David Robson

Enfield, England

Planetary Projection is pleased to present this exceptional historical document, excerpts from an interview with British projectionist David Robson (1921 – ?) conducted by Alan Lawson on 25 March 1998 concerning Robson’s work as a projectionist in 1930s, 40s and 50s England. The interview is packed with historical information which will be of keen interest to film scholars while at the same time providing often hilarious anecdotes about life in the booth some 80 years ago. This interview has been graciously provided to us by the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU), an independent trade union for those working in broadcasting, film, theatre, entertainment, leisure, interactive media and allied areas based primarily in the United Kingdom. The material is copyright BECTU and researchers may consult the original, full-length interview, and the rest of the BECTU archives, on site by appointment.

A Splice Was a Signature

At the time I started out in projection in 1936 there was always a sort of sword of Damocles hanging over your head. You could get the sack at the drop of a hat. ‘High standards required’, my father used to say. I had to be able to lace up in ten seconds from the top box to bottom. And I soon realised why this was necessary. You only had to make one mistake and you were out. Nobody ever got the sack; what they used to do, you had to have your jacket handy. If you missed a changeover or something like that, it was the sack. What you did, you went straight down to the Manager’s office and you resigned, you asked for your cards back. Because if you ever got the sack in the business, you’d never get another job.

I never went to Granada—they said if you could last the week at a Granada, you were the bee’s knees. You could get a job anywhere. My first theatre, the Ritz Cinema in Stockwell, was a third-run place really but very high standards as they all were then. The theatre had just been rebuilt and re-opened, and the projection room was spotlessly clean, like a hospital. The floor was red ochre concrete and highly polished and the projectors were on plinths, concrete plinths, painted white. Spotless. There was a reason for that and it’s very naughty really. I had to learn to lace up while the machine was running, but slowly, particularly at the sound head because, with old films, it was possible to lose the loop at the sound head and you had to be able to recover the loop. You mustn’t shut down or it’s gone, otherwise you look for another job. So you had to keep going whatever happened and the system was to put your fingers in there and squeeze it, quickly, it would form a loop and with the roller open you could feed it on quickly.

So one of the things I used to do on Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday night, when the changes happened, very naughty, when spooling off came, you know it’s a long process, you’ve got to take the double off the machine, then take into the rewind room, find the halfway mark, chop, and then join on the end part the beginning of the leaders. Long process, particularly if you don’t quite know where the halfway is because you’ve got to feel for it—not allowed to touch the film, but feel.

And at the Ritz they used to have an empty spool standing by the projector like that. And you had to hold the film just above the firetrap and as soon as you felt the join go through, you squeezed, the loop formed, opened the door quickly like that, tore the film across at the splice, another spool went on, you took it straight up and threaded . . . you took it straight away and spooled it off! It was as quick as that! But very naughty. The risks were terrible because you’re forming a loop at 90 feet a minute. And you’ve got to keep it absolutely straight. Put a spool on and you’d feed it, let it take it up take it back on. It’s all done in about ten seconds. Never failed, but the chances of getting it on the floor meant that it had to be spotless, otherwise you’d get scratches and muck getting on the film.

And the second there, who took me under his wing, was a guy who was so quick, so brilliant, absolutely marvellous bloke. He was about nineteen I would imagine and he showed me everything. I learned how to make joins—of course there were no splicers in those days. There were no hand joiners either, all hand made. I learned to make thin, very thin, narrow joins. From the joins you could tell about a person—as we were the third run that meant that we were getting our films from another theatre. And Joe Soaps, the second there, or the rewind boys—you recognised their joins. It’s like a signature, a splice was a signature.

I remember when one day the second took me aside and said: ‘I’m going to show you something. And I want you to remember this for the rest of your life because it could cost your life if you’re not careful. There’s such a thing as film fire in the projector’. He got a foot of leader, rolled it up tightly and set fire to it. Whoosh! The flame went straight up to the ceiling like that and the dust fell on my lovely clean floor. He said: ‘Right, now you’ve seen nitrate go up. You’ve got 2,000 feet of that in the top box. There are three things you must learn if you’ve got a big fire: first—shut off; second—switch off; and third—fuck off’. I’ve always remembered that.

