East End Memories


The Odeon & Granada Woolwich .... then & now

When I was a kid growing up in the East End of London in the late 1940s and early 1950s, every neighbourhood had a large number of cinemas where people went to see the latest films produced in Britain and Hollywood. By this time, these films were on what was called General Release and were being shown at the local cinemas at what was euphemistically called popular prices. Prior to this, most of the films had been showcased in the West End of London for a variable period of time. Here people paid premium prices to see these films in some comfort. Their run in a West End cinema depended strictly on the number of tickets sold. Once ticket sales declined, the film would go into General Release and be sent out on circuit. Most local cinemas formed part of the bigger circuits and showed the films for one week at the so-called popular prices. At that time, it was rare for a film to be held over for longer than one week and even rarer for one to return to the circuit after completing its tour. I can only remember two films that did this during my childhood: The Third Man and The Great Caruso. Later, film companies realized the value of re-release and various double bills of previously popular films became quite common.

Naturally the circuits existed to make their owners money, but they afforded the average working man the chance to see a wide range of films at a cheaper rate and to have good night out while doing so. In those days, most people were not in a position to pay the unpopular prices demanded by the showcase cinemas in the West End. I found it most annoying to be denied seeing these films when they first hit the screen since the cost of a ticket up West was certainly prohibitory to me. Having a definite lack of patience, it vexed me somewhat that I was expected to wait to see the films that took my fancy until they had not only been shown in the pre-circuit cinemas as well as those of the North West of London before they finally came to rest in North East London, which included the East End. Mind you, had I lived in South London, I would have been required to wait another week since they were granted screening last of all. Still, since I had little respect for South London, I had little sympathy for these people. However, I was willing to let them have the scrapes and crumbs that fell from the table once I had feasted. Although time has taught me to have a certain patience, I fear that my feelings towards South London has changed little in the interim.


In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, middle class folks went to the cinema while I, a member of the working class, went to the flicks or pictures and did so whenever I could. The British public did not go to the movies. This was an affectation that had not, as yet, made its way into the vernacular. People still listened to the Radio for entertainment in the evenings and enjoyed the varied programming offered by the B.B.C., which had no competition at that time. Although television sets were for sale, television was yet to worm its way into the psyche of the populace since few people could afford to buy one. As a result, going to the pictures was the most popular way people spent their evenings out. Like them, I used to love going to the pictures and enjoyed all kinds of films. However, my favourites were those that contained sword fighting. I still marvel at the dexterity displayed by Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power whenever I watch their films. Although I enjoyed cowboys and Indians, according to my parents, I would become too involved and was known to leap from my seat and run towards the screen yelling words of displeasure when it became clear that the Indians were about to lose the battle. I always sided with the Indians and still do.

British Board of Film Censors CertificateAs a child, I would have gone to the pictures to see everything, but since I was still young, I had to wait to go with my family or with my mother on her occasional night off from the shop. I was allowed to go with friends whenever there was a children’s programme showing. This would generally mean a Walt Disney full-length cartoon, period dramas, comedies and Westerns. All such films would carry a U certificate. The British Board of Film Censors who met in Soho Square made the decision as to who could see a film and under what conditions. The designation U meant that anyone could see this film without the necessity of being accompanied by an adult. An adult, in this case, meant anyone of 16 years or older. Imagine calling a 16-year-old youth of today an adult! Preceding the showing of films of that epoch, a copy of the British Board of Film Censors’ Certificate had to be shown by law and would include the film’s designation and the Board’s address, which was in Soho. Even at my young age, I knew that Soho was an area of London reserved for certain types of entertainment not readily available elsewhere. Here, my imagination would always take over and I would envision the members of the Board enjoying such entertainment between the screenings. Unlike most kids who wanted to grow up to be firemen or engine drivers, I wanted none of these occupations. No, I wanted to grow up to be a member of the British Board of Film Censors.

At that time, a children’s programme gave patrons good value since it included a newsreel, a cartoon, trailers for next week’s films along with two full length feature films. We would be in the cinema for three hours of more with the opportunity of staying to some of the offerings a second time. The films would generally be action packed, which kept the kids happy. Kids like to sit at the front of the auditorium. They want to be close to the action. Since kids also enjoy showing their feelings, we would hoot and howl and talk over the dialogue during the love scenes. We were intolerant of interruptions to the action and would quickly lose interest in the goings-on on the screen whenever the hero became distracted from his goal thanks to the questionable charms of some starlet with little acting ability. We would quickly find other pursuits to follow until the hero would remember the job in hand and leap back on his horse or else draw his sword and go off and challenge some n’er do well and right all wrongs. During these annoying interludes, an occasional disagreement would ensue between several of my fellow patrons. It would soon become evident that their differences could not be solved except by a fight. This would cause much interest by those in the surrounding rows and would continue until an usher or usherette arrived to break it up. By then, the love scene was long since over and our attention would quickly be returned to the action on the screen.

