Going to the Pictures

by Giles Woodforde

T hey say the strongest memories are evoked by smells from the past. And so it was with me the other day when I walked up Kidlington High Street, and the Tesco store swung into view. The smell of cigarette smoke mixed with scented disinfectant and polished linoleum wafted into my mind.

Kidlington's Sterling Cinema opened in October 1938 with George Formby's film 'I see Ice'. During the 1940s and 1950s coaches would bring people from surrounding villages including some as far as the Wychwoods. Seat prices in 1952 were: Stalls 1/-, 1s 6d, 2s 1d & 2s 7d; Circle 3s 1d.
IMAGE SOURCE: Sterling's auditorium reproduced from Kidlington in Camera Vol II by John Amor.

Why should the sight of Tesco's bring back that particular memory? Well, as longer-term local residents will know, the Tesco building started life in 1938 as the Sterling Cinema. And the unique mix of aromas I was remembering was the smell you sniffed when you entered a cinema in the old days – before it was replaced by the all-persuasive waft of popcorn so familiar to all patrons of modern multiplexes.

My thoughts moved on. It's now a year since the Government ordered all cinemas (and theatres, of course) to shut down as the first lockdown was imposed. Some cinemas limped back into life for a few weeks last summer, others have remained closed. The release of the next James Bond film No Time To Die has already been delayed twice: Bond's latest martini cocktail has yet to be shaken, not stirred. Other major films have been diverted onto Netflix or Disney+, and will never be shown on the big screen.

If you've ever been to the cinema, your first moviegoing experience will surely remain unforgettable. Perhaps it was Bette Davis shrivelling you in your seat as she glared down at you icily from the screen. Or perhaps you first revelled in the wonders of ET. For me the film was The Red Beret, starring Alan Ladd. The year was 1953, and our car had broken down in Cambridge during a downpour. The garage was going to take two hours to fix it. "Let's go in here," I said as we passed the Victoria Cinema. "No, no!" my father replied, "I can't stand those cinema pianists." Patronisingly, no doubt, I pointed out that films had soundtracks nowadays. The film was no masterpiece, being described in Halliwell's Film Guide as a "Routine war action flagwaver; good battle scenes, rubbish in between".

But my father and I were transfixed. Two love affairs with the big screen, and "going to the pictures" were born. My father became a regular at the ABC Ritz (now Odeon) George Street, while I attended the vast Regal on Cowley Road after work on Saturday afternoons. Sometimes at the Regal, the screen would suddenly go blank at a vital moment in the on-screen drama, owing to a "technical malfunction". But that was all part of the fun.

The Sterling closed and swopped films for food in 1977. But for surviving cinemas up and down the country, I do so hope that we haven't seen the last picture show.

SEE ALSO by Giles Woodforde
Morse, Lewis, Endeavour
Paw Prints
Going to the Pictures
A Personal Reflection
Yellow Bus

Giles Woodforde is a long-time resident of Kidlington village and was once a familiar voice to listeners of BBC Radio Oxford.
He is best known as a feature writer and reviewer for the Performing Arts for The Oxford Times newspaper.

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