In those days the fire situation was quite jolly. You weren’t allowed to use the word ‘fire’ anywhere and there was a standard word for it, Drage—Mr. Drage! ‘Mr Drage is in the rear circle’, for instance. We used to have to do fire drills at the theatre every day at one o’clock. And Mr Drage was in a different place every day, the fire shutters would come down and then the Assistant Manager would go and give instructions to the usherettes, ‘Mr Drage, is . . .’, so that then they opened all the push bars and all that. We had a regular routine for Mr Drage. Because of the strict fire regulations a lot of the cinemas had anti-fire devices. In some theatres there was a platform and when you were on the projector you stood on it. If you moved off it shut everything down. It kept you close to the projector the whole time, so you could reach the lamp, the arc and the projector and faders and stuff like that, but you couldn’t move off it.

In those days, in 1937, at the theatre I started working for with my father we never used nitrate, even 35mm. It was all non-flam, safety film we used to call it. Awful stuff to work with, it buckled—quite nasty and unpleasant. Not at all like the non-flam which came out after the war, which was much better. It was very difficult to make joins, they used to buckle. This was at the GPO Film Unit and what my father did was arrange for courses. In those days, the Post Office used to supply projectionists and equipment to a lot of the museums, like the Science Museum had its own theatre. My father was responsible for training staff there to put on a proper professional show and also to maintain the equipment, which I think was Phillips. Very high-tech stuff, in 35mm. The equipment was exchanged on a six-monthly basis. The two machines would come out and come back to GPO Film Unit for maintenance and another two machines would go in.

So my father and his team of engineers did a lot of work with mobile equipment. One day he said to me: ‘I’ve got a machine coming in from the States. It’s called a Bell and Howell, and it’s 16mm. And it’s a model 120’. Now 16 millimetre in 1937 was a rich man’s toy. We looked upon it as an amateur—you wouldn’t even consider it in cinemas. But Shell were using it already, they were making a lot of their documentaries and I think my father realised it might be going that way. So the film with sound arrived, and he said: ‘I want you to strip the machine down and to know all about it’. So we took it apart and the more we went into it, the more we realised it was a highly professional machine—never seen anything like it! Lubrication was by wick, on the gears, the sound head was the same as the RCA, film driven sound drum—unheard of in 16mm! Perfection, absolutely. Spots up to about 4,000 Hertz, which is for optical sound running at that speed, incredible! So we put it all back together and gave my father a report. He said: ‘It really is this good?’ I said: ‘Yes. It’s perfection, it’s not just good. 750-watt lamps, illumination and reflectants measurements. You can’t go wrong with this machine, it’s bloody fantastic!’ ‘Do you think it could replace 35 in mobile field?’ I said: ‘Certainly it could. And the other thing is, of course, it’s very easy on staff because you can load a whole programme on a 1600 ft. spool!’

Coincidentally, one day I saw an advert in one of the technical papers—Shell Mex were looking for mobile projectionists to go all over the country with an exhibition for Shell Oils. I got the job because we were to have two Bell and Howell 16mm 120s and I knew the machine inside out. I had these two machines, we had a projection room, a folding one made from plywood, with projection ports and everything, non-sync. We had everything there, a small cinema in fact, mobile. A really mobile cinema. We didn’t have a van to start with. It was a wonderful job! The salary was thirty shillings a week, plus three pounds subsistence. That’s four pounds ten! A Chief Projectionist in those days would be hard pushed to get four and a half pound a week. At the Ritz I got seventeen and sixpence and we worked six days a week. We used to eat on the machine, or in the rewind room, there were no meal breaks. You could get five pounds a week if you worked in a Granada. And we didn’t get any days off at all but a boy of sixteen with four pounds a week!

How we worked it was that we used to travel on a Sunday. We’d be about two weeks in the large places like Birmingham or Manchester, and a week perhaps in a small town like Ipwsich. It was very strange before the war because a lot of the places we went to still had DC. We had to take with us a lot of conversion gear which was 110 volts, so we had to down-voltage that with a sort of motor generator arrangement. But we also had DC motors to generate AC 110 volts out. Quite a lot of equipment to lug around and hook up. And the question was just to keep it well away so that the noise couldn’t be heard by the audience because it was fairly close, back of the box. And crowds of these people, they’d sit in the show and they’d come round. They’d find the box was open. They’d come up and you’d get crowded out with people. A free cinema was really something in those days. There were lovely theatres all over the place that we went to but a free cinema, and one as good as that, well it needed investigating. In the end Shell got so worried about its popularity because people were coming to the exhibition, the cinema and they wouldn’t go. And the whole object was Shell Oils. We had commissionaires by this time. So we had to fix up a clock saying: ‘The next performance will be at 1:30’. And then the commissionaires would get them going round the exhibition. Because otherwise they’d have been in show after show.

