I believe I had been to the Cinema before, possibly to see some Disney re-issues such as Snow White and Bambi, I have a vague recollection of seeing the long since forgotten Disney “classic” The Spaceman and King Arthur in about 1980, but despite growing up to truly appreciate the majesty of Snow White and Bambi, as a 3-year-old, they didn’t at the time leave much of an impression. Fast forward 2 years and my life was to be changed, forever thanks to a trip to the building captured in the above photo (albeit the photo is taken many years later).
There were 2 Cinemas in Bolton back in the early 1980s, the aforementioned Canon Cinema and the imposingly impressive Odeon seen below,
The Odeon shut down in 1983, and the building became a Bingo Hall later that year. I’m sure I went to the Odeon as a kid, maybe to watch Superman 2 and I remember thinking this was the Cinema to be at. Behind the doors of this strong, obstinate stone edifice, adventures and high thrills were turned from imagination to actual moving images on a screen so big it surely could be seen from some of these distant galaxies that I would be exploring inside the walls.
I started infant School, as a 4 year old, in January 1982, in those days they always had 2 intakes into the School year so as not to frighten the kids with Summer birthdays like me into having to deal with the politics that came with being in infant school when you had only just turned 4. I had settled in quite well and had made a good friend who I will refer to as Cozi. I seem to recall Cozi would often go on about a film called Star Wars and how it was an adventure set in Space and had lots of creatures in it including a giant walking bear. I probably was more concerned at the time with which disguise Mr. Benn would pick on his next trip to the costume shop near to his home on Festive Lane.
Then one day I remember my dad coming home from work and announcing that the Cinema in Bolton was showing both Star Wars and something called The Empire Strikes Back as a double bill (whatever that is) and that we were going to watch it. Ok, that sounds fun I thought and went straight back to wondering whether Mr. Benn would ever pick that Wizard costume that he was seen wearing on the opening titles.
I had almost forgotten about the trip until it actually happened, I don’t recall the journey to town, I couldn’t tell you whether it was by car or train, I couldn’t tell you what the weather was like, I can’t even recall what time of day it was, but I can tell you the disappointment I felt as we approached the Cannon Cinema and not the Odeon. The Odeon looked like it would protect you from a Nuclear Blast, it looked like the sort of place that will comfortably shield you from an apocalypse whilst you were in there. There were steps leading up to its front door for crying out loud, only important buildings had those. No, we were at the tiny Cannon cinema, that looked like a row of shops on a busy main road. So naff did it look from outside that next door to its left was a wig shop, its there on the photo above, with its blue parasol covering its window. Hmm, yes it was fair to say I was slightly underwhelmed. However this was all about to change, the lack of curb appeal was going to be instantly forgotten.
Next to the wig shop was a rectangular perspex picture frame jutting out from the wall. It had little fairy lights around its perimeter, it looked all sparkly and twinkly, my 4-year-old eyes were drawn to it like a homing beacon from a mothership sending me a signal. As I stole a glance at it, I noticed a picture, of an imposing, monstrous man in black armour with a red sword literally reaching out of the picture frame to me. Flanked on either side of him, was a collection of otherworldly characters, including what looked like the giant Bear that Cozi had been going on about. There seemed to be a lot of action going on here, people with laser guns, a man who looked like a gold robot, spaceships and in the middle of it all, large white writing of the words STAR WARS on the left and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK on the right. I remember staring at this poster and my imagination ran wild, I can remember vividly taking a step back and turning my young head, skyward all the way to the top of this no longer, tiny looking building.
Next to the poster was another silver frame with fairy lights around its edging. This one had the teasing words “Coming Soon” in gold lettering just above it. In this poster, less is given away as intriguingly there was a picture of a young boy’s arm reaching across a starry backdrop to touch fingers with a spindly, brown and bony finger, over two brilliant bright letters which simply read E.T.
So in we went. Into the foyer with its plush red carpets, that seemed strangely sticky, I remember having to queue whilst an usher checked tickets with my dad and then in front of them, there appeared to be a person selling sweets and OMG, Minstrels!!!!. Hey, this place is alright, they sold Minstrels. There was an odd smell in the air, one I’d never experienced before and in the corner, I could see a glass box with a bright light shining down into it. Within that box was a form of wizardry that I had never dared imagine. Hundreds of little yellow creatures were bouncing up and down at an incredible rate. It looked at first as if they were trying to escape their glass prison but on closer inspection, they appeared to be jumping on a giant trampoline.
It was at this point that the Cannon Cinema in Bolton revealed one of its wondrous, magical secrets. As stated earlier the non-descript, plain, almost boring front of the cinema, gave little to no indication of the magic that was on offer. The double bill was to be shown on Screen 2, the jewel in the Cannon Cinema’s darkened, velvet crown. To get to Screen 2 though was a journey in itself as the Cinema revealed it’s Tardis-like interior, with corridor after corridor, staircase after staircase, my four-year-old legs felt they had walked to this fabled Galaxy far far away. We had reached the bottom of the stairs that would turn out to be the final ascent.
