My parents weren’t very good at organising their leisure time – maybe because they worked so hard at their jobs. My father worked for the YMCA – how he would have hated that song! and my mother, as well as teaching, studied first for an external BA Hons from London University, then for an MA, part-time. Amusements used to happen, when my father wasn’t away organising courses and my mother could be dragged away from her books – on a highly ad-hoc basis. Thus, if we were going to the pictures, we just went, regardless of the show time. That wouldn’t work nowadays, but in those days (late 1950s, early 1960s) you paid for entrance to the picture house and left when you’d had enough. People often arrived halfway through and then went when they’d got to the place where they came in. It made for a lot of moving about. Maybe audiences were more tolerant in those days. I have the impression that we always arrived just before the end of the picture, and then left just as things were moving to a climax.
I think that’s part of my becoming a writer, actually. It’s probably also the reason why, to the anguish of many (I can’t quite understand why, it doesn’t hurt THEM), I often look at the end of books and then read on happily. It’s interesting to see how they get there.
I did mind leaving before the end of the picture, though. I don’t think my brother did, or my parents, but none of them were inveterate re-readers as I was (and still am). I always wanted to see how the ending, that had seemed so mysterious when we first came in, linked to what I was watching. Anyway, I didn’t have a chance. I was the youngest. I went, reluctantly, trailing after them.
The cinema was always fuzzy with cigarettes in those days, it was a miracle you could see the screen and I remember the curls of smoke rising up in front of the film. There was an advertisement where someone called ‘Aurora!’ I seem to remember a cartoon child with plaits. ‘Aurora!’ the voice called again, coyly. ‘Kia-Ora, Aurora!’ And the Grecian columns announcing the Pearl and Dean adverts, an exciting gateway to a boring sequence of stuff, apart from the intriguing Kia-Ora one, because who was Aurora? Where did she come from? And why did perfectly ordinary orange squash thrill her so much?
There was always a B-Movie. Sometimes these were terrible, but they were often interesting, experimental things, films my parents would probably never have brought me to see if they’d been shown on their own, and they too helped form me as a writer, though I can't remember the names of any of them. I remember seeing endless Disney films; ‘Snow White,’ I remember, but also a lot featuring animals and kids, starring Bobby Driscoll? Would that be right? And Hayley Mills, of course, as Pollyanna or the twins in ‘The Parent Trap’ – though when I read ‘Lottie and Lisa’ I thought that was much better than the movie. I was fascinated, though, by how one girl could be made into two on the screen. And I saw ‘Ben Hur,’ when I was older, ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ with Peter Ustinov, fat, wobbly, and decadent; ‘Spartacus’ ‘We’ll free every slave in Italy.’ I saw Peter Sellars in various comedies – he was great, but somehow upsetting, probably because I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the black humour.
My father took me to Westerns with James Stewart, who he adored, even ‘Destry Rides Again,’ though my mother didn’t approve of Marlene Dietrich. By contrast, she adored Greta Garbo, but I had to wait for the Nottingham University Film Club, after we moved, to see her in ‘Queen Christina.’ The cinemas in Kendal, where we lived when I was youngest, were ‘The Palladium’ and ‘The Roxy.’ My parents thought the Roxy was common, though looking at the films they showed there, in old issues of the Westmoreland Gazette, I can’t imagine why. Maybe it was something to do with the décor.
There was something about those cinemas, with their plush seats and the back row for the snoggers, that the modern multiplexes don’t have, though I’d hate the smoke nowadays. Maybe it’s just because I was a kid then. I don’t like that ubiquitous smell of pop-corn. But I still do love going to the movies. I went to see 'The Picture of Dorian Gray, recently, at the BfI. It was great. And seeing a film often moves me on with my writing, opens doors in my mind. Is it the music? I don’t know. Anyway, films are marvellous.