In 1939 I was beginning to be aware that Hitler was on the rampage. A few months before the war started I thought—I’d learned this lesson, you mustn’t be made redundant or get the sack or anything, that was built in. So I gave my notice in. There was a war going on and I wanted to do a bit more for the war effort. I saw an advert for a firm in Guildford called CP Projections. They supplied staff and equipment to the RAF stations. Because there was a problem at the beginning of the war—when people were taken away from home for the first time, they were terribly homesick. And the problem was that you had to keep them as happy as you could because when you were called up, first of all, you went into a station and you were confined while you had your shots and all the rest of it. It used to affect the morale terribly. So they wanted to sort that business out and what they did, they had cinemas everywhere.

I remember being posted to Weston, I had been there with Shell Mex so I knew the town. And there it was the last time I saw any more 16mm. Once again it was two Bell and Howell 120s. It was fantastic! We had no projector equipment at all. I had to build the theatre everyday in the gym, out of a pyramid of tables, very flimsy. And I had to climb up the tables and I had the two projectors on the top and I used to run the speaker cables out and set the screen up and I used to do this every day. And we ran things like Alf’s Button Afloat and stuff that you’d get on 16 mm. But we were packed out every day because people weren’t allowed to go into the town. And while I was there the war started properly. London was bombed and Birmingham.

Once I got a posting to Hednesford which is in the West Midlands. It’s not far from Birmingham, near Rugeley. It’s right high up—all RAF stations are very isolated, terrible places to get to. And this was a terrible, depressing place, it was a coal mine area and even the ground was black. But it was the first theatre I had of my own. The only way you could get to the projection room was to climb up ladders on the side of the building. There was no stairs or anything like that. They were wooden buildings, beautiful inside, lovely furnishings and things. I found lots of people who were quite interested and I employed them by giving them free tickets to do things. For instance, the curtains weren’t motorised, but they were lovely, red velvet, beautiful curtains, and a lovely shaped stage, a proscenium arch. So I rigged up a telephone so that as soon as the closing cue dot appeared, I’d buzz, and they’d line to close it. I also had somebody who looked after the crowds because we’d have queues all round the theatre and it was important to keep them in twos. The PSI looked after ticket sales. I was responsible for the starting and finishing numbers and I had to do a lot of paperwork you had to send back to Guildford, what was the weather like or how was the film received. Three changes a week but still hard work. And all we had was slit trenches to get into. If the Germans had known, we would have been wiped out because they were wooden huts.

We had very ancient equipment there—Gaumont Chrono. They were originally designed for the silent days, with British Acoustic pull-through sound heads on the bottom. Lovely. That part of it was lovely. And a 25 amp—so low-intensity—arcs and the front shutter machine. It was an unusual machine because the cross-boxes were grease-packed. I’d never come across it before and the noise was like a machine gun when the projectors were running. We used to pack the things every day with grease and it pushed them out all over the place, but it was lovely, a rock steady picture—beautiful. And you had to lubricate every day because it’s all open. Just get the oil can, all the bearings were there, and just stand back when you ran the machine—it was sssshhhh, all over the place.

Halfway through the war, in 1942, I was posted to Bridgenorth, Shropshire. The war effort had changed now. We didn’t have this business of people being sad and losing the war on all fronts. That had changed. Bridgenorth had the first of the modern RAF stations - brick-built. It was a WAAF-ery, so we were kind of billeted outside. A beautiful cinema, I had never seen anything like it. Tiny little cinema. They said the projection equipment had come from Buckingham Palace, I don’t believe that but it was beautiful. It was a complete Kalee set—the whole lot was together, integral, the first of the new equipment which came out after the war, which was all in one piece. So the actual projector head and sound head were one and the lamp was also designed to work with them, which was sort of 25 amp. The theatre was beautiful. We had automatic lighting and automatic dimmers on stage and auditorium lighting. And of course the lovely scenty smell because it was all women!