During the evening performances, courting couples would favour the last row of the stalls and of the balcony. Married folks with or without their children would sit in the mid-stalls or at the front of the balcony. When I accompanied my parents to the cinema on a Thursday evening, we would always sit in the stalls. At my mother’s insistence, she would sit at the end of a row on the aisle and I would sit between my parents. Once suitably installed, I was eager for the evening’s entertainment to begin. As you will soon tell, I took my cinema-going very seriously and was intolerant of any person or situation that interfered with my pleasure once the showing had begun.

Latecomers were barely tolerated by me. The usherette with torch on to light the way would rush these patrons to empty seats at the front close to the screen. These were seats that such patrons would not normally choose since here they would be forced to look up at the screen during the performance. This unpleasant necessity would cause them to suffer a marked neck pain, which they would endure for several days. En route to their seats, and while stumbling down the aisle, they would complain to the usherette about being shown to such seats. Naturally, no one had sympathy for them, least of all me, since their passage down the centre aisle brought disruption to those already seated and who were now enjoying the local adverts provided by Pearl & Dean et al or the Newsreel. It was generally felt that their misfortune was of their own doing and I would be quick to voice this feeling as they passed us, which would generally bring me a slap on the legs together with a warning to be quiet. I resented being chastised in such a manner especially since I was merely voicing the feeling of those about me. Well … they should have arrived sooner.

Much as I disliked latecomers, the full weight of my wrath and my maximum intolerance were saved for those exceptionally tall or fat patrons who dared to sit directly in front of me. This was something not to be tolerated. Even at my young age, I was never fearful of allowing my complaints to be heard by those that were offensive to me despite suffering for them later at the hands of my parents. My comments on their excessive girth or height often caused a disagreement to develop between my mother and the offended party. This was easily and most often solved by their moving seats and so giving me back my unimpeded view. Another group that irritated me intensely was/were? patrons who could not sit through a film without feeling the necessity to get up. Generally at a crucial point in the film, they would find themselves seized with an uncontrollable desire to get up and push their way along the aisle. Woe betide these unfortunate souls for I would do my best to impede their passage and make their journey as difficult as possible. As I said earlier, I took my early cinema-going very seriously and did not like any interruption once the showing had begun.

There would be an interval prior to the showing of the main feature film. This time was used for the selling of ice cream and cold drinks in reasonably sized cartons containing no ice. These were wonderful days before the sale in Britain of buttered popcorn and vast drink containers loaded with rattling ice cubes. I used to have a very difficult time going to the movies in the U.S. because of these products. Most of the audience would roll into the auditorium loaded up with vast great tubs of this food along with huge great containers of drink and proceed to munch, crunch and slurp their way through the entire showing. This, I could barely tolerate, but the smell of that rancid butter used to make this loathsome free food made me nauseous to the point that I would have to leave the multiplex. As a child, I liked the choc-ice best of all from the delights on offer from the saleslady’s tray. However, what displeased me about this particular treat was that it needed to be eaten quickly or else the melted cream would drip down my fingers and onto my clothes much to the annoyance of both my mother and I. I would always debate whether to have this treat or go with the tub. If only today’s decisions were that simple.

Once the interval was over and the patrons were finishing up their purchases, the house lights of the auditorium would begin to dim in final preparation of the screening of the main feature. It was at this point that the courting couples would make themselves comfy. Now, as the house lights dimmed and as the curtains slowly swooshed open, hands would quickly be taken and held, men’s arms would slide around the shoulders of their companions and first kisses would be stolen during that first moment of darkness. No doubt the frequency and intensity of the kisses would increase for the fortunate especially should the film prove dull. If the man was lucky, other delights might be made available to him, as long as no one was looking that is.

I remember that the kids of the area were severe critics and not easily impressed. Likes and dislikes were strongly felt. Certain things and places were held in high esteem while others were deemed unworthy of attention and dismissed with a wave of the hand. I was no different to the other kids, except that perhaps I was a mite more opinionated and perhaps a little more willing to share my views. To illustrate my point, Woolworths was held in high regard since it was a virtual Aladdin’s cave for a child. Where else could a customer purchase a brightly coloured facemask for sixpence? Where else were balloons sold for three-a-penny? Bombed sites were also cherished havens. These sites were readily found all over the East End and the City when I was a child. To adults, these sites were eye-sores and constant reminders of the recent war, and they looked forward to the day when the site would be filled with buildings and houses. However, to us, they were places where we could play without hindrance from adults. Of course these sites were dangerous. Certainly we risked getting hurt should we fall while running along a broken wall. But we saw no danger. To us they were places where our imaginations could run riot and where wondrous games were devised and played. When I visit London and walk through old neighbourhoods, especially the Barbican, I am horrified that the sites where I once ran free have been replaced by such dross and rubbish buildings.