The following 10 seconds were going to have a monumental effect on the rest of my life, I remember walking up the steps that opened out to what seemed like a landing with half a wall. On approach to this half wall I could peer over it, and there it was, bathed in warm red, a huge stage and a colossal red curtain, with furrowed pleats, being lit by uplighters that despite having the power of a 10 watt bulb managed to cast the right amount of light and shade to instantly set the heart racing. What was behind that curtain? Before this stage, but beyond this half wall there was row upon row of maroon seats all facing the red curtain, all bathed in this omnipresent red glow. As we reached the top of the stairs, my dad led us to the right and I saw that there was the same amount of seats again in the top half of this cavernous room. We headed up some more steps to the right of the main ones we had just come up and about 3 rows up found our seats.
The seats had to be pulled down to sit on, this was indeed very exciting. I did what all 4-year-old boys would do at this point and launched my bottom to the back of the seat forcing it to bow at its hinges forcing my knees up into the air, as I giddily swung back and forward, much to the chagrin no doubt of my parents and the other patrons in the row behind me. I remember seeing a short scorch mark in the armrest of the chair, probably from a cigarette from a previous showing, I glanced around and saw the dark walls capturing whatever glow they could from the red curtain, reaching into the heavens and then the ceiling filled with dozens of twinkly stars, which of course turned out to be fairy lights and not a privileged insight into the Universe that was about to start in about 10 minutes. The only other light in the room came from the soft glow green lettering of the EXIT signs at the front of the auditorium. I had been in this room for less than 2 minutes and I already wondered why anyone would want to EXIT.
Now bearing in mind this was double bill I was probably destined to sit here for the next 4/5 hours which for a 4-year-old is quite an ask, so I imagine that toilet breaks did occur, I’m sure there must have been some respite between the two films but I don’t remember that detail.
After a while, once everyone was settled into their seats, the lights started to dim, the room was already dark but now it was plunging us into a pitch black environment save for the red curtain and the green EXIT signs, it was the type of dark that when you look to the right to see your parents you can only make out the fact that they are there, but you can’t see them.
Then there was a sound I will never, ever forget. There was a whir and a distant squeak and right before my young impressionable eyes the giant red curtain started to part and the biggest TV screen I had ever laid eyes on was revealed. It was a brilliant white light that illuminated the room, I turned round to take in the whole room and saw that this brilliant light was coming in a straight line from a tiny square hole at the back of the room. Millions of tiny dust particles danced merrily in its beam as this powerful, Alien-type ray fired at the screen. Then the screen almost crackled into life with a large black circular cue mark firing into the top left-hand corner of the screen. I don’t recall exactly what happened next, but no doubt we were treated to 10 minutes of adverts for Butterkist Popcorn and a man riding a surfboard in order to sell us Old Spice aftershave.
There was possibly trailers but I don’t recall any, being 1982, there may have been one for that young boy who seemed to have a friend with a very bony, brown arm set against a backdrop of stars and forests. That be as it may, I do recall my mum nudging me to let me know that it was about to start. That briefest of moments of total silence as the adverts/trailers ends and the collective throng impatiently wonder, is this finally the film.
Now I don’t know if this is just me, and I sure as hell don’t wish to brag, but I have always had this uncanny ability to remember my thoughts and feelings on certain films from the first time I saw them, even if I have seen, as is the case with Star Wars, the same film hundreds of times since. I can remember even 35 years later my thoughts and imaginations of the first time I saw it. I remember clear as a bell the pale blue lettering that appeared on the black screen ” A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…..” and then……….. BANG!!!!!! As if every brass instrument in the known universe struck up in unison, I shot about 15 foot into the air as the Yellow Stenciled Star Wars logo flashed before my eyes for the very first time. For the second time in a little over 20 minutes, life changed forever.
Then followed the crawl that seemed to come from the basement and pass off into some unknown galactical heaven never to be returned. (I used to wonder as a child whether some random space probe, out for a probe, would wander past those words and nonchalantly nod and say good morning to them as they passed). I do remember my mum breaking every cinema code violation, but for good reason, by leaning over and reading the words of the crawl to me, I was only 4 so give me a break and besides what the hell was a custodian? I recall thinking that Princess Leia’s ship was called the Custodian for many a year.
Once the crawl had a bid a fond farewell to the audience, the camera scans down to reveal Tatooine in all its golden glory as John Williams swells to an imposing conclusion of his magnum opus theme tune. Then BOOM, the Tantive IV bursts across our screens, arriving without warning from behind our heads. Where are they heading? Are they being chased? Oh, you bet your ass they are being chased?
