Friday, 7 May 2010

Film Festival Review

Wow! 10 days goes pretty quickly! It only seems a day or two ago that I was heralding the start of the Southend Film Festival, and now it's all over, with the closing films screening on Wednesday. By all accounts it was a great success, and everyone I've spoken to who went along has reported good turn outs at the events they attended. I managed to get along to both of the events I was particularly keen on....

The first half of 'Lets All Go To The Pictures In Southend' was a bit on the flabby side at times to be honest, but some real gems were lodged in between the (literally) hundreds of slide show pictures of local cinemas all now deceased. There was the screening of a number of old 50's, 60's and 70's cinema adverts (they did actually try to find the legendary 'Ere Burt, this is the place" for this night, but without success), video footage shot inside the Southend Odeon cinema just days before it was bulldozed (both fascinating and sad all at the same time), and some amazing video footage shot after the ABC cinema closed, where upon artifacts and original decor from over 70 years ago were found behind various walls and 'boxed off' rooms.

There was also a very interesting cinema short from the 'Look At Life' series made by Rank. These were 10 minute information films which ran in Odeon and Gaumont cinemas from 1959 until 1969. At the time they were no doubt viewed as no more than boring filler, but today they are a fabulous document of a time gone by. This chirpy little episode was all about London street markets and the new fangled supermarkets that were also starting to pop up. The whole thing was narrated by Sid James and it was one of the real highlights of the first half, yet I couldn't help thinking it seemed vaguely familiar. But how could it be? It played on my mind for the rest of the evening until it suddenly all fell into place the next day. Incredibly, with over 500 'Look At Life' episodes to chose from, fellow blogger Cocktails posted this very same short on her blog just over a year ago! Amazing! Why not pop over and view the whole film here.

The second half of this show was a pure unadulterated pleasure, as legendary local cinema manager Ron Stewart took to the stage. Ron is in his 80's now, and has retired to Hastings, but the organisers of the film festival were able to lure him down to his old patch to wallow in cinematic nostalgia just for old times sake. He was an absolute natural on stage, and held the audience captivated throughout with his fascinating memories. This man was a real maverick in his day, doing any and every thing to promote his cinema and upcoming films - he won many awards in his time for it too. Whilst watching him regale us with his tales, it struck me that Ron is almost certainly the type of man that the cinema industry would hate these days, in the world of faceless, carbon copy, multi-screen boredom, where you must blend in and are told what to show and when to show it. There was just too much to take in, but here's just a few of his stories that I remember:

Ron catching some children trying to bury their dead pet hamster in the grounds of the Classic Cinema. They tell him that they keep burying him in the garden at home but the dog keeps digging him up again! Ron explained that they couldn't really do that, but offered to pop the poor wee fella in the incinerator in the bowels of the cinema as a cremation! The kids agreed and were delighted with the send off (Ron even muttering a few words along the lines of "God bless out pet"!!). The children went off very happy, and the parents later come down to thank Ron, and say that it had really cheered the children up giving their pet a proper send off. Cue a steady stream of parents, kids and dead pets from then on! Classic quote of the night when Ron says rather sheepishly something along the lines of "there were so many at one point, I think the parent were killing 'em"!

Ron used to show the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a Friday late nighter every six weeks at the Classic cinema. I remember this well and went to it on numerous occasions. On these nights Ron used to open up a third toilet, one for him, one for her and one for him dressed as her!

Apparently there was a natural spring directly underneath the Classic cinema, with various contraptions within the building to keep the water at bay. During one Saturday morning children's show, the system broke down, and the cinema started to fill with water. As the auditorium was sloped, the 'screen end' was filling up quickly as was soon deep enough to jump in! The kids went crazy for it and were diving in from all angles! Ron said that all the dye was coming out of the plush carpet, and it turned all the kids red!

Playing a trick on a regular punter who always used to fall asleep. Ron got his staff to dress up as cleaners and push the hovers round the sleeping gents feet. Once he was awake they pretended it was 10.30 the next morning (rather than the 10.30pm that it actually was)... "my wife will kill me" he screamed, as he shot out the door!

