Screen stars

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While the Odeon name lives on in the shape of a car park, its long-time partner, the Gaumont, has disappeared without trace. Chris Morvan turns the spotlight on a legendary local cinema.

While the Odeon name lives on in the shape of a car park, its long-time partner, the Gaumont, has disappeared without trace. Chris Morvan turns the spotlight on a legendary local cinema. HE closure 20 years ago of the Gaumont Cinema marked the end of a golden age.

While 'going to the pictures' had once been a premier choice for an evening's entertainment, audiences had been declining for years, as more and more options emerged to claim our precious spare time.

But many of us still made it to the building near the bottom of St Julian's Avenue now and then to lose ourselves for a couple of hours in a place that always produced a sense of occasion.

There was no parking at the Gaumont, so for many young people it was a case of waiting outside for a lift home, or getting the 'picture bus'. The fact that there was public transport laid on exclusively for this purpose illustrates the importance of cinema-going as a leisure pursuit in what seems like a much more innocent time.

You'd be waiting before the performance, too, queuing up the hill and passing the time talking to friends, bumping into people you hadn't seen for ages and staring at the buildings across the road,

wondering why someone would call a house Hiawatha.

Once inside, there was a real atmosphere, whether you were seeing a film for the first time or for the fifth night on the trot, because it just had such an effect on you.

The size of the screen, the volume of the music and even the way the place looked all added to the effect. The Gaumont was ornate and full of style details that you couldn't help noticing, even if only those with a real interest in such matters gave it much actual thought.


You might buy some popcorn or chocolate and a drink.

Then you'd find your seats and the building was filled with the murmur of conversation.

Finally the lights would go down and the huge curtains would open.

The music that introduced the adverts, courtesy of Pearl and Dean, has become one of the legendary tunes of our time. And all it consisted of was some Swingle Singers-type harmony merchants going 'buppa buppa buppa buppa buppaba, buppa buppa buppa buppa-baaaa? bup.'


In the earlier times, there might be a B-movie on first - something that was probably made on a low budget and with no real aspirations to being hugely successful. But Ronald Reagan is often referred to as a B-movie actor and he didn't do badly for himself. And he must have been reasonably famous before he went into politics and became the most genial president the USA ever had - even if at times you got the impression that the wheel was going round but the gerbil was dead.

The main feature at the Gaumont and its fellow cinemas could be superb, average or diabolical.

Everyone over the age of perhaps 25 will have their own memories of the Gaumont. Mine begin in the early 1960s.

I remember being taken there with the family as a special treat to see the comedian Charlie Drake in Sands of the Desert. It was hardly a classic, but the occasion was enough for the youngsters, while my father was not impressed that he'd forked out a fortune for two adults and four kids and Drake had let him down by simply not being funny.

Then there was the subtle but undeniable primary-school frisson of Move Over Darling, a Doris Day vehicle in which she was, I seem to recall, on a desert island - with a man.

Other early memories of films at the Gaumont include The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape (the old man's ex-service influence, I imagine), while Rotten to the Core, starring Eric Sykes and featuring a young Charlotte Rampling, lived up to its title. It made such an impression that I have no idea what it was about.

The 1960s were the heyday of the James Bond films, with kids and adults alike streaming out into the avenue feeling as if they had a Smith & Wesson in their shoulder holster and confident of taking care of Blofeld or Goldfinger if they turned up. The males would also be hoping to find Ursula Andress emerging from the waves the next time they were at Port Soif.

One who could probably recite the scripts of everything from The Graduate to Ghostbusters is Maureen Fitchet. During her 19 years at the Gaumont, Maureen began as an usherette, serving ice creams at the bottom of the stairs before walking back up (and they used to do it almost sensuously, it seemed to me). Over the years she progressed through the ranks and was the last-ever manager.

'They were good times and I remember them with affection,' she said. 'Even standing with a can at the end of the performance, waiting to empty the ashtrays. There were some classic films over the years. I'm a bit of a horror fiend, so I liked things like The Exorcist and The Pendulum, with Christopher Lee. The buses would be lined up outside and the drivers would see the end of the same film every night.'

It wasn't just youngsters in the audiences. Maureen remembers one old character in particular.

'There was a Mrs Stonebridge, who came to see Annie 200 times,' she said. 'She liked the Sound of Music as well.'

Cinemas around the island...

* Some older memories may stretch as far as the North Cinema, just off The Bridge (now the garage, Silverline). But there were many others.

Guernsey's first screening was at St Julian's Theatre (which became the Gaumont) in 1896, not long after the creation of the very first films. The bill consisted of five items lasting only a few minutes each, including three Japanese girls doing a fan dance and some children paddling in the sea.

The highlight seems to have been a film of a train arriving at a station, which had the audience diving for cover because they'd never seen anything like it before.

* Picture palaces sprang up through the early 20th century, notably the Electric, at Rectory House, Market Street (now the Co-Op Travelmaker) and the Empire, at Mont Crevelt (now the All-island Carpet Company, where Bulwer Avenue meets South Side).

Then there was the Lyric, in New Street (originally a chapel, then a theatre, as was the North Cinema).

The Lyric was the venue for Guernsey's first experience of the 'talkie' on 9 December 1929: Showboat. While the film generally regarded as the world's first talkie, The Jazz Singer, had been shown here several months earlier, it was a silent version, with brief bits of dialogue and songs tacked on. The Lyric had to have new sound equipment installed before it could deliver the audio part.

In 1955 it was converted into a billiards hall and is now an office building.

1937 saw the building of The Regal, later called The Odeon, which had a splendid Compton organ for pre-film entertainment.

One of the real quirky ones was a rowdy-sounding place called Billy Bartlett's (originally The Hippodrome) at the bottom of Rue des Freres, the narrow lane that cuts through from St Julian's Avenue/College Street to Upland Road. Before it invested in a screen and all the new technology that went with it, Billy Bartlett's was described as 'the last bastion of the legitimate stage, with a repertory company in constant session during the 1930s'.

* Safety was a major concern in the early days of cinema. Today's films, even if shown on the traditional huge reels, are not made of the famous 'celluloid', but a much more stable substance.

Celluloid itself was apt to burst into flames,

so projection rooms were built with easily-penetrated vents in the ceiling above the machine. If an explosion happened, the idea was that the danger would be channelled up and out of the building, safeguarding the staff and customers.

* Colour film was introduced as early as 1905, although it amounted to little more than giving everything a background tint. Technicolor films appeared in the early 1920s, but the first film worthy of the

name was, coincidentally, titled The Black Pirate, starring Douglas Fairbanks. 'The film is done in genuine colours', said the advertisements. It was shown in Guernsey on 1 March 1927.

* Watching films is probably more popular today than ever - but we tend to do it at home, rather than with hundreds of others in a purpose-built theatre. There is now talk of a new cinema at Admiral Park, while the Mallard has been filling the gap in recent years.

Can we be persuaded to forsake the

video or DVD player and sit in expectant comfort and the company of people we don't know?

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