We are fortunate that Jack Pridham has written an interesting account of his experiences growing up in Thornbury and in particular about his father. Both of Jack’s parents were heavily involved in assisting Francis and Helen Grace to run The Picture House and Jack was a frequent visitor there. Jack has kindly agreed to let us use extracts from his book which is called “The Handiest Man in Gloucestershire”.
Jack recalls that even before Thornbury had The Picture House his father, Albert Pridham, and a friend and colleague, Ron Dent, ran a travelling picture show for Francis Grace, which went around the villages, from Hawksbury in the north to Severn Beach in the south, in an old Ford car with a tent for accommodation. We have included below extracts from Jack’s account. He starts by referring to the earlier travelling picture show:
‘I believe they often kept their customers waiting because of technical troubles. This may well have been one of the factors which encouraged Francis to find a more permanent venue for his venture. Hence, the Picture House, was established in an existing High Street building and by 1921 a brick-built auditorium had been added by Edward Cullimore and the ‘flicks’ were apparently flourishing with seats at 1/3d, 9d and 6d.
The first floor of The Picture House in 1939 was Annie Howard’s Tea Rooms and a year or so later the army commandeered the front of the building for use as offices. After the war, when Annie had gone, the first floor reverted to the Picture House Tea Rooms which were often hired by the more impecunious members of the town for their wedding receptions. So, for several of my teenage years The Picture House was in continual change and at the end of WWII the entrance hall and ticket kiosk were completely revamped to give an enlarged, two-way circulation area with a sweet shop at the entrance. It still compared badly with my image of a modern cinema, however, and was nothing like the Bristol Odeon in Union St with which I was very familiar!
There were two long-standing members of staff at The Picture House in the 30s and 40s. There was Charlie Poole the son of Frank Poole the town’s photographer (the Pooles with sister Dolly, who later ran the photography business, lived near the top of the High Street) and Charlie Carter.
Charlie Poole was the permanent senior usher who, over the years had had various non-permanent assistants. His main function in the dark was three-fold: to show everyone to their chosen seats with a well aimed torch beam, to locate those miscreants who had entered with a 9d ticket and were sitting in the 2/9s and to bring to order anyone that was talking who had not been silenced by a “Shush” from others in the audience. He also occasionally had to wave his torch at those in ‘lover’s clinches’ who were obscuring the screen from those behind! This Charlie, a bachelor, well dressed with ‘Brylcreamed’ black hair and a central parting was one of my favourite people – always cheerful and polite and always ready to find me a seat on a busy night!
Charlie Carter who was the on-board manager and head projectionist was also unmarried. Charlie C’s sister, Alice, often worked in the ticket kiosk which backed on to the stairs leading to the projection room. Here again, as a youngster, I was ashamed of the facilities and particularly of the ‘ticket machine’: nothing automatic like at the Odeon where a lever was pressed and up popped the tickets through slits in a shining metal plate. We only had an unpainted wooden box where red, green and yellow reels of tickets were threaded like small toilet rolls on to a piece of dowling and the individual tickets were torn off untidily by hand! I was never quite sure about Alice. The Pridhams, because of their connections, all had free access to the cinema with some understanding that we would not usually appear at peak times. Alice gave the impression that she was not in favour of the family concession and occasionally in her soft and rather superior way, she would indirectly voice this opinion. It was never dissuasive enough to deter me from entry, however. Others with concessions included shopkeepers who displayed The Picture House bill in their windows and, of course, members of the Grace household.
When no one could be found to sell tickets the ‘Boss’ would ask mother to take over and eventually she became one of the regulars who peered out of the small kiosk window. Mother knew all the local patrons, of course, and her public relations skills allowed her to cope easily with the difficult ones when, for example, there was a full house. Mental arithmetic could be counted amongst her other skills: she could calculate the total cost of three and a half ‘two and nines’ (9/7½d) and the change (4½d) to be given from ‘ten bob’ (10/-) faster than a calculator and ignoring the ‘crib sheet’ provided by the firm! My only contribution to the retail side of the operation was to go occasionally with father in what could laughingly be called the ‘company car’, to the Customs & Excise Office in Queen’s Square in Bristol to pick up a new consignment of tickets. This was my first encounter with the concept of taxation and at the time I wondered on what grounds a government could possibly tax a cinema seat! The rolls of tickets were expensive and father always locked them carefully away in the car but, in retrospect, I am not sure what a thief would have done with them. I suppose they could have been sold to a cinema manager with criminal tendencies but on re-sale the serial numbers would have been a dead give-away.
