The changing face of a night out at the pictures

A NIGHT at the Pictures was the subject of Mrs Freda Thompson’s talk at the February meeting of the Morpeth Antiquarian Society.

Comparisons were drawn between the multiplex cinema of today and the earlier 20th century picture house.

Then, you could get away with taking in your fish and chips; now you can only eat what you buy at the cinema, any food taken with you must be left at the entrance.

Then, the picture house smelled of tobacco, the smoke swirled in the light of the projector; now smoking is not allowed in the cinema.

Then, the usherette lit your way to your seat with her torch and continued to patrol the dark interior, trying to ensure that some standard of behaviour was maintained; now the auditorium does not go completely dark, you can see to eat your popcorn, in the past you were in danger of eating the blue paper twist of salt hidden within your packet of crisps.

Now, the film is shown without interruption; then, long films may have been on three reels. This gave intervals while reels were changed for the ‘The Lady with the Tray’, or usherette, to stand beside the screen to sell ice cream, a Drink on a Stick (ice lolly), Kia Ora drink, crisps and bubble gum.

A picture house programme would include a main feature film with a shorter supporting film and newsreels. Newsreels became very important during wartime as the only way for people to see moving images before the days of television.

Picture houses decor, film actors and actresses created a glamorous fantasy world for everyday lives. Many people tried to copy the hair styles set on screen, children acted out stories in an imaginary world derived from films.

Concerns were raised by some of the morality of crowding people together in dark rooms. Others praised picture houses for reducing the drunkenness as the only other place for evening entertainment was usually the public house.

Picture houses in town centres were very upmarket, where purchases from Newcastle stores could be delivered to the picture house to be collected after shoppers had watched the film show or had a meal in the Picture House Café.

Films were shown in the suburbs in a variety of venues, from corrugated tin sheds, where it was not possible to hear the sound track during heavy rain, to small purpose built picture houses with basic facilities.

Venues in the town centre always had the latest films, some of the smaller venues would share reels on the same evening, resulting in one place seeing the end reel of the film before the first reel. Each picture house chain had its own song or signature tune.

Saturday matinees were for children. As a child, Freda conveniently lived between two picture houses, one had a Saturday morning programme, the other showed films for children on Saturday afternoon. For some children Saturdays at the picture house was financed by collecting bottles and jam-jars for recycling or acting as a Bookies Runner.

Memories were stirred about the film stars and of times spent with whoever at the picture house. Is nostalgia what it used to be? On that late February evening perhaps it was.

For a wider look at nostalgia, come to the next meeting of the Morpeth Antiquarian Society on Friday, March 30 when Mr John Moreels will give his Nostalgic Views of the North at 7.15pm in St James’s’ Hall. All are welcome.