Keith Towers

Oh, the sheer excitement and delight of going to Saturday morning pictures, all for just a shiny tanner, (6 old pennies), and a threppeny-bit for a cheap orange ice-lolly, (I couldn’t afford Orange-Maid). I was eight or nine years of age then and happy to 9d, from my two-bob pocket money, at the box office. It wasn’t just the film show that interested me; I was as fascinated by the light coming from the ‘little window in the wall’ as much as I was in cheering on the exploits of Flash Gordon or Tom Mix, or laughing with the rest of the noisy throng at the zany antics of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. I was An ABC Minor (Streatham) and was proud to wear the badge. I still remember, and sometimes sing the Minor’s song to myself or my grandchildren, even to this day, much to the amusement of my eldest granddaughter. Those of you who remember it, and wish to, can join in with me now if you like:

“We are the boys and girls well known as
Minors of the ABC
And every Saturday all Line up, to see the films we like, and shout aloud with glee.
We like to laugh and have our sing-song, just a happy crowd are we.
We’re all pals together; we’re minors of the ABC”.

Of course, the final rendition of ABC was always shouted out loudly, not sung, but by several hundred kids in unison and in reverse order I might add …’we’re minors of the CBA’.

While all this was going on I would try and catch a glimpse of the man wearing the long brown coat, often appearing, as he did, at one of those ‘little windows in the wall’, usually holding a mug of tea in one hand and a piece of muslin cloth or a pair of pliers in the other. He had all the answers to the mystery of film-projection. What an interesting job he had, and how very important he must have been. In my eyes, he was a big man in the movie industry. Funnily enough, by the time I was fifteen and ready to leave school (1958), I had forgotten all about this early boyhood curiosity and entered the world of work not knowing what it was I really wanted to do. I wandered in and out of different jobs for about a year, until one day a mate of mine said he had got himself a job as a Trainee-Projectionist at the Odeon Camberwell. Memories of those Saturday mornings came flooding back, and when he invited me to meet his Chief and have a tour around the ‘Box’ I jumped at the chance. Those years of wondering just how it was all done were about to be demystified.

I faced two of the biggest film projectors I’d ever seen (only 16mm and 8mm till then), both standing aloof like alien robots waiting to receive some human contact. They were BTH SUPA’s, metallic monsters, one in action, the other being ‘laced-up’ by another projectionist, who was preparing the following part to be projected; and I would be lucky enough to witness the changeover – amazing! These monsters seemed gentle enough, I thought, as the sprocket holes on the film made their way through the intermittent movement with the gentle, luring purr of a friendly pussy-cat. I was drawn in by its subtle music. I was seduced for all time by that continuous hypnotic clicking sound as film passed through the gate. The pussy-cat purr had reached those parts of me that nothing else had ever done before, or could ever do again. Only another projectionist would know what I meant by this. From that moment, I knew this was what I wanted to do and made it known to my mates Chief Projectionist with great enthusiasm. That day taught me three things – what it was I wanted to do for a living; that the ‘little windows in the wall’ were called Port-Holes (obvious, really!); and that the record player with two turntables was known as a ‘non-sync’ (not so obvious!) and not – well – a record player with two turntables as I had once thought.

The Chief at the Odeon Camberwell had made some enquiries. There was a job going at the Gaumont Clapham. I could have it if I wanted it and, like my mate, would have the illustrious title of Trainee-Projectionist bestowed with great pride upon me. I would receive the princely sum of £3.10 shillings per week, along with the encouragement to join the union – N.A.T.K.E. which I did. As a trainee, I would be the chief rewind boy, tea-maker, and the one person who was exclusively in charge of the broom, dustpan and brush, polish and windowlean. Before I could ever become a fully fledged projectionist, it seemed, I had to understand the merits of good housekeeping. I learned well, keeping everything spotlessly clean: projector mechs’ (Kalee 21’s) cleaning sprockets with carbon tetrachloride and an old toothbrush; arc-lamps, (President), brushing of carbon dust and scraping carbon drippings off the surface of the mirror with an old copper penny; lenses: anamorphic for cinemascope and 1:1.75/85 for widescreen; I cleaned everything, right down to the highly polished ‘Box’ floor which shone like a mirror when I had finished with it; and the staffroom carpet of course, a remnant piece from the foyer when it was refitted; that had to be kept well brushed too, what with all the fag ash and food crumbs that liberally peppered its traditional design on a daily basis.

