Zulu in the Flea Pit


by Esmerelda Weatherwax (July 2009)

I wrote in May of a trip to the pictures with my teenager (aka The Luggage) to see The Ship That Rocked. And I didn’t mean to cause a kerfuffle, honest, and I am pleased that we are on good terms again. We saw that film in a complex on the outskirts of town with 10 (or more) screens all showing different films. A central car park is handy for the branches of MacDonalds, Pizza chains, other restaurants, other leisure facilities.

I was reminded afresh how much picture going has changed since I was a teenager.

Every Saturday morning children’s films were shown at the Coliseum in Stoke Newington and “Saturday morning pictures” was an institution, which for reasons I never found out, my Mother did not allow me to attend.

I found out years later that the reason I was not allowed in Clissold park paddling pool was because of the polio outbreak of 1952/3 spread through infected water. The rock singer Ian Dury said in his autobiography that he caught the disease from the paddling pool by Southend Pier which I remember looking at longingly and which was filled in when Adventure Island was built.

But I never found out what the aversion to Saturday Morning Pictures was; I went to the pictures with my parents so it wasn’t anything to do with the premises. They may have been called flea pits in the past but by the time I was taken to see 101 Dalmations and Captain Nemo and the Giant Crabs (or whatever it was called; the crabs were memorable if the title wasn’t) they were very comfortable places. The Children’s Film Foundation made lots of good films, on suitable wholesome themes, especially for the Saturday morning showings so I don’t know. My husband used to attend the Saturday sessions at the Astra Cinema on the RAF base in East Anglia when his father was Chaplain there for a period and he recalls the experience with pleasure.

Therefore I didn’t get to a Saturday morning picture showing until my late 40s when we were on holiday in Weymouth and a film the Luggage wanted to see was showing. Outside London the old custom continued, and I hope still continues to this day. Under the modern child protection protocol the adults were required to stay with the pre-teen children so I got to experience what I had been missing all these years. I cheered every act of the pre film talent show and failed to catch any of the sweets thrown to the audience.

When I first wrote on this subject in 2007 I didn’t get to the pictures much but children grow fast and we have seen a few things this last year. Our friend Robert Bove had posted a still photograph of Michael Caine and Stanley Baker in the film Zulu and I wrote:-

I first saw Zulu in the ABC on Leyton High Road in 1964. I don’t know how things worked in the US but at that time in England the system was this.

A film would be released and would show Up West in one of the prestigious London cinemas for several weeks after its premier. There were two distributors who usually had a cinema each in most London boroughs, either an ABC or an Odeon. There were other names but the Gaumont, Coliseum or Roxy would come under one or the other distribution umbrella. Each week 2 films would leave the west end and go on general release, starting with London north of the river, for 1 week only. The next week those films spent a week in London south of the river and North London got 2 new films. After south London the films were shown in other parts of the country. No multi screen complexes or film season events.

The cinemas operated on a system of continuous showings of 2 films the A and the B, in between them was Pathe News and adverts, some local.

After the film have fish and chips at Alf’s Fish bar – only 2 minutes from this theatre.

These local adverts were only discontinued about 3 years ago in favour of national syndicating which is a shame.

Nobody knew what time the main film would start, (I think the projectionist was the exception) so you got to the cinema whenever was convenient, started watching and left once the programme started to repeat itself.

We arrived about an hour and a half into Zulu and the Battle of Rourkes Drift was in full swing. It was standing room only, up the back, and as soon as anyone left (“Come on dear, this is where we came in”) there was a jostle for the vacated seats. I can’t remember anything about the B film, then we watched Zulu from the beginning. And I wanted to watch the end again, to see the whole thing in context, although I couldn’t have explained it then in those terms. But my parents wanted to get home. And having been watching films in odd bits all their lives they couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to leave. I eventually saw the film in its entirety on television years later; sadly it has not been repeated recently.  

The one time I was indulged was with The Fighting Prince of Donegal. My mother was in hospital so Dad and I couldn’t see it when it was on in Leyton and Walthamstow. As a special treat Dad looked up cinemas the other side of the river (another world in those days) and we travelled across to Stockwell to see it, and I got to watch it from beginning to end. I really enjoyed it and wondered if people could own films to watch whenever they liked, if they were rich enough. 40 years later people can own films.

In 2007 despite being a Disney film with a good cast The Fighting Prince of Donegal had never been released on DVD. It was released for a brief period on video for the rental market only, which I missed. Very occasionally a copy comes up on Ebay, and bidding always goes beyond what I am willing to risk on elderly VHS.

As Susan Hampshire and Peter McEnery are still working and have a good fan base I pleaded with Disney at the end of my post to release it on DVD. Which they did a few months later and I bought a copy from the US. However as it is Region 1 only and my DVD player plays Region 2 only (and the code to break through is not readily available and the technique thus beyond me) I have not watched it yet. But as most new DVD players play all regions just as soon as the old one breaks and I replace it I will be able to sit down and watch.

I have only waited 41 years.

I can wait a few more months.

I am a patient woman.



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