cemetery Road for a council house on a new estate where all the streets were named after flowers: Lupin, Begonia, Pansy, Daffodil, and in our case Iris and then Lily avenues. The Hippodrome had matinees, and queues for matinees, and this is where both of us had seen Curly, Larry and Moe do cruel things to each other and never come to harm. On a Saturday morning we would sometimes walk to it, my hand in his, I imagine, across the playing fields and then between the twin smoking chimneys of Bolton Textile Mills, Numbers One and Two.
By now it was dark. Harry said: ‘Farnworth never amounted to very much and now it amounts to nothing at all.’ We found a minicab and asked the driver to take us to Bolton. ‘You gents have been on a sort of sentimental journey then?’ the driver said.
6. Arabian Nights
Why, among so many inexact memories, am I so certain that the family of which I was not yet then a part saw the Arabian Nights on Monday, August 2, 1943? My father wrote the date down, not in a diary and not at the time, but in October that year and in his keepsake book. Looking at his writing now, in the purple ink of a fountain pen, I understand what he was trying to do. To record, obviously, but also to restore and bring to life, as a writer might doodle the name of some absent lover, as the next best thing to the lover’s presence in the room.
Monday 2nd August 1943. Went to ‘Savoy’ and saw ‘Arabian Nights’. Gordon told his Mummy it was the ‘Best’ picture he’d ever seen. I took his hand up Kildare Street on the way home. He was exceptionally cheerful and lively.
Tuesday 3rd August. Both complained of being ill. Gordon slipped back upstairs to bed but Harry went to school. He came home at dinner [lunch] time and went to bed. Gordon was very hot at night.
And then, and then. Events move quickly. On August 4, his glands begin to swell. On August 5, Dr Tinto comes and suspects diphtheria and an ambulance takes both boys to hospital. On August 7, Gordon looks worse. On August 14, Gordon says he feels better. On August 15, he is very low. On August 16, at 12.15 a.m. in Hulton Lane Hospital, Bolton, he dies.
On October 11, my father writes: ‘Life is very hard.’ On October 27, he writes: ‘For the loving worm within its clod/Were diviner than a loveless God.’ On Christmas Eve, he writes: ‘My Dear Wee Gordon. How we miss him.’
When I asked Harry about the Arabian Nights on our trip to Farnworth, he said he hadn’t thought it was up to much, hadn’t been as taken with it as Gordon had. I have never seen it. No video or DVD version exists in Britain, though a video is available in the USA. The Radio Times Guide to Films (2004 edition) says of it: ‘This piece of Hollywood exotica, made to cash in on the success of The Thief of Baghdad, stars Jon Hall as the Caliph, Sabu as his best buddy and Maria Montez as his suitor. The actors have their tongues firmly in their cheeks and the whole show is on the brink of send-up, which is exactly where it should be. Producer Walter Wanger was one of Tinseltown’s more enterprising independents, though he was later brought to his knees by the crippling costs of Cleopatra.’ The script is from stories by the Victorian orientalist, Sir Richard Burton. The film is in colour and lasts eighty-six minutes.
I wondered if the British Film Institute’s National Film and Television Archive had a copy, and at first they thought they had and then they said they hadn’t. But I decided to take up the invitation to see the archive anyway—it is probably the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world. I took the train from London to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, and then a taxi up a hill to a cluster of farm buildings which are the archive’s offices. Andrea Kalas, the senior preservation manager, showed me around.
The archive contains books, documents, letters, posters, stills, but its chief holding is its collection of about 475,000 separate cinema and television film titles—about a billion feet of film. We went to the various air-conditioned and dehumidified stores. The flammable nitrate stock was kept in small cells with heavy steel doors and water tanks above—much more of it is stored separately in Warwickshire. The newer and more fireproof acetate and polyester films rose shelf by shelf to the ceilings of large warehouses, called vaults. Men and women in white coats worked in rooms that looked like laboratories. Here I began to see films in a different way. Projected, they were interesting images. In a can, they were only chemicals with a chemical history. Films were cellulose coated with emulsion. At first and until about 1960, nitrate had collected the silver in the emulsion—silver refracted light. Then there was a switch to acetate. Since the 1980s, polyester has been the chosen substance. Nobody knows how durable this will be. All film, Andrea Kalas said, is inherently unstable. It decomposes.
The most valuable work of the archive is to restore deteriorating film and transfer the images to newer stock—film-to-film reproduction. In one room, a woman in a white coat demonstrated what happened to old films—I think the example may have been Shackleton’s South.
She opened a can and the contents looked like brown sugar crystals. Another can; yellow ochre dust. A third can: acetate film that had bonded and yellowed like a large reel of flypaper and gave off a sharp smell. Andrea Kalas said that was known as ‘vinegar syndrome’.
I had come here with thoughts of injustice, of how I could never see Gordon and yet—somewhere—the best and last film he ever saw would be as lifelike as ever, filled with people talking and moving. But now I saw it differently. The truth is that every principal in the film is now dead, poor Sabu at the age of thirty-nine. As for their lively images, if they have an infinite future it will be thanks to technicians in white coats, tending the chemicals that contain them.
Always and everywhere, this unequal struggle to preserve and remember.