Here in Blyth, one of the big pub chains (the one that sounds like a boxer *) has declared an interest in taking over a former cinema in the town centre that has lain derelict for many years. It will be a considerable task to take on, but I hope they go ahead with it.
It used to be known as the Wallaw Cinema (the proprietor being one WALter LAWson) and I spent many a pleasant hour there as a child. I also have some not so happy memories, such as the film jamming during a Saturday morning sci-fi, and once mid-way through a Sinbad film, I was violently sick after eating some Spanish Gold sweet tobacco (I’m convinced that in the darkness I mistakenly picked up my dad’s Old Holborn).
When I got to that age where I could go out onto the streets on my own and hang about with friends, we took to prowling the town centre in the evenings, looking for stuff to do. While hanging about in the back lane behind the Wallaw one night, we came across an older friend of ours, V, who showed us how to open the cinema fire exit doors from the outside, using a wire coat hanger. We soon became quite adept at this and we got to see many a film by this means. When we had gained entry, we would hide the coat hanger for future use and then close the fire doors behind us and dash up the stairs. At the top we would wait for a suitable moment and then take it in turns to sneak into the auditorium, or walk nonchalantly while whistling a tune. Although it began as an all-male enterprise, we started smuggling girls in and, as long as we sat still and behaved, we had it made.
But, as always happens when something for nothing is available, word of the ruse spread quickly and gangs of urchins from other areas got in on the act. It was through these intruders that the whole scheme was rumbled.
I don’t remember what the film was, but a kid form another estate in the area became bored with it. He either slashed or ripped a seat and pulled out the chunk of foam from inside, and he bunged this up the square hole through which the projector was screening the film. The sudden loss of the film caused howls of complaint and booing from those in the stalls and pretty soon the lights went up. We sat nervously as the stern-faced manageress marched up towards the blockage, clearly not in the best of humour. We were all ejected (not a ticket between us) and after this incident, the manageress deployed staff at the top of the fire exits. So our days of free films were over, or so they thought.
Some time later, the same V who showed us how to open the fire exits let me in on an alternative way to gain ticketless access to the Wallaw. Further down from the cinema entrance, there was a blue door. V told me that with a less than robust shoulder charge, the weak Yale lock would give, but without causing any damage. So one Saturday night while roaming the town centre with my mate Ray, we decided to give it a go.
The door gave just as V had said, and we were able to lock it again behind us. We could hear the sound of the film up ahead as we made our way along a dark corridor. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw that this brought us out onto the stage itself, with the huge screen ahead of us. Our plan was to get onto the stage behind the screen and watch the film from there in reverse. We accomplished this quite easily.
Then we had a ‘just our luck’ moment. This was 1971 and we could have been watching A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, or even Dirty Harry (which is on TV tonight as it happens). But no, the film we sneaked in to see was The New One-Armed Swordsman, which is in Mandarin with English subtitles. Of course, from behind the screen the subtitles were back-to-front and we couldn’t keep up with the plot.
There were wooden steps at the side of the stage and we decided to creep down these into the seats. We managed it but someone must have spotted us because soon after we got settled in, a torch-wielding member of the manageress’s elite new storm-usher force came charging down and we were led away. This was the last straw for the long-suffering manageress, who called in a passing policeman and we were taken home in a Hillman Imp panda car. There was an unholy row when my mother answered the door to a copper, and following this escapade I announced my retirement as a freeloading cinemagoer.
Then I became old enough to go to AA certificate films and I started going to the Wallaw as a paying customer. By the time I looked old enough to be served with a bottle of brown ale during the interval, I was a regular cinemagoer. While quaffing these mid-film refreshments, I would often chat with the manageress, with whom I was now on first name terms. She certainly let bygones be bygones.
A few years later the cinema closed. It has made brief resurgences in various guises, including a skateboard rink, but the arrival of the multiplex put paid to it ever seeing the light of day as a working cinema again.
So I hope that it is converted into a giant pub. It will be of far more use to the town centre than in its current state of dilapidation. And if the day ever comes that they start charging to get into the bar, well that old coat hanger might still be hidden up the back lane.
* Not Punch Taverns