IT’S said pictures were more popular than prayers at the time when Derry boasted six cinemas: The Strand, The City, The Palace, Saint Columb’s Hall, The Rialto, and The Midland.
The churches were attended en masse on Sundays while picture houses attracted audiences in their thousands on the other six nights of the week. The Journal returns to the days when cinema was the undisputed king in Derry.
The “pictures” were the main form of entertainment in Derry in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and were often the subject for prolonged and, sometimes, heated arguments.
Latest showings were discussed and debated in canteens and tea-huts across the city on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Comedies seen and wisecracks heard were retold and often adapted into the local vernacular.
The worst criticism for any film was for it to be condemned as a ‘British production’. This was not a political statement but more a reflection of its budget.
A visit to the pictures was an escape from the drabness of the depressed thirties or the austerity of the war years.
For two hours, the viewer could be transported to a land of make believe where singing cowboys sang in perfect tone, tempo and harmony while they rode their piebalds and mustangs. And the cruel, savage Indians always got their just desserts often with the help of a cavalry scout.
Honourable boxers made miraculous recoveries from foul blows undetected by the referee. The hero, lying on the canvas as the count approached nine, opened his swollen eyes and saw the face of his sweetheart at the ringside. Inspired he pulled himself up just before the count of ten. His recovery gained momentum as he beat the villain into a helpless heap on the canvas, to the applause and shouted encouragement of the cinema audience.
Wee boys didn’t like dancing or singing pictures - they probably weren’t gory enough. However, they were very popular with adults and love struck adolescents.
The dancing was acrobatic and the splendour of the settings far removed from the drab red brick terraces with their outside toilets.
Music and song created a frothy romantic atmosphere where true love always triumphed.
‘Hamlet’ didn’t exactly pack them in although other British films were very successful.
‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’ drew large audiences and acres of handkerchiefs. And the war films always portrayed the British soldiers as patriots whose unswerving loyalty to the flag was heroic and selfless - a sentiment that did not always find favour with a largely nationalist audience.
Gangster pictures were meant to convince that ‘crime does not pay’, as one series was actually called.
This showed the courage and ability of the New York police to put criminals where they belonged - behind bars, usually after a prolonged screaming car chase.
Perhaps, the comedies did most to lift the spirits of that depressed era.
Laurel and Hardy stumbled through Oxford University as chumps or pined as ‘love lorne’ refugees in the French Foreign Legion whie W. C. Fields, as The Bank Dick, matched their slapstick antics in hot pursuit of ‘Filthy McNasty’.
Large coloured billboards throughout the town announced the films, actors and prices.
Actors became household names: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Hetty Lamar, Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Dolly Varden, Mae West and many more.
Their dress and hairstyles were copied as far as possible. Brylcreem could imitate a Gable quiff while curling tongs could create a recognisable Dolly Varden fringe.
Stills from current shows were displayed in glass cases at cinema entrances.
Entertainment was provided for all ages: children, parents, courting couples and grandparents.
Each house showed a wee picture, a big picture, news, the following week’s trailer and, sometimes, a cartoon.
During intervals, usherettes moved through the audience with a shoulder tray selling Kiora orange juice, ice cream and sweets.
Courting couples usually sought back seats in the balcony where male arms were sneakily slid around female shoulders.
The holding of hands left one hand free to feed the pair from a box of Milk Tray. Cheeks touched and tender kisses were exchanged.
Pictures which attracted large audiences for a full week were often retained for a further week.
This was especially true of biblical epics and religious films.
Crowds flocked to see ‘The Robe’, ‘The Way of the Cross’, ‘Sampson and Delilah’ and ‘The Song of Bernadette’.
‘The Song’ was retained for two weeks and had a profound, if temporary, effect on the young women of Derry.
There were rumours of vocations on a massive scale. Factories feared for their workforces. Girls decided to become ‘Brides of Christ’ and adopted a suitably demure appearance in keeping with their calling.
Some actually entered conventsto find that scrubbing stone convent floors was not as romantic as shown on the silver screen!
As the fervour died down, young men sighed a sigh of relief. Normality returned and the ‘nuns’ returned to the arms of their boys in the back seats of the balconies.
Newsreels by Pathe or Gaumont British News showed world and war events, usually weeks after they occurred.
The British forces were praised, even in defeat, to the chagrin of Irish republicans.
To stop this propaganda, the IRA launched a bombing campaign of all cinemas showing British news. These were large vulnerable targets, which did not require a great deal of accuracy.
However, one republican did manage to miss The Midland on Bond’s Hill.
Standing in the centre of the road facing the facade, he took careful aim and threw his bomb - it landed next door in the ‘Bat and Ball’ bar much to the discomfort of the drinkers.
Queues formed early outside the picture houses, one side of the entrance for the balcony and the other for the floor.
The better off and courting couples joined the balcony queue where the seats were more expensive. Regardless of weather, these long lines of people waited expectantly for the first or second house.
Entertainment was sometimes provided by street singers.
One rather sad duo, a father in his wheelchair pushed by his eleven or twelve-year-old daughter, visited most of the cinemas.
They did not sing but the parent played a wind up gramophone while the child collected pennies.
They had only one record - a very scratched version of ‘The Rose of Tralee’. Regardless, the collection was always generous.
Afternoon performances in Derry’s “picture houses” were unusual until the advent of the ‘Bru Matinee’ which snared people coming down from collecting the Bru (dole) in Bishop Street.
Oh, for the halcyon days of cinema in Derry.