After coming back to town I was soon interviewed for the Odeon Leicester Square—and that was it, that was the limit. You just couldn’t get any higher! It’s a beautiful theatre with its tall tower which is actually a well—we had lovely soft water during the war there. I was interviewed by ‘Flicker’ Joe, they used to call him—Ron Parnell, Chief Projectionist. I got the job and it was the most wonderful job imaginable because we had two big shifts there. And on our shift we had a girl who was a marvellous cook and we used to let her go out to Berwick Market—it was rationing days—and get all the lovely meat and stuff. And she’d cook all day. The system we had there was one person ran a complete performance. Once you get onto the feature, that was it, you did your own show. So it was rather nice to think that once again you were actually performing, because this is what a projectionist likes to do, to perform, doesn’t want to press buttons and do all that sort of thing, he actually wants to be there to focus, sound. And we had very elaborate cue sheets there, we had control of sound in the theatre and Parnell used to follow the trial runs and the press shows, which went on for ages, before we actually got a copy. The reason was, of course, with optical sound you were limited to a dynamic range; rather like tape, you’re limited. So if you have a gunshot, you can’t really have the right level. So we had all these very big cues—stick it up to about 8 dbs just for the shot and bring it down again quickly. Also, when you were running a comedy, the trouble is very often lines get lost because of laughter. So we had a very clever arrangement. We got over that because we’d listen to titter in the audience and if there was a swell of sound, we’d just increase by about 40 dbs so that the next line wasn’t thrown away.

I was very good with sound. I could pick out flutter and stuff like that very quickly. So Parnell put two and two together and he put in me in charge of sound. The equipment we had there—BT-H—the sound drum wasn’t film-driven, it was driven by a magnetic flywheel, which was again driven by a pulley from the main gearing. You had to arrange everything so the top and bottom loop above the drum was exactly the same size. If it wasn’t it would slither round the drum and you’d get bottomed. The BT-H amplifiers, they were brilliant. We had a thing called expansion. These were the days of 78 rpm, which we had to synchronise with the organ to get the pitch right, to play music with the organ. And with 78, rather like optical recording, you were limited again to dynamic range and you could go to expansion. With expansion it meant that quiet passages were quiet but loud passages would blow the roof off. So, you could do marvellous things even with a 78 rpm record. I’ve never seen expansion since. I don’t know why it’s not used, I think it’s a marvellous idea.

To give you an example of the old Odeon style as opposed to the early 30s, where if you made a mistake you were sacked and that was it. With Odeons it was slightly different, it was slacker. I don’t say it was in the West End, but maybe in Penge, if somebody had made a mistake and they were willing to agree that they had made a mistake and apologised, the chances are they would overlook it, provided it didn’t happen again. There wasn’t this business of having to go down to the manager and hand your notice in. And the Odeon Leicester Square was very similar in different ways. The organist in those days was a Scots called Jimmy Bell. And we used to do a broadcast from there once a week for the BBC. In the mornings the cleaners had to be dead quiet during the half an hour transmission and there was a cue system. They knew exactly what the last number was and they’d give him the warning and he’d do his play-out. I wasn’t there but I heard what happened. He’d played all his usual pieces, he seemed to be in good form and he’d got to the last number, which was ‘It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow’, the last number, a popular tune at the time. And they faded him out, but he didn’t stop playing. It was completely tuneless, terrible. So somebody went down to the console and he was over the keyboard, slumped over. He was dead, had a heart attack. But he’d been a showman, he’d kept it going until the end. And, typical of Odeons in those days, the whole of the Square was shut down for the funeral. The theatre was closed, we all went to Golders Green. And when anybody was lost like that at the Odeon Leicester Square, it was a big do. It was wonderful, the family feeling there was absolutely tremendous.