As kids, we held going to the cinema highly and worthy of our attention. Besides the children’s programme, there was also Saturday Morning Pictures to look forward to each week. One of the cinemas of the neighbourhood would open its door on a Saturday morning to the kids, and for a special price, we could pass away our morning by watching a serial, several cartoons and a feature film. Although the programme could never be considered especially thrilling, we all enjoyed ourselves. I found the very act of going to the cinema, as did many of my cohorts, to be exciting and held the cinema in high standing. Besides, it should be remembered that just going into certain cinemas proved to be a never-to-be-forgotten experience since many were not just places to see moving images projected onto a screen. Many were in fact works of art and startling to see. As a child, and even now, I was willing to travel what was considered then to be long distances to visit a picture palace.

ABC logoWhen I was a child, going to the pictures was still a major way to spend an evening. Most neighbourhoods in the East End had a variety of cinemas for the entertainment and pleasure of the inhabitants. At that time, there were two major cinema circuits in Britain, The Rank Organization and Associated British Cinemas (ABC) who between them owned or contracted with most of the cinemas. There were several other smaller circuits, but were no match Rank Organization Logo - Click for video clip!since they had to content themselves by showing revivals or those films not wanted by the major circuits. No matter what the size of the cinema, its state of grandeur or its affiliation, they were all single screen houses for the multiplex had not, as yet, arrived on the scene to chop up and dismember them, thank God.

Rank and ABC owned the distribution rights to most Hollywood and British films at that time and had their choice of the premier films made and so their cinemas became the most popular ones attended. Most of their cinemas were large and richly decorated, which was a further attraction to the patron. Rank mostly named their cinemas Gaumonts and Odeons. Sometimes other names were used, as was the case with the Troxy found on the Commercial Road in Stepney or with the Regent in Brighton, both of which were part of the Gaumont group. The Troxy was a fine cinema and was the closest thing to a picture palace in my area. Sadly once going to the pictures fell out of favour in Britain it closed, but later for a number of years, it was used by the Royal Ballet Company as a rehearsal and storage site. In most cases, whenever a cinema was known by a unique name, such as the Museum in Bethnal Green, it was generally so named when first built prior to its association with a circuit. The circuits tended to leave these names intact so as not to antagonize anyone and so risk losing regular patrons. After all, the raison d’etre of a circuit, and for any cinema owner for that matter, was to make a profit.

Odeons, Gaumonts and ABCs were represented throughout the country and many would rank among the most grand. Each cinema was constructed to a unique design in the style specified the original parent circuit. However, some cinemas would have been acquired from other defunct independent chains and would quickly acquire certain accoutrements that would leave the patron in no doubt as to its new association and owner. And so the cinemas of each of the circuits throughout the country would be easily recognizable, however each would have to undergo some minor variation to the general architectural theme and so take on a unique quality that would make it special to its faithful clientele.

Souvenir Programme - Odeon Scarborough - March 1936The Odeons were without doubt my favourite cinemas since I liked their design and décor. Even as a child their very understatement suggested grandeur to me and I found them to be the most appealing of all cinemas. The first Odeon circuit of cinemas was founded by Oscar Deutsch in 1930. It is widely believed that the name Odeon is an acronym from the declaration …. Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation. However the name had been used by a number of cinemas in Europe prior to this date and a National Theatre in Paris had used it for many years preceding this. The interiors of the numerous Odeons were soon seen as remarkable examples of the art deco style of the 1930s. The J.A. Rank Organization acquired the cinemas in 1938 following Mr. Deutsch’s death and would operate them, together with the Gaumont chain, until 2000 when the organization sold their cinemas and ended its association with the film industry.

The décor of Odeons was in chocolate brown and gold, which gave them an extremely classy look. There would be a thick chocolate brown carpet with gold motif throughout the cinema that the patron’s foot would sink into and which would add to the luxurious atmosphere created by the subtle décor and lighting. The ushers and usherettes were smartly dressed in matching ensembles in the colours of the chain and were readily attentive to the patrons’ needs. No matter which Odeon a patron attended, he or she would be certain to feel that their visit gave them a sense of occasion.

Gaumont cinemas were also part of the J.A. Rank Organization when I was a child, but the roots of their parent organization came into effect in 1922 when Gaumont, a French company established a film studio at Shepherds Bush, London. Gaumont British Pictures merged with Gainsborough Pictures in 1927 and, in 1931, assumed control of Provincial Cinematograph Theatres. The Gaumont British Picture Corporation operated these cinemas until 1941 when Rank began operating some of them. In 1949 the Gaumont and Odeon circuits merged to form the Circuits Management Association. Despite this merger, each circuit operated separately and did not share distribution of films until the company was sold to Cinven in 2000.

Gaumont British - Super Film Season - Exeter

Although Gaumonts were the poor relation of the Rank Organization, nonetheless some were grand and a number of truly remarkable picture palaces formed part of the Gaumont circuit. Among those known to me include the spectacular Regent in Brighton (now sadly demolished) and the State in Kilburn (still standing and recently sold to a church organization).

Despite the many architectural splendors that could be found among the Gaumont cinemas and even with having seen many excellent films in cinemas of the circuit, I have to confess that I have never found an average Gaumont to compare in either décor or architecture to an average Odeon. But then I also have to confess to never having actually seen an average Odeon.