At the beginning of my career there was no such thing as shift work. There were seven projectionists on our team, working from 10am – 11pm: the Chief, Co Chief, Senior second, Junior second, third projectionist, fourth projectionist and the person in charge of the broom (me). I had two days off a week – Wednesday and Sunday.

I can only remember three of the people from those days at the Gaumont – Geoff Lee, Denis Doran, and the Chief, Derek Palmer.

Geoff was the senior second when I arrived late in 1958. He was a smashing bloke, but, to his later demise, being a pitiful alcoholic, died in his mid thirties. Even so, he was never a drunk, not in the sense of the word, but then again, he was never fully sober either. He found it impossible to work unless he had had three or four pints of bitter before the mid-day matinee and usually started drinking about 10am to achieve this. It was one of my jobs to feed his habit by going down to the pub and getting his empty whisky bottles filled up with bitter and then returning promptly, so he always had some liquid sustenance at hand throughout the day. How he did it I will never know, but I never once saw him miss a change-over or put the wrong part on, or fail to bring the show to a timely close. (One of the tricks used by projectionists if the show was running late was to make a change-over a minute before it was due. Over a feature length film one could easily save seven minutes and the audience were mostly none the wiser). Mind you, Geoff did run out of carbons a few times and had to replace them, often without switching the ark off, halfway through a reel. He did this in less than five seconds and would always re-strike without closing the ark-door, giving us all a blinding experience in the process, grinning wildly through blackened gaps his front teeth, giving a little chuckle that came from his chest and a shrug of the shoulders that was his personal motif. I can still see and hear and see him in my mind’s eye as I write about it now. It didn’t matter for the matinee; we only ever got two or three old age pensioners in to watch the film and they usually fell asleep long before the start of the main feature. When you come to think of it, you could sit in the warm and dry, watch a Look at Life Short, see a four reel second feature and a six or seven reel main feature, besides the adverts, trailers and news, all for 9d if you were an OAP (about 4p) . Good value.

We were licensed to project nitrate film at the Gaumont Clapham and had quite a large store of nitrate leaders and blank stock hanging around the place in old rusty film canisters. It was great fun to pull out the middle of a small roll and set fire to it on the roof, watching it go up like a roman candle. Had it caused a fire, I doubt that the obligatory bucket of sand, with all its hidden cigarette buts lurking just below the surface, would have dealt with it adequately enough. How on earth one ever expected to put out a real nitrate fire with a bucket of sand is beyond me. Most old-timers would have stood back and let the stuff burn out on the projector; but had I ever seen one I would have run a mile. Fortunately for me, I never did.

As safety film became the accepted material, so the Box staff levels dropped and shift-work became the norm. However, some of the old safety measures were still in place right up to the mid and late sixties. At the Gaumont, the small frame of nitrate film, positioned just above the gate controlling the safety shut-off measure, needed to be replaced regularly, but never was. As the frame of nitrate got old and brittle it also buckled, causing the sprocket holes to tear and the frame to come off of its spring-tensioned pins. When this happened it would allow a shutter to drop down over the aperture area thus shutting out the heat and light of the arc-lamp and away from the film running through the gate. However, it left the projector running on, so that if the projectionist was having a crafty cigarette by the Box door, he would be unaware that anything was wrong: until an irate manager or panic stricken usherette came running up to inform him that there had been a black screen for the last five minutes. If the poor sob happened to be Geoff, you would just get another shrug and chuckle out of him. He was never sober enough to panic.

The other job I did for Geoff was to deliver his horseracing bets to the bookie’s runner. Gambling was illegal in those days and done in a very covert manner; placing the bet through the letter box of some private house, usually guarded by a dubious looking geezer called the ‘lookout’. Geoff’s winnings were always spent on ale and his losses shrugged off with his usual chuckle.