The theatre ran long runs, and the first long run was Caesar and Cleopatra in which my aunt had a part called Ftatateeta. We ran it for nine months. It was Technicolor and we had a lot of trouble with the print because of bowing. The stock would tend to bow and scratch and we had a hell of a job to find out where the scratching was happening. It was happening in the firetraps because the firetraps are very narrow to prevent fire. We had to use crocus paper, get a tiny little bit on, naughty. That was the only way to stop scratching because it was bowing like that. It was a great time for experimenting with lenses, we had Taylor-Hobson—the bloomed lenses they were getting. The theatre was an experimental place for lenses. And lenses and Technicolor, the two went together. It was also the first place where we had the actual projection ports bloomed for the first time. Instead of having plate glass, we had bloomed projection ports. That was something quite new. You were gradually experimenting all the way through.

After we stopped running Caesar and Cleopatra we thought, ‘Ah, a break for real films again’. But no! The next film that came in ran for ten months and it was Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. This was quite an experience because it was three hours of emotion. There were only two performances a day because it was a long film. People used to stream out into Oxford Circus, into Oxford Street rather, with mascara, terrible state, they didn’t know whether they were coming or going! And they’d come back for more! It was such a job to clear the theatre up of handkerchiefs. There weren’t tissues in those days, people still had handkerchiefs, and they would be littered like confetti, all up the aisles. And eventually we had to extend the breaks for about half an hour to give ten minutes to the cleaners who’d be specially employed to come in with spikes and pick up all the handkerchiefs that people had dropped.

The only thing we changed all during the run of this particular picture was the leaders. We used to put one set of leaders on. We kept the same American print. That was the thing about the West End—we would never run British prints. One of the great things that Ron Parnell had, he would never allow British prints in any of the theatres because there was something wrong with our labs, I don’t know what the hell it was. So at the end of the nine-month period, we said goodbye to the picture, we knew it word by word. Suddenly there was a hue and cry in the West End: ‘Oh you’ve taken it off, you mustn’t take it off. There’s a lot of people who still want to cry’. So we had to get it back again but this time we got a British print. And the print was so dreadful that we lost interest in the whole lot. Terrible background noise on the sound, the noise was dreadful. The black had turned into greys. And we’d taken such great care with the American print, there was nothing wrong with it. All we did was change the leaders, they’d have been laced up so many times for nine months, so they were beginning to get a bit hairy.

So the next great epic at the Odeon Marble Arch was the King. He was very ill and couldn’t walk up steps any more and it was decided by the hierarchy to do the Royal Command Performance at the Odeon Marble Arch. It was a great honour for us; no one from that part of the world had seen the Royal family for years, although Buck House was just down the road. It was not the same. The reason for that was that the circle was at street level—you could go in from the street straight into the circle. If you wanted to go in the stalls you went downstairs. So the circle was rebuilt with the royal box and everything. And everything was got ready for the royal family. I can’t remember the film, but it was a British film anyway, colour film. And the arrangement was that the stage show would be covered by the whole of the shift in the spot gallery, under Mick because he was red-hot on spots, having come from Paramount and places like that where they had big stage shows. And he said: ‘It means I’ve got to leave the projection to you, Dave’. I thought: ‘Well, that’s the most important bloody thing of the lot! The film show’s what it’s all about’. They did all the rehearsals and the day got closer and I felt really sick. I thought you’ve only got to make one mistake and you’d be out of a job for ever more. The world would know about it.

The day came and the guys disappeared up to the spot room. I had the print, looked at it earlier on during the week. Everything was okay, it was all cued up and Ron Parnell had cued everything up so we had the cue sheets and everything. I felt so ill I wanted to throw up. We had rehearsed everything. I had one man with me with a wooden leg called Jack, so I told him: ‘We’ve rehearsed everything. All we’ve got to do is when I tell you “house lights away”, get them away slowly’. So once the countdown came, the organ cues came up. We had this complicated business—the stage lighting had to be given, they had to give us control of the stage lighting at a given moment in the changeover because they didn’t know when the picture would appear, they couldn’t see backstage. So we had to rely on them to give us control, otherwise there’d be a lot of trouble, curtains and everything. Anyway, it all worked. Hemsley, the bloke who was running the organ, went down on cue. He was very bad at that sometimes, he went down on cue. So I said to Jack: ‘Get them away now slowly’. And I’d checked and double-checked so many times, we’d struck up and everything was ready. Last cove went out and the main tabs opened, started running, the certificate came on, sound came on. It was all right, it was all right after that. It was all right, I was thrilled to bits after that. But it was that initial start that made me feel sick, absolutely sick. Anyway, I ran all the film, did all the changes, did all the things. Jack was hobbling about, his one leg, just bringing film in, virtually.