ABC Cinemas was formed in 1927 in Scotland by John Maxwell. During the 1930s, the company grew in size by the building of new cinemas and by the purchase of others. Of special significance were those of Union Cinemas in 1937, which were one of the first luxury town-centre circuits. The chief architect of ABC cinemas was W.R. Glen who was responsible for their unique style. In 1937, ABC Cinemas became the Associated British Picture Corporation and in 1940, Warner Brothers purchased a majority of shares. The cinemas at this time were generally called Savoy or Regal. The ABC cinemas that I knew in my area of the East End of London known as the Empire or else had no apparent name, as was the case of a small cinema on the Commercial Road in Stepney.

ABC cinemas were generally grand in décor and architecture and were, like the Odeons, remarkable examples of art deco. Although there was much to recommend these cinemas in their design, I was never one to be overwhelmed by them. I did not like the colour scheme. The décor of the foyer, access halls and corridors to the auditoria appeared to be of a basic beige or cream, which I did not find to be a particularly appealing colour. In the foyer, advertisement boards and picture holders along with various other accessories were found. These were decorated with intricate motifs, patterns and designs and served to accentuate the unique décor of the cinema chain. Although this made for a remarkable and interesting sight, I felt the overall effect was spoilt by the unattractive combination of red, gold and green paints used to highlight them. This choice of colour together with the basic beige failed to win me over and I felt the final effect to be cold and somewhat eerie causing me not to want to enter the auditorium. As I have said, I much preferred the lush richness and warmth produced by the combination of the chocolate brown and gold favoured by the Odeons. However, one thing that did impress me at the ABC were the lamps and recess lighting, which were often spectacular.

By the late 1950s, television sets were found in an ever increasing number in homes causing cinema ticket sales to fall. Following the decline, ABC diversified and expanded into television production and management. As the ticket sales continued to fall, increasing numbers of cinemas belonging to all circuits were facing the threat of closure. Some cinemas were saved either permanently or temporarily by their conversion into Bingo Halls, Billiard Halls or shopping centres.

In 1967, Seven Arts, now the owners of Warner Brothers, sold its interest in their ABC cinemas to EMI. However, in 2000, following various changes in ownership, the then-owner, Cinven merged all remaining operational ABC cinemas with one-time Rank cinemas and renamed them Odeon. Currently the Odeons, with a new logo, form part of the largest cinema chain operating in Europe.

In addition to the major circuits, there were several minor ones with cinemas in most areas of London. Despite most people having access to these cinemas, their sheer lack of number and their lack of access to the majority of first run films produced by the main American and British production companies saw to it that they were never a threat to Rank and ABC. These circuits included the Essoldo, Granada and Classic. The Granada and Essoldo chains were granted access to first run films only when no cinema belonging to Rank or ABC was close by. This was perhaps more noticeable outside big cities. For example, the town of Slough once had three cinemas operated by the Granada circuit: the Granada, the Century and the Adelphi. Since neither Rank nor ABC owned cinemas in the town, Granada was permitted to screen premier films from all of the main production companies in these cinemas.

Essoldo Herald logoThe Essoldo chain was the largest independent chain and was founded in 1930 by Soloman Sheckman as S.S. Blyth Kinemas, Newcastle. The company was very much a family concern and the name Essoldo came from the first names of his wife, ESther, himself, SOLomon and his daughter, DOrothy. After Mr. Sheckman's death in the late 1960's, the circuit was controlled by his brother Captain Mark Sheckman. Most Essoldo cinemas were named for the chain, but with an occasional variation, as was the case with the Empress in Hackney.

Essoldos showed films that had already gone on General Release or else were not wanted for showing by the major circuits. However, in the early 1950s, once 20th Century Fox began producing its films in CinemaScope, the company insisted that the cinemas showing their films adhere to certain strict standards and requirements including equipping all theatres with four-track stereophonic sound. This led to a disagreement between Fox and the Rank Organization who were distributing their films at this time. Settlement was not reached and Fox looked elsewhere for a circuit to distribute its films. Seizing the opportunity, the Essoldo chain stepped in and offered its cinemas to Fox. The management of the Essoldo chain was happy to agree to all the demands made by Fox and so became a force in the business. For several years, the Essoldos enjoyed good business by showing many first run films that patrons wanted to see. However, Fox and Rank eventually overcame their differences and the Essoldo circuit returned to its previous screening policy of showing films of less than sterling quality. In 1972, the remaining cinemas still in operation were sold to Classic.


Granada was founded by Sidney and Cecil Bernstein in 1930. The names of the Granada cinemas were named for the chain for the most part. However, what they lacked in imagination in this respect, they more than made up for in their astonishingly and exotic art deco décor. Many gave the impression that the patron had entered a Moorish Palace and were remarkable in appearance. I remember going to the Granada in Stratford and being astonished by its décor and architecture. I don’t recall ever going to another Granada after that until I moved from London. Granada, like Essoldo, struck a deal with 20th Century Fox to present their films, but with the decline of ticket sales, the cinemas were either closed or turned into Bingo Halls. Many were demolished, which considering their architectural merit is unfortunate. In 1988, the five remaining cinemas were sold to Cannon and in 1991 the Bingo Halls were sold to Bass Leisure.