An elderly couple visiting Ron when he was the manager of the Regal cinema in Rayleigh. The cinema was about to close for the last time, and the couple asked if they could have two specific seats. Alternative (and much easier to dismantle!) seats were offered, but they were adamant on the two selected... these were the seats that they had sat in on their first date, throughout their courtship and every other visit from then to the current day. To his eternal credit, Ron set to work unbolting the seats from the row, and eventually had separated them from the floor... Only for them to say "Can you bring them round to our house and fit them please?". He did too!

There was also a Q&A session with the audience, and during it, I finally got an answer to a question that I've pondered for years.... Look at these two pictures of the same cinema (there are some considerable decades between the two shots!):

I've always wondered what happened to that tall bit in the middle, and thought I'd see if Ron had the answer. He referred to it as "the fin", and said that because of its positioning, it took the brunt of the weather, and over the years it just became unsafe, so it had to be removed. Simple when you know!

The 'Ultimate Laurel and Hardy Picture Show' alas was a bit of a disappointment. It was all cued up to be the stuff of fairy tales... the very first function in the all new 'Laurel and Hardy Suite' (a conference room made up of the two rooms in which Stan and Ollie actually stayed in) of the recently refurbished Palace Hotel, was to be a Laurel and Hardy event. How perfect!
It was run, as I fully expected, by the local 'tent' of the fan club, the Saps at Sea. The room was heaving, and had completely sold out a good day or two beforehand. Whats more, this was also the date of the annual Laurel and Hardy convention (this year in Oxford), so the room was almost completely filled with casual fans rather than the already hardened converts of this parish. It was an ideal opportunity for the Saps to pick up some new recruits, but unfortunately the Ultimate Picture Show didn't quite deliver....
This should have been a 'go for the jugular' event, cherry picking 4 or 5 of the boys absolute classics, enabling the audience to enjoy (or maybe even discover) them as a group. But the fan club allowed themselves to be too self indulgent and proceeded to wheel out one banal oddity after another... An unwatchable 1930's Mickey Mouse cartoon that happens to briefly feature caricatures of Stan and Ollie, numerous foreign language trailers for their films, a collection of rather flat US newsreel features on one or both of the duo, and a mind-numbing array of adverts featuring people pretending to be Laurel and Hardy whilst trying to flog anything from pizza to windscreen wiper blades. A German cartoon advert for Fyffes bananas anyone??! (I'm NOT making this up!!) Even a Norman Wisdom advert was somehow shoehorned in to the proceedings because he was a 'friend' of the duo!! This material (and I fully appreciate how 'rare' much of it must be) was no doubt going down a storm 100 miles away in Oxford with the hardcore, but it missed the mark in Southend. In over 2 hours we got just 2 Laurel and Hardy 'shorts'... one silent and one talkie. The other hour and twenty minutes was largely forgettable, although there was a nice 5 minutes or so devoted to the time the lads visited Southend.

I've got a lot of time for the local fan club, they are a genuine bunch who want nothing more than to promote and preserve the memory of their heroes. But on this occasion, the temptation to 'showboat' meant they took their eye off the ball and perhaps lost sight of the likely target audience of the day. A missed opportunity to showcase the boys in their best light to potential new fans.
On the plus side though, it was a great opportunity to have a good look at the recently refurbished and re-opened Palace Hotel (now called the Park Inn). The Laurel and Hardy conference suite is really nice, and has been subtly decked out with tributes to the boys. But the best bit is that after 8 years of kicking around the town without a proper home, the Laurel and Hardy blue plaque (unveiled by Sir John Mills back in 2002), finally has a permanent location... pride of place in the foyer. Top work Park Inn.

I also managed to visit the event running in Southend High Street over the weekend, showcasing a few classic cars from Film and TV (although I'd wager that none of the cars on display had ever seen a film set in their lives!). Still, for what it's worth it was good to see 'a' Starsky and Hutch Gran Torino, 'a' Dukes of Hazard Dodge Charger 'General Lee', 'a' Greased Lightening and 'a' Herbie. And here they all are....