The end was simple enough—we gave them control at the beginning so that Hemsley would come up with the trumpeters and so it worked fine. But it was hairy, yes, that was hairy. We’d think nothing of it at the Square because it’s a whole load of us and we’re all together. We didn’t think anything of it, you’d do a machine each and it was just like an ordinary show. But at Marble Arch, it was such a horror. I can’t even remember the film—Where Eagles Fly, possibly Where No Vultures Fly. I was so glad to erase it from my mind.

It was tricky and it just shows you how the business is like that. You don’t know what can happen any time and you’re out. Quite dodgy. But that’s how we lived and loved it, didn’t know any other way, it was grand!

25 March 1998

© copyright 1998
Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU)

Planetary Projection is thankful to Sue Malden and Sarah Currant for their kind assistance.

David Robson (1921 - ?) was a projectionist and television engineer. His first job was at the Ritz Cinema, Stockwell as a rewind boy. In 1936, he moved on to the Rialto, Norwood and a year later to the GPO Film Unit where his father was in charge of technical training. At the age of sixteen he got a job as a mobile projectionist for Shell Mex, for whom he toured the country with a Bell & Howell projection set-up until shortly before World War II. In 1939 he was employed by CP Projections, a firm based in Guildfort supplying staff and equipment to RAF stations across the UK. He was posted to a number of stations across the country before going on to the Odeon, Penge and some time later the Odeon Leicester Square. In the early 1940s he went on a sabbatical at the new Odeon in Marble Arch which he helped restore for its re-opening. On his return to the Odeon Leicester Square in the late 1940s he was finally able to get involved with television, first by screening shows on a new large-screen Cintel television system and later, in the early 1950s, by joining Associated Rediffusion. While at Rediffusion he took part in initiating a new staff grading system and later in designing the first scope system for television. He worked in telecine, telerecording and video, and viewed his continued employment in television as the highlight of his career.

French Gaumont Chrono projectors, one of the earliest models the author worked with. Originally silent projectors, they are shown here with the British Acoustic sound heads discussed in the text.

Photo kindly provided by Peter Allen and Mikael Barnard of The Projected Picture Trust.

A Gaumont Kalee 21 carbon arc projector. The author worked with a full Kalee set at the RAF station in Bridgenorth, Shropshire, during the 1940s.

Photo kindly provided by Peter Allen and Mikael Barnard of The Projected Picture Trust.

‘At the Rialto, Norwood, instead of a platform that would shut everything down if you moved off it, we had a thing called “Safety Sentry” which is an American device, quite clever. We had a rear shutter Simplex that still had the front shutter shaft. These would have been actually on the machines we had, they were being refitted. And on it, there was a pulley wheel and a belt, which drove a little generator. So when the machine’s up to about 22 and a half, 23 frames per second, it actually generated enough DC to hold the dowser open. You couldn't even open it until it got there. In the winter it was a great problem because the heavy universal base of the Western Electric would take ages to get up to 24 frames. You'd have to run the machines up for about half an hour before the show started. And even then on the first changeover—it was, “Was it going to make it or not?” It had a safety release on top of the thing. If you didn’t make it, you could press a button and open it. But the idea was, if the machine slowed down for any reason, in other words, you’d got a gate fire, the solenoid would be de-energised and the weighted dowser would drop down and shut you down and also shut the motor off, the whole lot was shut down. That was quite hairy because it meant that you had to hold your nerve, you’d got your motor cue and we had 12 foot leaders and our changeover devices there were disks, so that you could see the numbers going through if you had a your dowser open, but you couldn't open the dowser so you couldn’t see the numbers. So you had to—in your mind—say, “eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five. . .” And you'd try it, “Still not there—no. Three, two. . .” It’s open—changeover! We’d just do it with seconds to spare, it was really hairy. And I don’t think we ever, ever missed a changeover but it was always this risky business for the first two changeovers of the day in the winter. And of course you had no central heating in the projection room’.

Photo kindly provided by Peter Allen and Mikael Barnard of The Projected Picture Trust.