CinemaScope posters

There was only one cinema in the whole of my area of the East End that had a relationship to the Granada circuit, albeit distant. Unfortunately, by the time I became aware of this establishment its exterior had been so transformed that it no longer resembled the original design. Sadly, it certainly could not then be mistaken for a Moorish Palace. At the time that I knew of the cinema, it showed many of the films shown by the Essoldo circuit. This cinema, the Standard, was tucked away between London Fields and the Hackney Road. It was a remarkably miserable looking place and closed once ticket sales went into decline. It became a Snooker Hall for a while and perhaps a Bingo Hall, but soon closed permanently. The building has long since been abandoned and has remained derelict for a number of years now. I am amazed that the corpse of the building is still present and has not been raised to the grounds to make way for more luxury apartments that the inhabitants of the area can ill-afford.

The Classic Cinema Group was found by E.A. Rhodes. Its cinemas were simply called the Classic in London, but were distinguished from each other by the addition of their geographic location, as with the Classic, Baker Street, the Classic, Kings Road, Chelsea, the Classic, Strand etc. Unfortunately, we had no Classic in my part of the East End, which I found most annoying as a child. The Classic chain was interesting in that its cinemas generally screened double features of previously released popular films. They also specialized in screening double features of films of one particular star. Classics were the forerunner of the art house and the revival cinema. I am grateful to the Classics, since once I developed some maturity in my taste in film, these cinemas became a constant source of education and pleasure, as they allowed me to see some great films, which would have otherwise been left to decay in a vault somewhere in a salt mine in Utah and never seen by me. Naturally with the advent of television companies such as Turner Classic Movies and various rental video stores and companies, such a wonderful cinema circuit could not, unfortunately, maintain its place in our society. As wonderful as it is to be able to view a video in the comfort of one’s own home, once one has attended the screening of a classic film in a renovated picture palace, a patron cannot but be left saddened at the demise of the Classic circuit and wish for its return.

Although cinemas and going to the pictures were important to us as kids, we had no interest whatsoever in circuits and distribution rights. We were interested in what was showing and where it was being shown. However, this was not to say that we had no interest in the type of cinema that we went to. Far from it for we would rate them according to a strict scale. Classification was based not only on the types of films shown at the cinema, but consideration of its current state of grandeur or lack thereof also formed part of the assessment. Should a cinema be damned, it was generally damned forever. A cinema rarely recovered from such a sentence. As the East End was a poor working class area, many cinemas received poor assessments and so dismissed as dumps. Whenever such a cinema found its way into conversation, it would only be done through the use of the most derogatory of terms. Disparaging remarks were always welcomed by kids and would bring forth the most raucous of jeers and sneers by the fellow conversationalists. We were harsh and cruel in our assessments. However, cruel we might have been, but pragmatists, we also could be. For when a film of interest was advertised to be shown at what we had classified as a dump, we would turn down our noses and swallow our pride and graciously deem to enter the establishment and expect to enjoy the film.

At the top end of the assessment scale, in all its pride, stood the picture palace. This type of cinema was indeed grand and often glorious. Many were truly remarkable and some were architectural wonders. It should be remembered that at the time that I writing about, travel was not a common occurrence for most of the inhabitants of the East End. Some had no doubt traveled abroad during their military years, but few had ventured outside England on their own and many had not even crossed London. I remember taking a bus ride with my grandmother. As we passed through the City, I asked her if she knew where she was. She looked at me in a questioning manner and said that she thought that we were in Whitehall. She had never been to the City before and had mistaken The Mansion House for Whitehall. So for most people, the picture palace was perhaps the most ornate building that they had ever seen and as near as many ever got to the wonders of the world.

(click on the pictures above to enlarge)

Many of the palaces had exotic names, which often reflected the architecture and in the remarkable and stunning décor of the foyer and auditorium. Other palaces, although superficially less spectacular, were nonetheless admirable and displayed an elegance in their understatement. From the very second patrons stood before a palace, they could not fail to feel a sense of occasion. This feeling was quickly reinforced as they made their way up the one or two steps from the street and passed through the heavy wood and glass doors that opened into the foyer. Immediately, patrons were astonished by the overwhelming grandeur and beauty of this anti-chamber and by the magnificence of the staircase that swept up to the balcony. Ceilings would be elaborate and often illuminated by carefully concealed lighting. Breathtakingly beautiful coloured glass chandeliers that defied description hung from the ceiling and cast a delicate light over the activities below. Most often there would be an assortment of potted plants tastefully positioned about the foyer. The walls were decorated with still photographs of the stars featured in the films showing that week or in the coming ones to come. Friendly, elegantly dressed staff members in the livery of the circuit were present to greet and direct patrons to the box office where a charming young lady in similar attire would request your preference for seating. Once told, she would push the appropriate lever and the number of tickets would spring out of a small slot ready for the patron to collect. Another staff member would next usher ticketed patrons to the entrance of the auditorium where yet another staff member would be waiting to inspect the tickets and offer directions through to the auditorium.

