By: Dr Adrian Somerfield (Dublin) Title: Matinees, Organs and Fleas!

My parents, who came from the English midlands, were quite keen on the cinema, though not I think in any “arty” sense. They went to be entertained rather than harassed or shocked or even “educated”. I doubt whether either of them would have been interested in displays of violence (my father had been in the trenches in WW1 and seen all he needed of that), and I do not think overt images of sex would have been of much interest to them either. They would have enjoyed a bit of glamour, though not “tits and bums”. So it is possible that the censorship did not particularly worry them, except insofar as it spoiled the story. I think they would have regarded the moral censorship as childish and “nannyish”. (They were neither of them Catholics, and took a liberal view of most things.) They would have been interested in newsreels, as far as they were allowed to be shown in Ireland.  I am sure they would like to have been allowed to see newsreel of the 1937 Coronation of George VI for example, though even newsreel of the 1953 Coronation of Elizabeth II was not allowed to be shown publicly in Ireland. At the end of your period, after WW2 started, there was additional censorship imposed, both on the cinema and the Press, to try to prevent interaction with the outside world, particularly with those engaged in the War. Newsreels stopped and war films were banned as far as I remember; I think even films like “In which we serve” and “Brief Encounter” were not to be seen since they had a war background. (Of course, in Eastern and Border counties we had access to news via the BBC, and you could see such films in Belfast.)

Most Fridays my parents met for tea in Roberts cafe in Suffolk Street and then went to the pictures, or sometimes a theatre. They would have gone to plays at the Abbey occasionally, or the Gaiety or the Gate (they also went years later to see the famous “Rose Tattoo”!). They would have liked light opera such as Gilbert and Sullivan, and ballet, but Dublin offered little of those because the Musicians Union had a stranglehold which prevented the touring companies bringing their own musicians until after the War.  Some places like the Theatre Royal, the Capitol and the Savoy were both cinema and theatre. But mostly I think they went to “the pictures”. A favourite cinema was the Grafton in Grafton St, but often they went to more local places, of which Dublin had many, such as the Sandford in Ranelagh, the Stella in Rathmines, or the Kenilworth in Terenure (or did that open later?). Occasionally they took me; I think I saw “Nanook of the North” in the Sandford, and at some quite young age I saw “Captain’s Courageous”. But more usually I think I was probably taken to matinees by my mother or for parties. I certainly went to the first film shown in the Adelphi in Abbey St, which was “Robin Hood”, an early technicolour I think, and of course the Walt Disney “Snow White” was a great rage in (?) 1937. But oddly enough, although “Snow White” was no doubt marvellous, the film I really enjoyed was the supporting feature “North Sea”. This was what I suppose would now be considered a “docudrama” about trawlers in the North Sea, featuring a storm and much heroics, and it concentrated on the work of Wick Radio. I think it was probably made by the British Post Office – “all around our island coasts the Post Office Radio Stations guard our shores”. I recall spending time fruitlessly trying to find Wick Radio on our radio at home, but it was not on the dial or within range!

Actually I have always been more interested in documentary or scientific films; I loved (and still do) “Night Mail”, though this might have been later. And I very much enjoyed (and still do), the first “Fantasia”, though I think this did not appear until 1940, when it was shown in (I think) the little Astor cinema in O’Connell St. But I was never a cinema “buff”, though I had a friend later who seemed to know everything about everyone in the cinema.

I also saw films featuring George Formby. My father played the ukulele (I still have it). Also Will Hay (“O mister porter”, though I think the trains interested me more than the story). I must have been taken to the Theatre Royal in the afternoons. There would have been a film, a newsreel, a cartoon (Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, The Three Little Pigs), a stage show with dancers (The Royallettes) and singers (though I was a bit young then for girls), and THE ORGAN! I was mad about the organ, and I would go down to the front to stand beside it and watch the all-too-short recital. On one occasion the organist, at that time Alban Chambers, saw me standing there in wonder (he played with his feet!), and gave me a special bow! A little later my mother arranged with him to meet us at the theatre in the morning and I was taken up into the roof to see the works, but unfortunately the band was then rehearsing and I was never enabled to play it myself. There was also an organ at the Savoy (Norman Metcalfe, Tommy Dando), and I think there was one somewhere in Cork.

I also saw films with Laurel and Hardy which I enjoyed (“another fine mess you got me into”) and Charlie Chaplin, including “Modern Times” which I found interesting. At some stage I saw “The Great Dictator” but this was probably after the War as I think it was banned here because it caricatured the Axis dictators and might have caused offence. Other films would have included those by The Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers (“A Night at the Opera” for example) which I certainly enjoyed, and Shirley Temple of whom I was less keen. Also. I think, Arthur Askey in “Band Wagon”, a film based on his BBC radio show; I saw that in Belfast. There would have been other cartoons such as Felix the Cat and Popeye the Sailor (with his girl Olive Oil). The cinema show was far more varied then, probably because the main films were not as long as they are now. I do not really remember seeing any “musicals” though much of the music was familiar (Harbour Lights, Lambeth Walk, Top Hat), but perhaps the great days of the musical were in the 1940s and 50s. (I would love now to see some of those big glamorous movies with hundreds of “hoofers” and the marvellous choreography that no producer could afford to produce today!)

Even in the 1930s there was merchandise associated with films, such as the Walt Disney newspaper for children called, I think, “Silly Symphonies”, with a serial so that you always had to get next week’s issue, and special books featuring “The Three Little Pigs” for example. I still have some memorabilia of “Snow White” somewhere, and there was a magazine called “Film Fun”, but I did not take it myself.

Cinema going in the 1930s was very popular in Ireland. Although in some counties (e.g., Carlow, I think) the audience was segregated into girls on one side and boys on the other (the Irish are terrified of sex!), I do not think this applied in Dublin, and the cinema had an atmosphere of opulence and luxury (just think of the magnificent interior of the much lamented Theatre Royal) and were  places where people could, for a few pence or even two jam jars, find escape from the harsh realities of Dublin in those days, be cosy and warm and out of the rain, and fantasise about the glamorous lives led by others. And sit in the darkness with your girl. (And there was no popcorn!). The shows were usually “continuous”, so you could see the films twice or more.

One memory I have was that whenever I went to the cinema in Dublin I nearly always came home with a flea. One does not hear much about fleas nowadays, and I suppose changes in clothing and improvements in hygeine, and also perhaps insecticides, have reduced the scourge, but I was very susceptible to their bites which could easily turn to septic boils which in those pre-antibiotic days could be dangerous and certainly painful. And you could get a flea as easily in the Adelphi as in the De Luxe in Camden St. My mother was very expert at catching and killing fleas and I also became adept at the art. (I did catch one not all that long ago!)

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