Sunday, 1 May 2011

Ming the Merciless

If, by any chance, you one day happen to bump into that esteemed English thespian Christopher Lee (CBE), aka Count Dracula, aka Count Dooku (but not Count Duckula), would you be so kind as to ask him the following question on my behalf: “Mr Lee,Funny Man’ - why?”.
Welcome dear reader to my first posting on my blog of eternal stench (an alternative title I’d seriously considered at one time). In fact, I found choosing a title for my blog far harder than composing these inane disconnected ramblings of gibberish and nonsense you see swimming before your tired straining eyes. Allow me if you will to share with you some of the alternative titles I’d originally considered for my blog - it might give you a flavour of what you could be letting yourself in for should you choose to subscribe to future postings – or, on the other hand (and far more likely) it will convince you beyond all reasonable doubt to click ‘exit’ and instead search Google for pictures of cats that look like Hitler.
Potential blog titles:
1.   Popcorn and wonderment (conveying the sensory essence of the cinema experience). Rejected for being too pretentious, cuddly, and vaguely sounding like a phrase from a poor-man’s Ray Bradbury.

2.   CINEMAyhem (clever huh? See what I did there – combined the word cinema with ‘mayhem’ to reflect the fact that most of my favourite films involve mayhem of one sort or another). Rejected for sounding too gimmicky and for giving potential subscribers the impression that I can’t control the CAPS lock on the LAPtop.

3.   Crazy Ralph’s unheeded warnings of doom (a reference to the original first two instalments in the 'Friday the 13th' franchise - a 'guilty pleasure' amongst many that I'll be sharing with you in time...

4.    Invitations to the curious (with apologies to M.R. James for plagiarising his ghost story entitled ‘A warning to the curious’. Again a reference to all things scary, spooky, frightful and a tad pretentious too me thinks (or thought).
Ok that’s enough: you get the picture I’m hoping? There were of course countless other variations using words such as: ‘fearful’, ‘fright’, ‘monsters’, ‘maniacs’ and quite frankly more over-used examples of alliteration than you could shake a short slightly severed silver stick at. But I finally settled on Fleapits and Picture Palaces’ in order to convey my fondness and unabashed nostalgia for the many cinemas that I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of frequenting from an early (and clearly formative) age, and the (alliteration alert!) memorable moments of mayhem and magic I’ve witnessed within them. So come with me dear reader if you will on a journey – not into the ‘Twilight Zone’ (at least not yet anyway), but back in time to the very early 70’s (that’s the 1970’s smarty pants and I’ll make the jokes ok?) where, with the help of the Ghost of Christmas Past, we can see a small boy standing on the concourse of Victoria railway station by platform 19 with his father...
The boy is slightly podgy, with a big round face, a kindly disposition, but a rather unfortunate hair cut architecturally inspired by a pudding bowl. The gentleman by his side has curly hair threatening to turn grey beyond the high English forehead, a sharpish nose, an equally kindly disposition and a very well spoken tone as he requests for one adult and one child to be admitted to the cinema below.
Both these photographs were taken in 1933 when this marvellous palace of delights was called the Victoria Station News Theatre. By the time my dad and I came along it's name had changed to the Victoria Station Cartoon Cinema (but I suspect little else had changed).So here you go; this is where my love of cinema started. That’s also where my love of Kia-Ora orange squash and Rowntree’s Fruit Gums began. It’s probably also where my tooth decay started to form as well come to think of it. But from these humble beginnings and all that...in this case the (very) humble special effects which helped Flash Gordon’s spaceship escape the evil monochrome clutches of Ming the Merciless in just the nick of time each week using a technique I’ve since come to understand as ‘a bit of string and a sparkler’ - eat your heart out ILM, chew on that CGI, screen it BFI – sorry got carried away there for a moment with abbreviationitis (LOL). Where was I? Oh yes, after Buster Crabbe (always thought that name sounded vaguely cruel to our crustacean friends) had shown the merciless Ming no, erm, well mercy I guess it would invariably be time for Mr Stan Laurel and Mr Oliver Hardy to bounder onto the silver screen and cause me to have tears of laughter streaming down my cheekbones where they would begin to collect in a pool on the weird square-shaped top of the Kia-Ora orange container. A news trailer would temporarily dampen my mood before another instalment of my favourite animated wild-life documentary series exploring the timeless struggle between feline predator and rodent prey - more commonly referred to in popular culture as Tom and Jerry – would get those slightly podgy cheeks smiling once again.

Now just before we leave that delightful little palace of delights and that 3-4 year old boy with his mouth full of gums (disease?) I must just share with you one single solitary sliver of a memory, like a shard of glass from Superman’s ice-palace decanter of knowledge, which for some reason has remained with me till this day – no doubt at the expense of something useful. I recall watching a documentary one afternoon above platform 19, in colour and up to date for the time, about a man travelling across America chasing migrating birds or something (it was nearly 40 years ago dear reader), and basically he lived on cold baked beans eaten straight from the can. Sorry, I’ve now got this image of Marlon Brando’s head hovering in a greenish tint in front of a caped Christopher Reeve in his Arctic ice palace: “My son, if you are to live on this planet called Earth I must impart to you knowledge of a man who drives across America chasing birds and eating baked beans (see separate shard of glass marked:’ protein pulses in tomato sauce’) from the can that contains them”. Anyway (this is beginning to feel like one of those meandering Ronnie Corbett monologues), when the film showed us a close-up of the aforementioned gentleman scooping up a great spoonful of Heinz’s 57 varieties into his bearded-framed mouth, two boys about three rows behind my father and I both exclaimed “uuurgh!” in unison. I have no doubt this was a genuine instantaneous response with no hint of pre-meditated audience disturbance intent, but the chubby usherette promptly threw them out. Clearly I was shocked by this miscarriage of justice and would no doubt have stood up and defended my fellow cinema-goers were it not for the fact that my gob was probably glued shut with an adhesive layer of wine gum – and I was only about 3 and I’m not sure my opinion would have held all that much sway.
The Victoria Station Cartoon Cinema closed on 27th August 1981 in order for the Victoria Place shopping plaza to be built. I reckon if you visit Boots today you just might be standing on the site of the old cinema.
Until next time then dear reader, the house lights have come up, so please exit the auditorium and I'll see you here sometime soon for the next installment.  
P.S. Remind me to explain the Christopher Lee (CBE) question next time we meet as well will you? Ta very much.
 (Both photographs from the National Monuments Record.)