No matter how grand and glorious the foyer and the staircase to the balcony were, nothing could prepare the patron for the sheer marvel that they were about to see. The patron could not fail to be overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance and majesty of the auditorium. For magnificent it would be. The imaginative design gave the impression that perhaps the patron had mistakenly wandered into the court of a potentate or perhaps into the temple of some Eastern god. Others, although less ostentatious in their simplicity, were nonetheless as remarkable as their more grandiose counterparts. Such auditoria achieved an unassuming elegance through tasteful and delicate choices of colour and décor together with a minimum use of objets d’art.

Odeon Cinemas

The management of the picture palaces made great efforts to see that patrons were treated respectfully and saw to it that enjoyed their visits. The staff took great pride in working in such places and did all they could to see that the evening was memorable for everyone. The patrons, for their part, saw going out for the evening to a picture palace as something special, an occasion, and behaved accordingly. Such places, although welcoming to well-behaved children, were certainly not places for kids out for fun and a certain amount of trouble. They were places for kids to marvel and places where their imagination could roam free as they gazed at the splendor about them.

The picture palace was a place where families went as a group for a pleasant night out. They were also the haunt of young lovers and those hoping to be so. These cinemas were places where young men took a young woman on their first date with the hope of impressing her with his sophisticated manner. These were places where less scrupulous males, males on the make, brought female companions in the hope that by creating a good impression, they would enjoy some return on their money later in the evening. The palaces were decorative, well maintained and offered an atmosphere conducive to whatever the patrons wished it to be. Many offered refreshments and light meals in their tearooms complete with table service. Patrons were encouraged to meet their friends in these elegant tearooms and enjoy a meal prior to the showing. Since children were welcome in these establishments, they carried no license for alcohol sales. Most palaces were equipped with an organ, which would be played prior to a performance. It was unfortunate that this form of entertainment was in decline when I was ready to go to these places with serious intentions.

If the picture palace was at the high end of the scale for charm and elegance, the dump would occupy a place further down on that same scale. These cinemas had, to coin a phrase, seen better days. Many may have been elegant at some time, but perhaps with a change in management or else its withdrawal from a circuit, a decline from favour had occurred. Unfortunately, the majority of cinemas known to me as a child in Bethnal Green were of this type. However, and let us be clear on this point, the dump would often screen wonderful films that would cause a patron to develop a soft spot for such an establishment. This was most certainly the case for myself and several neighbourhood cinemas. As superficially dreadful as a dump might appear, it would seem like a virtual palace when compared to a flea pit.

The flea pit was most definitely at the bottom end of our assessment scale. Whereas the palace was exotic, full of charm and mystic, and the dump might offer a certain familiarity and coziness, the flea pit was totally lacking in pretense and offered no comfort, no elegance or certainly no concern. Firstly, let me say that whether flea pits actually had fleas is questionable. However the name is apt, as those of you that remember them will willingly vouch.

Damage posterFlea pits were rough looking places both from the outside and on the inside. They lacked even a modicum of grandeur, offered no comfort and were staffed by those with a laissez-faire attitude. From the outside, one was immediately horrified by the image this cinema presented to the world. The front was often dirty and generally in need of paint. There were no architectural points of interest to attract the passer-by. Some even lacked a foyer. Here the patron purchased a ticket through a small window that opened onto the street. Next the unsuspecting ticket holder passed directly through a door adjacent to the box office window and found himself thrust directly into the auditorium. Those that had foyers did little to make them inviting. Potted plants were nowhere to be seen and pictures and posters were never changed and only seemed to advertise films of yesteryear.

The staff, such as they were, were not dressed in any special livery and could only be, at best, described as grumpy. At the entrance to the auditorium, there would be a person with a bulldog mentality waiting at a curtain to inspect tickets. Such a person always seemed to hate children and would be most unpleasant in both greeting and demands. This person would warn kids that any trouble and ya out! Got it? How could one resist such an invitation?

Once ushered through the curtain, the way to the auditorium proved dark and dangerous. The patron was left to find his own way from then on. The auditorium had few house lights and generally no floor lights to aid to the poor traveler. As a result, a patron might stumble over feet and an occasional leg, which had been splayed out into the aisle for added comfort. Even the projected film did little to illuminate the route to a seat since the poorly adjusted arc lamp would flicker and darken and so bring patrons difficulty in following the action besides impeding those wishing to use it to light their way to safety. Eventually, after suffering threats and perhaps the odd projected missile, the patron hopefully became accustomed to the dim light and so could gingerly ease his way to an empty seat.