Customers could expect a longish wait, perhaps in the street outside, if it was a Saturday or worse, if the ‘A-film’ featured a favourite star. Having purchased a ticket, leapt up three red concrete steps and pushed through the double door with its velvet blackout curtain you were then in the single-aisled auditorium where Charlie P. would tear the ticket in half. It was, of course, essential if you were not a regular to retain your half of the ticket to allow re-entry following an unscheduled visit to the ‘Gents’ or ‘Ladies’ or if a ‘calorie top-up’ of pear drops or wine gums from the sweet shop became obligatory. With the lights up and the ticket torn you were then free to scan the rows for a suitable vacant, plush red seat, preferably with no one sitting directly in front – the incline on the floor was minimal. On the backs of all 307 seats, handy brass ashtrays were screwed. If these were full, the floor served as an unlimited overflow for the hot ash which often scorched the garments of the smoker or some near neighbour. The seats that were undamaged, apart from cigarette burns, sprang back to the upright position in the absence of an occupant and in that configuration could be used as ‘high-chairs’ by children whose vision was obscured by a big hat or a big head. There was a widely but not completely accepted convention that on sitting down the former would be removed although little could be done about the latter particularly if it sported a large mop of hair! I normally sat about two thirds of the way from the screen which compensated for my rapidly developing myopia and gave me a better chance of seeing through the dense haze of tobacco smoke than sitting further back. When finding a high class 2/9d seat in the dark, Grammar School pupils knew that when the lights came up there was a finite possibility that the person sitting next to them would be John Rouch, the headmaster – but only if it was a Laurel and Hardy film or a Shakespearean classic! He did not like his boys and girls going to the cinema unless the film was highly educational but his one exception was Stan and Oliver!
The programmes were changed twice a week on Saturdays and Wednesdays and I was constantly reminded of this by the large Picture House hoarding which could be seen from my bedroom window, on the wall opposite the house, under one of father’s street lights. I invariably attended twice a week as did the great majority of my friends. In the mid and high teen’s, there was always the possibility of sitting next to someone young of the opposite sex (now known as “gender”) who, incidentally, would rarely have been there unescorted. If you were completely brazen it was possible to have an in-house, arranged meeting or even buy two tickets and enter together – but heaven help you if seen by the Headmaster. As well as two evening ‘houses’ starting at 5.00 or 5.30 pm, every weekday there was also a Saturday matinée which big boys avoided, mainly because it was prime playing time.
In the Picture House, many people came in at the start of the A film in the first house, survived being sprayed by an usher with a sickly, antiseptic perfume in the interval and then saw the B film and the News in the second house: if they liked the A film they would stay to see it for the second time. Closing time was 10.00 to 10.30pm – local laws did not allow public entertainment after that time, with one exception, the Saturday night ‘hop’ which stopped at midnight by which time the police were normally hovering outside the Cossham Hall doors. Two or three hundred people therefore filed out of the cinema, passed the closed doors of the ‘pubs’ and went home. In the winter it was a shock to be tipped out into the road after 2½ hours in a stuffy, smoke-filled room. Father was in part responsible for the heat – he had installed the coke-fired central heating system which uncharitable regulars said was a means of selling more ice-cream. Someone needed to stoke the fire in the middle of the performance; the boiler was in the locked garage at the back of the cinema which was used by a few of the film-goers that came in from country districts. By law, drivers could not leave their vehicles in the street without lights. Car battery technology was such that lights left on for 2½ hours could lessen the driver’s chances of moving the car after the show – but, of course, in those days there was always the starting handle!
This leaves me to return to The Picture House and some of the most memorable things about life with father – in the cinema’s projection box! Charlie Carter, the man in charge, was not the healthiest of men and was from time to time absent from duty. On the first occasion that this happened that I remember, Messrs Grace and Pridham stepped into the breach. It may have been the first time that father had handled the projectors’ complex series of switches, buttons, sprockets and knobs and the two men, between them, made a bit of a mess of it. I happened to be at the ‘flicks’ that night in the 1940s when it all went wrong. The first sign of a problem was that the film stopped, which it often did. There was the usual moan from the audience and then something different occurred – an orange blob appeared in one corner of the screen, it grew larger and its perimeter seemed to fold back rapidly until most of the screen was orange – the film was on fire! There was a short interlude accompanied by intense activity in the projection department and the programme was resumed only to be followed by two more stoppages. At this point when the customers were switching to riot mode, Mr Grace was forced to make an unheard of stage appearance to quell the ‘mob’. He said that inexperienced people were running the show that night because of staff illness and that the temporary incumbents (unnamed, much to my relief) were doing their best. This was accepted with grace and good humour and as far as I know no one was blamed and no one demanded reimbursement for a very disjointed evening’s entertainment. A slightly trembling but chuckling father told us all about it when everything was switched off and he had returned home.
The next time there was illness in the ranks, father, who was now fully experienced after one night’s training, took sole charge. To be truthful, I think he did practice in the daylight hours and when Charlie was ill or on holiday and the ‘reserves’ were required I sometimes went, very willingly, with father to lend a hand. The ‘cine’ equipment compared to today was, of course, primitive; nothing was automated and the light and sound and everything mechanical and electrical required continual attention during the run. Of particular concern were the reel changes!