Of all the life-changing moments that I have described happening to me in this somewhat brief 20-25 minute window into my infant life, the next one is possibly the one moment in my life, if you take away all the truly important and memorable such as family, my wedding the birth of my children, that still fills me with a comforting warm glow that will stay with me forever. As the Tantive IV sets off on its doomed journey across our screen, it struck me, something was firing laser beams. If you remember earlier I talked about a square hole at the back of the room that was shooting this brilliant white beam across the auditorium, well from inside that square hole now emerged the most glorious of all sights. An Imperial Star Destroyer spread across the screen, like a giant mountain rising out of a darkened ocean. It was bigger than enormous, it was bigger than humongous, it was the size of heaven and it glided across the screen with such ominous grace that the whole cinema was caught in its tractor beam-like aura. When was it ever going to stop? Was it ever going to stop? I sure hoped not.
Now I don’t plan to go through the entire film scene by scene but as mentioned a moment earlier I will point out the distinct thoughts and feelings that I know I had when I watched Star Wars for the very first time. I remember being really nervous when Obi-Wan first scared off the Sand People as he seemed to be a Jawa and I wasn’t mad keen on them after what they had done to R2 and 3PO. I distinctly remember thinking that Dr. Evazan was going to be a nice guy the way he almost apologetically starts with “he doesn’t like you….”. I remember the whole cinema laughing when Han told Luke “that’s great kid, now don’t get cocky” and furthermore when he asked the Falcon “come on baby, hold together”. I remember feeling that Chewbacca (the big bear) was going to rip C3PO to shreds when R2 goes into a probably unassailable lead in a game of Dejarik. I remember being scared of the trash compactor monster when it popped its beady eye out from beneath the garbage for the briefest of cameos. I remember feeling sad when SPOILER ALERT Obi-Wan sacrificed himself against Vader, and strangely even sadder when SPOILER ALERT Biggs gets taken out by Vader whilst he was hanging back, just far enough, to cover Luke during their attack run on the Death Star.
What I remember the most however was a feeling of absolute euphoria as Han squealed YAHOO! as the Falcon blasts one of the two Tie-Fighters off Luke’s tale forcing the second Tie Fighter to knock Vader out of position leaving Luke all clear to blow that thing and go home. I remember distinctly Vader spinning out into Space and realising there and then that he wasn’t dead and would probably come back, that in itself was as enticing a prospect as a young usher stood at the front of the auditorium with her mobile ice cream stall suspended from her shoulders in preparation for the interval that was moments away.
Then Star Wars finished and I can only assume there was a period of say half an hour maybe between films. I do remember the ice cream seller and I do remember the similar, yet different yellow scrawl that started off the film. Here’s the thing, I was 4 and had already sat for 2 hours, was I going to make it through another 2+ hours. I still have memories of watching Empire on that occasion but they are not as vivid as Star Wars. Maybe I did fall asleep, which is unlikely, I was never a particularly good sleeper at the best of times and this was definitely the best of times. I put it down to familiarity. We were the last family on the street to own a video recorder and Star Wars was on the TV every year at Christmas, but not Empire, we had to wait until Christmas 1988 to see that one. We got a video player that year and I remember being incredibly frustrated that Empire was on ITV at the same time as BBC 1 were showing Back to the Future, you could only record one, and I was outvoted 4 to 1. Anyway, I digress.
So there was a 6-year gap between viewings of Empire Strikes Back which as a youngster obsessed with Star Wars was a lifetime. I recall the film being set on an ice planet but couldn’t tell you too much about that. I remember vividly the asteroid field I do remember being shocked that Yoda turned out to be well Yoda, I definitely remember the sequence in the cave where Luke battled Vader and Luke’s face appeared in the damaged Vader mask, probably down to the excellent design of that scene, there were times in the following years where I wondered whether I had dreamed that scene. I remember finding out that Darth Vader was bald, I remember Cloud City and meeting Lando, I remember Han being frozen in carbonite and the Luke versus Vader conflict, but in my head that all happened out on the platform where Vader cut off Luke’s hand and revealed the big twist that I shan’t spoil for anyone here who hasn’t seen the film yet.
When watching it again in 1988 I had no recollection of the space slug, the bounty hunters, the Ugnaughts or even that Obi-Wan was in the film.
The overriding memories of that day, however, were that I was sat in a truly magical place, a building so unassuming on the outside, but a purveyor of fascinating gifts on the inside. My love of Cinema was born that day and it has never left, I still get a tingle of excitement when I walk through the door into the room and see that giant screen in front of me. It is a privilege to live in a time when I am witness to such groundbreaking art that is designed primarily to entertain and make people happy. That trip to the cinema made me realise that whenever things are looking a little bit gloomy that the imaginations of the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to name just two are an invitation to relax and be thrilled in the various wonders that they put on the screen for our pleasure.
Postscript, – as is the way of things, both the Cinemas mentioned above have long since gone, the Odeon building, which has ceased to be a cinema in 1983 and turned into a Bingo Hall until 2004 was demolished in February 2007. The Cannon Cinema survived until 1998 with a special screening of Casablanca marking its last ever show. The building laid empty for years before being demolished in 2006 to be replaced by a block of flats called Picture House.