Hands up all those who remember The Bug’ole. And how many of you admit to having been there? I thought so.
My mother wouldn’t allow me to go to The Electric Theatre, or was it The Electric Cinema; I can’t remember which. Nobody ever called it anything other than the Bug’ole, that’s for sure. For those of you of tender years who don’t know what I am talking about, The Electric (Whatever) was an independent cinema located opposite the police station in Barking. After closing, back in the early sixties, it became a supermarket and may still be one for all I know. It was some time since I left Barking, though I was born there just before the war, and lived there until 1970.
Barking was well blessed with cinemas. You all know the Odeon, of course. Well, it never used to be called that. It was first named the Rio and when the lights came on again for the first time after the war it was the red coloured neon letters RIO that we went and gazed at in admiration. The Bug’ole was something else though. I don’t know who owned it but it was independently owned and showed films that were not part of the regular film circuit. Gunga Din is one title that comes to mind, plus Westerns by the score. It was probably a perfectly respectable cinema, but for some reason, it acquired a reputation and a nickname that stuck. Toward the end of its existence it started showing films that mother would definitely not have approved of. There is a very informative page on the Barking Historical Society website that will give you full details of ownership and history of Barking’s cinemas. So for facts and figures I refer you there, but I would like to try to evoke something more personal, if I may.
RIO Cinema Barking circa 1950
Cinemas were important entertainment in the forties and fifties. The programme usually changed midweek, which gave you the chance of going twice in one week if you could afford it. The Capital Cinema in East Street was an ABC group cinema and part of a different circuit to the RIO, so the choice was even greater. A bus ride to East Ham would bring you to the Gaumont plus another independent cinema that even gave live variety acts between the two feature films and newsreels that were the normal programme. When I was a child, mother took me to all the latest Bing Crosby and Bob Hope ‘Road-to’ films at the Gaumont and also to every new Walt Disney film as it appeared: Wizard of Oz, Bambi, Pinoccio, etc. but we were well provided for in Barking and mother enjoyed the cinema as much as I did.
A visit to the cinema was quite an event in the forties and fifties. Oddly, it was common to just go to the cinema at any time of day without queuing up or waiting for the programme to start. You bought your ticket and went in, perhaps halfway through the second feature. Then there would be a break for the ice-cream girl to sell her wares; a newsreel would follow, plus advertisements and trailers for next week’s films, all before the start of the main feature. When that was finished, you either left satisfied, or perhaps stayed on to see the first part of the second feature, which you missed before you came in. It was quite exhausting! Four hours or more was good value for money at 1/6d or 2/9d if you were well off. There was even a balcony in most cinemas, but at 3/9d per seat that was out of our reach. The only time I ever sat in the balcony of the RIO was in 1948 or 49 when all the school children in Barking were taken to see a performance of "Scott of the Antarctic". No doubt as an encouragement to make us all heroes when we grew up.
Entering an auditorium in the dark whilst a film is being shown is a tricky business. How do you find a seat? Tickets and seats were not numbered so you had to find an empty seat or couple of seats if you were with a friend; and don’t forget, you had just come from the outside where it was fully daylight, so your eyes were not accustomed to the gloom. That is why there were ushers employed to guide you to a seat with the aid of a torch. Cinemas were large, often beautifully decorated Art Deco palaces, that employed a small army of staff. Unlike the pokey, automated viewing booths that now pass for cinemas. How could we be satisfied with watching a small, black and white screen? Easy. We had not been spoilt by wide-screen colour TV; and a quick flight to Los Angeles for a week’s holiday was a science fiction dream at the time.
Saturday morning was the big day for us youngsters who were members of the RIO film club. The queue wandered out and down Salisbury Road beside the cinema and at 10 a.m. the doors would open and we would stream in to our favourite seats. Mine was always the third row from the front, left side, isle seat. There was a chipped, plastic letter C on the seat in front, I remember. I sat there with my friend Denis every week regularly in the early fifties. The reason I sat so close to the screen was because the noise from the kids behind was so great that most of the time you couldn’t otherwise hear what was said on the screen.
Each performance was preceded by a sing-along conducted by the cinema manager in dinner jacket and bow tie. Hundreds of voices yelling out the words of "We come alooooong on a Sa’urday moooorning, la-la-la-la-la lal-la lal-laaaaa." Several other old favourites followed, plus the obligatory lecture, about keeping quiet and to stop shooting staples at the screen, before the films started. Hopalong Cassidy or the Lone Ranger would gallop around the screen first for twenty minutes, usually to the noise of hundreds of screaming voices, before the main film started. It was a great way to spend a Saturday morning and all for 6d.
Cinema screens were not all that big. Cinemascope had yet to make an appearance in Britain, but auditoriums were large and a cinema could house hundreds of people and packed houses were not uncommon for a good film. Smoking was allowed and the smoke was often visible in the beam of light that carried the picture to the screen. Not very hygienic, perhaps, but the floors were not strewn with empty popcorn cartons or beer cans. And audiences were remarkably well behaved.
One other cinema I should perhaps mention is the Broadway Theatre. I never saw this cinema when it was open because it was gutted by fire in the early forties; not as the result of an enemy air raid, but because of a fire in the projection room. Our neighbour at the time worked there and was the local hero of the day I seem to remember. No doubt there is a reference to the fire in the newspaper archives. Our neighbour’s surname was Lewis if there is an archivist with time and curiosity to spare.
There are historical events that make people say "I know exactly what I was doing when … …" For my age group that usually means the Kennedy assassination, but I can add another, even earlier event in my own life. The place was the Capital Cinema Barking 1955. At the end of the film "Blackboard Jungle" the screen suddenly goes black, there is a moment’s silence and then Bill Haley’s voice rings out with "ONE TWO THREE O’CLOCK, FOUR O’CLOCK ROCK!!!!!" That was dramatic and the first time I heard that voice and tune.