At the top of the stairs leading to the projection box was a small ‘rewinding room’ with a metal rail to stop the ‘rewinder’ from falling down the stairs into the foyer. It contained a bench, a hand-wound ‘rewinding’ device, a ‘film editor’ (a gadget for holding the two ends of film that needed to be joined) and some adhesive for this purpose composed of n-amyl acetate and acetone. This unhealthy mix smelled just like the pear drops on sale in the sweet shop below and the small room always smelled strongly of ‘pear drops’ the vapour of which was highly inflammable. Hung on the wall was a conical, red, water-filled, fire extinguisher which when struck on its base, would allegedly deal with a fire although, as far as I know, this was never put to the test. Rewinding film was a routine chore usually required because the preceding cinema on the circuit had not bothered to wind the reels of film back to their starting points; the ‘gluing’ process was an emergency procedure as the brittle film often broke in the projector or when the reels were being rewound. I had in my collection of boyhood souvenirs, two or three frames of film from several of the classics that for one reason or other had been excised from films hired by the Picture House. One wondered how many minutes of every film on the circuit were lost in this way and whether ‘film-pruning’ ever inadvertently removed frames that were vital for the understanding of the plot!
The projection box, itself, which was packed with equipment plus residual smells from the adjacent ‘rewinding room’, was an Aladdin’s cave for intended, junior, ‘technophiles’. On entry one was immediately aware of two large black, oven-like projectors with chimneys which vented through the roof: if one of these monsters was activated it both hissed and whirred. The “whirring” came from a small electric motor which drove the film by a very tortuous route from the top reel to the bottom reel with overtones of high frequency clicking as every frame paused momentarily in the gate for transmission to the screen. The “hissing” came from the often troublesome carbon arc light which also spluttered if the thin carbon cathode was not properly aligned with the fat anode.
In the run-up to a show, preliminary equipment checks probably lasting an hour or two were required. The reels of film would probably have been rewound the day before so that they were in proper chronological order and that the end of a scene did not precede its beginning. Occasionally an error was made but few in the audience seemed to notice the break in continuity.
The house lights were then dimmed, the red stage curtains drawn back. Father would finally complete the sequence by switching on projector No.1 and opening the shutter so that the beam of light carrying the opening Film Certification, “U”, “A” or “X”, hit the screen. “U” stood for “Universal” – all ages allowed to view, “A” – children under 16 years needed to be accompanied by adults and “X” – movies for adults only. Ushers and usherettes kept a close lookout for children who did not comply with this certification by the British Board of Censors the members of which were considered to be a load of fuddy-duddies and spoilsports by most members of the cinema-going public!
The above procedures were repeated for the A-film; cartoons, newsreels and local adverts were single reel films so they were less difficult to handle apart from making sure that the projectors were loaded with the right item at the right time. Occasionally emergency notices calling for someone to move his (rarely her) car or to go home immediately were posted via handmade slides and a separate slide projector.
Helen Grace, Francis Grace’s wife, took over The Picture House in the post Christmas periods insisting that she should produce pantomimes. Furthermore, she mustered many of the Grace workforce to help her. Father, with his electrical, woodworking and painting expertise and vestigial skills with explosives was needless to say, her leading aide. Everything else stopped during the frenzied panto’ season – which Helen Grace, because of her social position, felt duty bound to provide for the enjoyment and edification of the townsfolk. It was a hectic time and father found himself working at weekends and in the evenings in order to complete the production on time but he enjoyed it; he could use his initiative and let his imagination run wild when it came to designing sets and special effects.
I particularly remember the “Jack and the Beanstalk” production. A lot of the work for the panto’ was carried out in grandfather’s lean-to shed in the garden. The Giant’s furniture was made there – a large table and a large chair the seat of which was high above my head. No Giant was ever seen on stage using this furniture – there was no one in the town large enough to occupy it – but when ordinary sized people like Jack, stood against the chair the younger audience believed that the real owner was a Giant who must have been somewhere in the vicinity! In fact, he could be heard in the background saying, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman”!
Back at The Picture House, father had to raise the stage for the ‘panto’; for the ‘flicks’ it was OK, the screen was raised, but for stage shows, which were normally held in the Cossham Hall, the slope on the cinema floor was just not right. The lighting for the panto’ was very primitive and in the early days dimming and raising, in father’s hands, was achieved by the use of pots of saline into which two wires in the electrical circuit were dipped and moved close together for maximum light and far apart for minimum. The pots often boiled! How he achieved his ‘flashes and bangs’ when the Genie appeared in “Aladdin”, without catching fire to the curtains (and there was no fire curtain), I have no idea, but I am sure today’s Health & Safety inspectors would have closed the show down’.