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Cinema golden age saw grubby kids doused in flea spray before entry

Film memories project to show Barbarella in Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square

19 January, 2018 — By The Xtra Diary

Jane Fonda roams 41st century space in the cult film Barbarella

THEY were called flea pits for a good reason: scruffy cinemas, where cleanliness was not a high priority, were part of our entertainment landscape for decades.

And, as research by Bloomsbury- based UCL film historian Professor Melvyn Stokes has revealed, the problem of grotty theatres was so bad that picture houses in Liverpool in the 1960s actually sprayed children coming in to watch Saturday morning Westerns with DDT.

Professor Stokes and colleagues have been running a project called Remembering British Cinema Going in the 1960s and have collated some amazing memories of how we watched film in the 1960s, one of which was the de-fleaing of youngsters. And, as part of the project, they are taking over the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square on Tuesday to screen Barbarella and take an audience back to the decade.

The cinema will be decked out to look, feel and sound like October 1968. Newsreels from the period will start the show and it will be interspersed with adverts and cartoons from the time.

Feeling peckish? Classic cinema snacks such as Kia-Ora orange squash, shake-in-the-bag crisps and boiled sweets will be for sale in the foyer. And Diary hears the ushers – described as huge sci-fi fans – will have a few surprises up their sleeves too. Professor Stokes’ work is fascinating and creates an archive of memories.

At a recent event at UCL, with former students who had been at the Bloomsbury University in the 1960s, they recalled visiting the Tolmer cinema off Euston Road. “They remembered going there and that there were two types of clientele,” he says. “The first were students, the second tramps. It was warm, comfortable and cheap.”

Cinema changed enormously over the decade, he says. While audiences had reached their peak in 1946 and then gradually fallen away, there was a massive  contraction of screens in the 10 years he focuses on.

“There were 3,000 cinemas in 1960 and only 1,500 at the end of the decade,” he says. “Cinema was facing competition from TV and there were closures to loss-making cinemas in smaller locations. The chains were already well established but there were smaller independents that were shoestring operations.” And what was screened differed widely across the country.

“It was dependent on the whim of the operator,” he says. “It was reliant on the eccentricity of the people who ran the show. Films would start in London and it could be months before they were shown elsewhere.”

American films dominated. Two-thirds of those shown were from Hollywood but there was a vibrant British industry, too, he adds. “There was the Doctor series, Carry On, and James Bond,” says Professor Stokes. As for his own memories, he recalls going to see My Fair Lady with his father, who was a fan of Westerns.

“We went to Bridlington to see it,” he recalls. “He hated musicals. I don’t quite remember why we had gone. He was a strong man but I remember him turning to me weakly and saying: how much longer is there?”

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