Renovated seatsThe seats were generally ripped and most of the stuffing had long since been lost. It was not uncommon to find an occasional spring sticking out, which would cause much unpleasantness to the unsuspecting. The seat covering had long ago lost its pile and would have appeared shiny had there been sufficient light to see. However, the finding of a seat that could actually be sat on always proved difficult in a flea pit, as most were in a poor state of repair and many were broken.

The majority of seats were deficient in repair due to lost screws not being replaced. This rendered the seat loose and once sat upon would place the patron in a precarious position. Others had seats that opened too far thereby causing the seated patron to risk slipping off during his enjoyment of the film. As with most unfortunate events, there was a silver lining to such a happening since problems with the seat would bring his companions much amusement and break the monotony should the film be proving dull. Renovated double seatsHowever, the real danger to the patron lay in those seats that lacked a seat all together. Allow me to digress: the reader may have noticed that kids have a particular way of sitting down in a cinema seat. They like to push themselves against the back of the seat and then bring their bottoms down onto the seat. In this way, their weight forces the seating to open and causes them to fall into it. This gives them a great deal of pleasure. To return to the description of the seats of the flea pit: when a young patron pushed himself back against a seat, his hope was that there would actually be a sit to rest himself on. Oftentimes, this would not be the case and the young patron would then find himself on the floor in the midst of old ice cream wrappers and tubs and various other forms of debris. The sounds made by his falling would be greeted with much pleasure by the audience about him. Filled with embarrassment, the young patron would not only have to get up, dust himself off, but next run the gauntlet, as he attempted to find a seat that could be sat upon. His soon-to-be erstwhile friends would gain added pleasure should he be holding a drink or some other form of messy foodstuffs, as these would undoubtedly be spilled on him much to his vexation.

Repainted seatsOne last point about seating in the flea pit, and then I promise to move on, comes from a something told to me by an American friend. It seems that flea pits were once universal, as there was such a movie house in Cleveland, Ohio. This establishment was commonly known amongst the kids of the area, as the Rat Hole, and was greatly despised by patrons. This name should tell the reader everything that they needed to know about this place. Apparently, it readily fulfilled the criteria for classification as a flea pit and had gained its unique name from there being an actual rat hole visible to the clientele at the baseboard beneath the screen. I am assured that rodents were often seen scampering around and that broken seats were the norm here. Once, as my friend was making her way along a row, she arrived at what she assumed was an empty area. With some relief and a wish to sit and start enjoying the film, she collapsed back into the seat in the usual manner, as described earlier, only to be greeted by yelps and slaps. Apparently, a thin person was already installed in the seat and had taken none-too-kindly to being sat upon. I assume that tubs of popcorn and vast containers of sweet ice-cold drinks were thrown about the place, as my friend slipped to the ground perhaps along with her seating companion. I am afraid that my laughter, which accompanied the telling of this tale, caused my friend to discontinue her story. Apparently, I was meant to sympathize with her and not find the situation amusing. Fortunately, my imagination was easily able to fill-in what she refused to tell, so all was well.

The floors of the flea pits were not only filthy and littered with the debris accumulated from days of no cleaning, but were also a source of danger to the patron. The carpet, when present, was generally worn and very much the worse for wear. Often it would come with large gaping holes that proved invisible in the dark and would prove traps for the unsuspecting patron who might innocently catch his foot in one and so be launched headlong further along the aisle, again much to the amusement of those about him. Most certainly, the carpet would show signs of burns resulting from stubbed out cigarettes. Mind you, such an event was inevitable since all ashtrays were either long since absent or else jammed full, as no one ever emptied them.

Flea pits were notorious for their amenities, or rather for the lack of them. When present, they were generally in a poor state of repair and rarely cleaned. Parents warned their children not to go to the toilet at a flea pit. It was thought that they harboured dirty old men that would lay in wait for an unsuspecting youth to wander in. Parents would also warn their children to never ever go to a flea pit alone and to never ever sit next to an adult who was alone. Most parents outright forbad their children to go to such a cinema. My mother made it quite clear that I should never ever go to one and I was made to promise her faithfully that I never would. Naturally, I did not listen, but I never did go to such a cinema alone and I never ever went to the toilet while there and I never ever sat next to a lone adult. Had such a man sat next to me, I would have moved seats or else left.

The one advantage of the flea pit to a kid was that you were not bothered by the staff unless your group became especially rowdy or if a large fight broke out. Should this happen, there would be no discussion and no reasoning, and everyone and anyone that was grabbed was tossed out of the building: no questions asked and no explanation given or accepted. One could sit with one’s feet up on the seat in front, smoke, mess around and generally have a good time. After all, one was there for anything and everything except to watch the film, which would generally be old having been released years earlier.