Anonymous said...

Ron was always a top gent at the Rayleigh Regal, and it couldn't have been easy with all us spotty faced oiks going there. He was a lot less fiecesome than some his old dears with the torches!
Glad to hear that he is still in good health, and just sad that I didn't make it along to the show.
Fingers crossed for next year.


Piley said...

thanks Warble... I should have asked Ron about that Scotish lady you remember so well!

I was able to meet Ron after the show too for a quick chat, he was, and still is the perfect gentleman.


Kolley Kibber said...

I LOVE Ron's 'look'. Absolutely perfect for his job. There's no way he could have done anything else. I'd have loved to see him at one of the Rocky Horror Show nights (did he let you take water pistols and bags of rice in??).

Shame the Stan and Ollie-fest fell a bit flat, but overall it sounded like a fine festival. You bottled out of the all-nighter, then? Lightweight.

John Medd said...

Have you ever been to Bottesford in Leics, Piley? Stan's sister and husband used to run The Bull. I've got a picture somewhere of Stan and Ollie pulling pints when they stopped there after performing in Nottingham.

Heff said...

A dude in my town has a Gran Torino, and he had it painted EXACTLY like the Starsky & Hutch model. Yeah, he's a class act, lol !

Cocktails said...

I love those cinema anecdotes, especially the one about the cinema swimming pool. Nothing exciting like that ever happened at our local picturehouse, although they may well have run a pet cremation service on the side for all I know!

Great co-incidence about the Sid James street market film. I'd love to see that on the big screen. And if you enjoyed that one, I say with my marketing hat on, I'd recommend the whole Look at Life in Swinging London DVD.

Mondo said...

Can't believe 'Ere Burt is such a bugger to track down. Great hear ol' Ron is such a gent, I remember him from The Classic and he always looked Mr Cinema. Blimey those RHPS nights too - I had some right tear ups there.

I've actually sat in the same Torino '615 COP' - we went a custom car show last year, and I was gutted I didn't have me Starksy Adidas SL 76s on so the bloke who owns it let me sit in with the cardy here if you fancy a peep.

E F RICE said...

Great post mate. I share your disappointment with the L&H event, it was a prefect opportunity to talk about their stay and show some short classics. The adverts were abysmal with one actor looking more like Christopher Biggins than Oliver Hardy.

The lowlight for me was a local councillor addressing us all on his story of when he met L&H at the Palace. Actually what really happened was he caught a glimpse of them arriving and not a lot else ! For a Councillor he had an incredibly quiet voice (my stereotypical view is that councillors are all loud and opinionated) and led to a heckle from one gentleman along the lines of 'is he talking ?', that got quite a few laughs actually ! Who was that bloke .... ?

Must just put a good word in for Dave Simpson who presented the event though. He reminds me a lot of John Peel with his voice and general style and I know he is a major L&H fan and loves cinema in general.

Palace in great shape though, will be checking out the coffee lounge with my family soon !

Piley said...

ISBW - Just back from a fab long weekend down your neck of the woods! Ron was a true gent, they don't make em like that anymore. He let you take the rice, the water pistols (which then meant soggy rice... ugh), the newspapers, the toast, even the hundreds of candles, all held aloft by 90% pissed people!! These nights were always good turn outs, and were every 6 weeks. Ron said he wanted to up the frequency at one point but his cleaners threatened a mutiny if that had to clear up the mess any more regularly! Ahh, the 80's weren't so bad after all!

I never was likely to get to the all-nighter, and would have been asleep within minutes of the lights going down! But I hear if was a great night.

JM - Don't know that one, will stick that on the list for when I'm nect that way. I'm always gob-smacked at how the boys did stuff like that all the time. Nothing seemed too much trouble when they were on tour here. It should be remembered they were both cracking on by then, and neither in good health.

