Not the least — er — colourful tale told in Ian Meyrick’s fascinating centenary history of Oxford’s last independent cinema (The Ultimate Survivor, £3.50) concerns the conduct of some members of its junior audiences in the early days.
During the first period of its existence, the Picture Palace, in Jeune Street, had no loos; patrons were expected to use those in the next-door Elm Tree pub, which had the same owner.
About 40 years ago, looking back on a distant childhood, one former regular — very likely one of the young shavers in the photograph — told Ian Meyrick that this was an inconvenience occasionally avoided.
“When the film got too exciting, some children could not bring themselves to leave in their time of need, and the result could be a little river running down the slope to the screen towards the unfortunate pianist.”
Ian comments: “That, combined with the closely packed bodies, must have made for a heady atmosphere.”
How closely packed? Well, visitors to the swanky cinema as it is today under the ownership of Philippa Farrow and Jane Derricott can luxuriate in well-spaced seating for 121. In the second decade of the 20th century, the cinema boasted “ample seating for 400”.
There are more than 300 people in the old photograph, with more rows out of the frame. “No wonder,” Ian writes, “that the disinfectant spray was an essential item in every cinema supplier’s catalogue.”
Personal smells would also have been masked by the marginally preferable odour of cigarette smoke. Young cinemagoers probably do not realise how recent has been the ban on smoking in the stalls. When Bill Heine and Pablo Butcher reopened the Picture Palace in 1976, 59 years after its closure, the no-smoking rule seemed one of the strangest eccentricities of the Penultimate Picture Palace, as it became.
I pointed this out when I was being interviewed in the library at Newspaper House for Philip Hind’s excellent new film on the cinema’s history. The Ultimate Survivor (the title and some research are shared with Ian’s book) was shown during the centenary party thrown by Jane and Philippa at the cinema last Thursday.
But while cigarettes have gone at cinemas, other unpleasantnesses continue. As a one-time film critic, long used to early-morning press shows in near-empty cinemas, I find all the talking and popcorn-chomping going on around me at public screenings quite off-putting.
There is less of this, naturally, at those rare films aimed at the more discerning punter. You could have heard a pin drop on Sunday evening at the Odeon during The King’s Speech, for instance. The same was true the Sunday before when I was there for True Grit, another hot tip for the Oscars. Perhaps this was because the near-full house was straining its ears to follow what the film’s star Jeff Bridges (pictured) was saying. It was hardly surprising, I think, that the Academy denied him the Best Actor award for a performance that really requires subtitles.
On both of these outings, I paid a pound or so more to enjoy Premier seating. The extra comfort this brought was offset by my having repeatedly to bob up and down, and out into the centre aisle, to allow later arrivals to reach their seats farther along the row. This was happening, I could see, to people throughout the auditorium.
Why, I wondered, were the box office staff not allocating seats the other way round, so that rows could be filled without disturbance to the earlier arrivals? Perhaps because there is a presumption that people prefer to sit close to the centre or, indeed, that they pick their own seats there (which would explain all the tedious delay I experienced at the box office).
In which case, why don’t cinema designers follow the example set in most theatres and go for side aisles?