The worst flea pit known to me was this really awful cinema on the Roman Road. However, it was the first cinema in the area to open for regular performances once the war ended. I am ashamed to say that it was here that I saw my very first film, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Apparently I had been nagging, on and on, that I wanted to see this film and so my mother took me. I am sure that at this time, it had not acquired its flea bitten status, but even then, it could never have been likened to a picture palace. Over the years, this place kept deteriorating and became quite dreadful judging by the outside. I can not say that I ever went inside again. I could not bring myself to go. This cinema was so awful that it had long since lost its name. No one ever referred to it by name and whenever it was referred to, it was simply called that dump. Quite apt, I thought. During my one and only visit to that dump, I remember not liking the wicked stepmother and spending a lot of time under my seat for I was fearful that this hag would carry me off. This poor cinema was demolished sometime in the ‘60s and has since made way for a block of flats with a series of shops occupying the ground floor. As ugly as these flats and shops may be, they are a marked improvement over that dump.

The Popular Cinema, Stepney

The other truly terrible cinema that I can recall was in Stepney. This place had a name, but I am unable to recall it. I think that it belonged to the Classic chain, but I cannot be sure. However, I find this hard to believe since the Classics belonged to a small chain of cinemas that specialized in showing classic films. The one film that I saw there was The Marx Brothers in A night in Casablanca. The auditorium was truly miserable. Most of the seats were broken and rest of the décor was dirty and frayed. The picture flickered and the sound quality did not allow you to actually hear much dialogue. I remember frustration grew amongst the mostly young clientele and they became very noisy. This lack of quiet obviously annoyed one of the few adults present and soon a scuffle broke out, which quickly turned into a fully-fledged battle between various factions of the neighbourhood. Poplar was always a rough area and I had been strictly forbidden to ever go there, but had disobeyed and gone anyway with a group of chums. Soon, the warring factions were going at it full pelt and this necessitated the house lights being raised. This shone little light on the goings on since most were broken. I remember a few ushers and a man in a suit trying to regain order, but failing miserably. I also remember finding the whole scene to be quite funny and began to laugh. Laughter was soon turned to concern and then fear when several small skirmishes now broke out in the rows in front and behind us. Since we were not a part of the local crew, we became fearful that our entry onto Stepney turf would be discovered and the warring hoards could well unite and turn their combined might on us. Quickly and with little noise, we beat a hasty retreat out of that place and into the sunlight. Once outside, I began laughing again. In spite of this, the flea pit had a definite place in my society.

Horror Film Posters

I would like to thank Mr. Kevin Wheelen and Mr. Brian Hall for providing the photographs used here. I am truly grateful to them for their time and effort.


I have been told by a friend of mine that the most awful cinema in the Roman Road in Bethnal Green was in fact named the Empire and the one in Stepney was named the Popular. My friend asks me not to be too harsh on the poor old place. He informed me that cinemas deteriorated badly during World War II, in fact up to 1955, when building restrictions were finally lifted. Apparently until then, it was virtually impossible to get permission for even minor repairs to anything but industrial buildings and housing in Britain. By 1955 many of the independent cinemas were struggling to make ends meet against the onslaught of commercial television. As a result, cinema audiences were dwindling rapidly and cinemas began to close.

My friend urged me to remember that once cinemas such as the Empire and the Popular, as the collage shows, would have been new and smart and he reminds me to think of all the pleasure it gave over the decades. He also, sadly, reminded me that by the time my favourite cinema, the Excelsior closed, the carpets were thick with grease, the seats were broken and unstable and the screen was patched.

I have to confess that I feel humbled and ashamed and will be wearing sack cloth and ashes for a while.


I was born and brought up in Bethnal Green and my childhood memories of the area are very fond ones. Although I haven't lived in the East End for some 37 years now, whenever anyone asks me where I am from I still reply Bethnal Green and I always will!

I used to go to the Empire on Roman Road with friends, mostly during the school holidays or for ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’. It was mayhem in there, but we loved it. One reason why we loved it so much was that the staff never seemed to bother to ask you your age, which meant we could get in to see an adult picture without actually being accompanied by an adult. Incidentally, our name for the Empire was the ‘Bug ‘ole’ not the ‘Flea Pit’!

In those days, we did not always have enough money to go to the pictures. Despite this, we often found a way into the Empire that did not cost us anything. This involved one of us paying to get in. He would then slip into the toilets, which was where the emergency doors were, and open them up to let the rest of us in. I saw many films this way.

Another fond memory that I have of that cinema was that it was here that I was introduced to smoking. I remember that along with two of my friends, we bought clay bubble pipes and a box of matches took them with us to the Bug ‘ole. Once inside, we searched all of the little brass ashtrays, which were placed on the backs of the seats, and collected any dog-ends that still had tobacco left in them! We filled our clay pipes with the tobacco, and smoked it. I can't say I found it was an enjoyable experience, but it has made for an amusing tale to tell others, which I have done over the years.

One final and lasting memory of the Bug ‘ole comes to mind now that I am sitting and writing. The place had it own distinctive smell. It was unique and I have never experienced it anywhere else that I have been. The odour was musty! I hate to thing what combinations of solids, liquids and gases went into its making. I remember that we tried to hide this odour with the smoke from our pipes, but failed miserably!

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