‘In the 1940s, after working at the RAF station in Bridgenorth, I came back and was given a job as a second at the Odeon, Penge. The Chief Projectionist there was a chap called Alf Stagg, it was a lovely set-up, lovely crew, lovely staff—beautiful theatre, a lot like a miniature Odeon Leicester Square—same cove lighting and everything. The only thing I didn't like about the Odeons was the equipment, it was all BT-H (British Thomson-Houston). The story was that when Oscar Deutsch decided to build cinemas, he said to whoever, “If you can make some equipment I’ll always use that in my cinemas”. And it so happened that this company came along, based at Derby, they were famous for making motors and things like that really. And their projectors were like that—massive. Chain-driven in oil baths. Really—adequate, but nothing special. But anyway, you got used to it’.

Photo kindly provided by Peter Allen and Mikael Barnard of The Projected Picture Trust.

‘In the late 1940s, after working at the Odeon Marble Arch, I came back to the Odeon Leicester Square. Things had been happening. If you looked around suburbs, at some of the big theatres like Paramounts and so on, you would have seen dishes appearing on the roof. And this was because the Rank Organisation wanted to get into television. At the Odeon Leicester Square they were in the process of installing the first of the large screen television systems, a Cintel one. Beautiful device. It used 50kv, highly lethal stuff. Cable went right down to the circle, and it was rather like a canon in and old-fashioned ship, that the tube, it’s a standard CRT tube but working at very high levels. It was a Schmidt optical system. And you ran it out like a canon, through a porthole cut into the front circle. You’d run it and lock it into position. It was a lovely console and you'd go down on the stage, scan lines as thick as your thumb, incredible! Great picture, really was, marvellous. We did experiments with that, and eventually the company said, “Let's make use of it”. So we did the whole of the Cup Final there. You’ve never seen anything like it. They all came with their pipes and they made noise. What a stink! The lovely West End theatre, practically ruined by these madmen, cheering on their football’.

Photo kindly provided by Peter Allen and Mikael Barnard of The Projected Picture Trust.

The Odeon Leicester Square at the time the author started work there as a second-in-chief.

‘I remember when I went up for the interview at the Odeon Leicester Square, I must tell you about this. The area supervisor at the Odeon, Penge called me down once and he said “I've arranged for you to have an interview with Ron Parnell.” I nearly had a fit! He said, "You go up by train every day in the West End, you get a special ticket, a shift worker’s ticket, it won't cost you very much money. It'll be a big upgrade in salary for you. You know the risks but you've been in the business long enough to know all about that." So I went to Leicester Square tube station and on the way up the escalator, on both sides, were posters saying "The Odeon makes the Square look round." And I thought, "What an opening!" I couldn't go wrong. I then got out the tube station, it was all hoarding and it's a beautiful theatre with its own well, the tall tower is a well. We had lovely soft water during the war there. I went there and I was interviewed by 'Flicker' Joe – Ron Parnell, Chief Projectionist. Not the Chief in the sense that we know Chiefs, he was really a liaison type person. He'd liase between us and the management and also when we were doing stage shows, nearly every show was a gala performance, so we had stage shows. And the staff didn't think much of him. I admired him actually. They said he was a terrible projectionist, "Don't let him get anywhere near a projector!"

Photo kindly provided by Clive Polden of the Cinema Theatre Association Archive.

The auditorium of the Odeon Leicester Square.

‘ I carried on at the Square for a long time, or it seemed to be. Stage shows, everybody used to wear tuxedos if there was royalty in the place. I didn't - only if you went to the theatre did you have to. Parnell used to come in looking like a penguin. When you clocked in at the Odeon Leicester Square you had to come in through the stage door and clock in on the clock. And you weren't allowed to go through the theatre while the audience was on. You had to wait for the break. And all the usherettes would be queued up ready to go in on the change of shift and I would be waiting to go in to the projection room. If I didn't want to go that way I had to go round to the main entrance and up. We had some marvelous people there. Jimmy Bell, the organist, was one of these wonderful Scottish type fellows. And he'd tell lovely jokes, naughty jokes to all the girls.

At Leicester Square the projectionists had nothing to do with the engineering side, that was all lamping up and all that sort of thing was done by Jack's staff. Jack Gregory, the Chief Engineer, he had a wonderful crew of engineers. They expected you to do a perfect show, no excuses, so that's what you did, nothing else but project, make sure everything, the maintenance was. Machines were looked after and everything, it was spotless, highly polished. The floor was highly polished.’