Heff - do you have the black and white cardie? does he let you sit in it sometimes and you sing the theme-tune??? ;-)

Cocktails - there were so many other too... There was a 'bring a pet to the cinema' day (and you can imagine how well that went!), a special 'Hells Angels' night, and they turned up from all over the country to attend. Ron was made a honoury Hells Angel!!!! (true!) or how about Ron on a carnival float that was decked out as an X-Wing fighter from Star Wars... Ron dressed as an X-Wing pilot. There was a accident and he topled off and ended up in A&E and with no money in his pocked. After finally being let go, he went to a cab and said "can you take me to the Classic Cinema?, but I havn't got any money...." The cabbie replied "what planet are you from mate?" !!

Keen to see more of those films, so will look into that - ta for the tip!

Mondo - wonder if we'll ever track that down?? Everyone seems to remember it, but no bugger has got it. You look like Charlie Big Potatoes in that pic mate! Nice Cardie! Did your mum ever knit you one at the time? I was alwas asking my mum to knit me one!

EF Rice - Agreed,
I have no problem with the presenting from Dave (and no problem with any of the Saps cme to that), it was just the selected material that let the event down I feel. Dave put everything into his presentation, and was good value.

"is he talking"!!! Yes I heard that too! Think it was an old fella towards the back, maybe his hearing wasn't so good, or maybe he was just rude!! (or both!)


phsend said...

I was really pleased I attended the evening with Ron Stewart. Having spent much of my spare time from aged 8 to 14 at The Classic cinema, it was great seeing him again. Apart from the weekly Saturday Morning cinema show with its Loony Tunes disco, those dinasour chewy sweets, lucky numbers and that was before the films had even started. Anyone remember Danny The Dragon?

Saw loads of film at The Classic but mainly the 70s powerhouses The Towering Inferno, Earthquake in 70mm full stereo sensurround, Jaws, Escape from the Planet of the Apes - double billed with The Posiedon Adventure. Saw a few strange ones too The Likely Lads, Thats Entertainment, Steptoe & Son Ride Again, Man About the House...Years later saw Breaking Glass, (my first AA) and Heavy Metal. Went on the Classic carnival float, saw a 3D film called The Bubble (which Ron remembered as being 1981) that guy has an amazing memory. I took my dog to the pet show Piley mentioned, that really was a morning to remember and it did get us to go and see the movie Benji so as a promotional tool - it worked. Ron used to book a fair few expoitation pics too - The Man from Hong Kong, Death Wish, The Exterminator, The Beast...all "BACK BY PUBLIC DEMAND" I'm not sure if I preferred Classic 1 or Classic 2,both screens had their charms although I did have a nasty abusive experience in Classic 1 - I had to sit through The Slipper And The Rose.

Anonymous said...

Love the Starsky and Hutch and Dukes of Hazzard motors. Any more pics you could e mail me ???. Good piece P , i didn't even know there was a film festival on !!!!. Obviously not been paying attention. A good read mate.


Anonymous said...

P.S. Coopl pic Mondo !!!!.

Piley said...

PH - yeah a great night. Loved some of those old cinema ad's too... i'd forgoten those rancid Kiora drinks in the plastic cup that you had to spike with a straw. How flat were they??! For best results serve warm... Did no cinema have ice or fridges back then?? ugh

Interesting about the 'smoking' thing too. Almost forgot about smoking in the cineam. Loved the ad they screened where smokers had to sit on the left hand side! Yeah coz that always worked didnt it?! Could never smell it when you were a isle distance from an old gasper!

Ron said they had to change the screen every year due to the smoke damage.

Carl - you must of missed my post a couple of weeks back on the festival. Yeah it wasn't dvertised that well, but people somehow found out, and there were some good turn outs for it. They showed the Dr Feelgood movie, and most of the remaining original members turned up for it.

I took dozens of pics fella! I just didn't wanna look TOO nerdy by posting them on here! I'll sort some out for you.


marmiteboy said...

Ron's segment of the evening was th true highlight. I loved his stories and as we said on the evening he probably wouldn't last 5 minutes in today's multinational corporate world.

Cinema was made by people like Ron. It is a shame the suits don't remember that.

Piley said...

couldn't agree more Marmite. I noticed that Rons segment was being recorded, I wonder what will happen with that.