This man taught me a great deal about the projection room. In some respects he put his responsibilities of the job on to me, but I was keen to learn and went along with it. For instance, when others tried to get me to pop along to a neighbouring cinema for a packet of changeover cues; I was up to their little trick and never fell for it. Many newcomers to the trade did, however.

Derek Palmer was a different breed of projectionist to Geoff. He came to the Gaumont from another cinema as our new Chief. He was ambitious and had us all painting the ‘Box’ and tarting up the battery-room and anything else that could be painted or polished we did it. I swear he had shares in a Nine Elms paint factory. I got my DIY experience with a paintbrush from those days. He also introduced me to the social side of the business, when once a year we all went along to the CMA film ball held at the Lyceum in the Strand. Many an usherette was fair game for a kiss and cuddle at these events.

I think it was about a year before the Gaumont closed down that Derek went to Streatham Bowling Alley prior to its completion and opening. He was to be the first Chief Engineer there. It was the beginning of the end for Geoff who later died from cancer. I went to the Odeon East Dulwich and left there after the showing of 1001 Dalmatians to join Derek at the bowling alley. An accident with my arm encouraged me to get back into projection work and I got a job at the old Curzon Cinema, Mayfair. At the time, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with Albert Finney as the lead, was showing. I left the Curzon just prior to its closure, when it was to be rebuilt below ground level of a new office block. I retuned to South London and to the ABC Wimbledon as a 3rd projectionist working on Philips FP20’s, I think this was1964/5. When an opening came up at the ABC Streatham for a junior second, I made the transfer, working on Ross GC3’s and Peerless arcs.

And so it was that I stepped into the very projection room that had first intrigued me as an ABC Minor all those years before. I stayed for a few years, becoming junior second at the age of 19 or there-about. During that period I did some relief work at other cinemas in the South London area, including moonlighting at the Classic, Tooting and the Ritz, Balham. I left the ABC Streatham in June1967 to spend a year in Canada and returned to work at the ABC Tooting as a trainee manager, but I hated that side of the business and returned to the Box there. I think the Chief was Ernie Johnson – at least that name seems to stick in my mind for some reason. Some other names of projis’ I worked with in South London include: Phil Young, Senior second at the ABC Brixton, who went on to become a sound cameraman at Elstree Studios and whom I am still in touch with, Rene Pierce, fourth projectionist at the ABC Streatham, Ed Weaver, the Chief at the ABC Streatham, his Co-Chief, Harold Pritchet; Fred Costello the Senior Second; and the Chief Circuit Engineer for the Southern Region, Mr Knight. And I mustn’t forget Bill Wyatt, the manager at the ABC Streatham, a gentleman if ever there was one.

Late 1968 I applied to Roddy McCaughlin (Mac), Chief Projectionist at ABP Studios Elstree, Borehamwood, (later to become EMI/ABP) for a position in the projection department. He interviewed me and I got a job as a Second Projectionist and gradually made it to First Projectionist in 1972. During that time, I worked with the other projectionists on shows like: The Avengers; ‘The Saint’; ‘Randall and Hopkirk Deceased’; ‘Jason King’ and many more, either in the Viewing Theatres or Dubbing Theatres, and on the set using Front and Back Projection equipment. Some feature films we were involved with include: ‘A Clockwork Orange (Dubbing)’; ‘Summer Holiday’; ‘Raging Moon’: ‘Digby – The Biggest Dog in the World’; and many of the Hammer Horrors that have become such classic horror films today. All these come to mind. It was an interesting life, but it came to an end during the mid seventies with redundancies looming in the British Film Industry and the eventual closure of the studios. I went a different route – into catering, which I followed for nearly thirty years. I am now 61, retiring when I was 60. Even so, I still miss the industry, but these days content myself with writing unheard-of screenplays and still noticing, and watching out for, every single changeover cue both at the cinema and on television; still making that changeover in my mind.

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