Photo kindly provided by Clive Polden of the Cinema Theatre Association Archive.

An exterior view of the Odeon Marble Arch, originally called the Regal (photo above). In the early 1940s it was re-opened with a replacement Odeon and a modern office block (photo below).

‘While I was at the Leicester Square, Ron Parnell came to me one day and he said, "How would you like a sabbatical?" So I said, "Where?" "I want you to go to a theatre which Rank has just taken over. It's at Marble Arch. It's called the Regal, Marble Arch. It's closed, but Rank are thinking of reopening it. We've already put some equipment in and I want you, if you'd like to, it makes a change from routine projection, to go there with another man, check out the equipment and give us a word back on what you think about it all." So I thought, "What a lovely idea. Yes, smashing idea." I didn't really want to leave the Square but at the same time it was different. I was my own boss, virtually. So I said “Yes, I'd go. And it was a lovely theatre inside, unbelievably beautiful. It had Chinese rooms and a Japanese room.”

Photos kindly provided by Clive Polden of the Cinema Theatre Association Archive.

An interior view of the original Regal and re-opened Odeon, Marble Arch theatre.

‘A few days after Ron Parnell asked me to go to Marble Arch a V2 came down in Hyde Park and hit the front of the theatre. So he said to me, "There's been a terrible accident. The new Odeon in Marble Arch has been badly damaged. But still go there, we want a report now." I went there, I found the projection room, which was okay. No damage to the projection room at all. But what had been badly damaged was the battery room. The battery casings had been smashed with the blast from the rocket and all the acid was running through to the next floor and the floor underneath that. During the war it was difficult to get anything. But we managed to replace all the batteries that were damaged, and top up and get the system working again.

Our next problem was, and this was unusual for theatres of that age, that it hadn't gone over to mercury arc rectifiers. It was still running on motor generators. And I'd never had any experience of this before, but the man who was with me had, and he said, "We've got to learn how to power them up. They've got to be equalised before we can use them. Otherwise it's dangerous." So we took parts of the motors down to have a look at the commutators and they were beautiful. Absolutely burnished copper. The projection staff of ABC's had looked after them beautifully. I couldn't find anything wrong on either of them. With one set running there was enough power to run three arcs, but not enough for the spot gallery and we knew there would be stage shows going to be coming up. This was very old-fashioned, I'm surprised that they didn't go over to mercury, I can't understand it. Down went the lever and you wait for the motor to reach its thing, and you bung up the switch, the main breakers. And then, it was just like a power station, there was a great - as big as a room - long panel of ammeters and voltmeters, just like a power station.

We had to do some experiments. We ran up the first pair, we set up the live volts to 100 volts and went upstairs to the projection room, struck up to see what would happen. It was fine, no problem. So he said then, "Right, well, now comes the sixty-four thousand dollar question." So we started up the second one because we knew we'd have to run them in parallel because there wouldn't be enough power otherwise. And we got the motor up to speed, put switch in the socket - there was a mighty bang and sparks and we fell about. What had we done? He said, "I don't understand it. I know about these things, I've done them before. We got the equaliser current right, look at the equaliser, it's blown up." So we tried it again and bits of carbon from the main switch blew out all over the place. "We're in trouble" he said. We wondered whether the rocket had done any damage. What it turned out to be was silly really. The shock of the explosion had upset the calibration of the voltmeters and ammeters. And we were trying to equalise - it had got to be within about half a volt of the line volts, otherwise one motor will motor the other one. So we called in a company to re-do those and to recalibrate all the meters, including the projection room ones, they were all out, miles out. Got that right, great big switches! So we got them done and we tried to run again. I was always afraid after that of starting two up together, I had to do it sometimes. It always worked, but it was always that - remembering that first initial explosion.

The motor generator room became the place where we used take people we couldn't get rid of. If you had visitors in the projection room, and you'd been through everything and they still wouldn't go away, we then used to say, "Have you seen the generating equipment?" And the noise! They'd give up, they'd go, "Oh thank you very much." So it always worked, take them to the generator room and then that's it! The generator room was a few steps down from the projection room, wasn't too bad, but it used to work.’

Photos kindly provided by Clive Polden of the Cinema Theatre Association Archive.