Its 1978 and I’ve been living in contractors digs in Jesmond, Newcastle for a year now, living in squalor most of the time although at the time I and my fellow bed and breakfast squatters barely seemed to notice, maybe because the cause of the squalor was mainly ourselves.
For want of nothing else to do one night and with a power cut promised for 10pm (these were highly militant days and electricity was rationed) – (sounds like a third world country doesn’t it, Britain in the late 70’s was just that), I went out for a wander and a stroll on a winters night when the fog hung heavy in the streets so that you breathed in more water than air and you navigated simply from one dimly lit lamp post to the next, hoping that you’d follow them back in the same order that you followed them out, and/or that they’d still be illuminated when you attempted to return what with the power cuts and everything.
Out of the thick vapour blanket loomed a light slightly brighter than the streetlights, just one solitary light on its own and as, moth-like, I closed in on it I could just about make out the words above the entrance canopy, “Jesmond Cinema”, quite remarkable, I’d lodged in Jesmond for a year and never knew that the place had a cinema all of its own but to tell the truth it hardly had one even though I was stood in front of it, so dilapidated was the frontage.
An old glass-cased poster outside advertised a double bill, Sam Peckinpah’s blood-fest “Straw Dogs” and the slaughter of the Indians blood-fest “Soldier Blue”.
The poster confirmed my feelings about the disheveled nature of the building – it must have closed down a long time ago, both films had been around in 1971-ish and would have long since gone to video if video had been invented then, no cinema in the country would dare to show eight year old films and still maintain some air of reality.
But the Jesmond Cinema did – maybe the film companies had forgotten to collect the reels back in 1971, but the management at the Jesmond Cinema was giving them another outing and they weren’t bad films the first time around so searching in my pocket for some loose change I leaned on the doorway to see if the place really was functional and open for business, it was.
I found myself in a tiny vestibule, no more than ten feet square, facing me opposite the doorway which had swung closed behind me, trapping both me and a healthy dose of fog in the timber panelled entrance hall, was a glass fronted ticket booth, only just wide enough to allow a little old lady to squeeze inside with her knitting and a roll of tickets, she put down her knitting, smiled, peered through the internal fog at the apparition which must have been me all of ten feet away and asked in her Tyneside accent, “Whey hello bonny la-ad, are yea-s wanting a ticket then, like”.
Looking at the copperplate lettering on the glass panel in front of her I noticed that the cheapest seats were in the stalls rather than the balcony and so I asked for one of those.
“Whey tha stalls is closed bonny la-ad, ye-all hev to sit oopstai-yers”, and so I did.
She pushed the single ticket out through a slot in the glass and pointed with a crooked, knitters crippled, finger to my left where a dimly lit oak paneled staircase leaned against the wall in an unconvincing way, this was the route to take to the luxury balcony seating.
I trod carefully up the staircase, the wooden treads creaking with even slight pressure, the filthy threadbare, once maroon carpet skidding beneath your feet as you lifted each shoe off the treads, until eventually I found myself on a small landing in front of the door leading on to the balcony seating, I pushed it open expecting to be greeted with the normal dim cinema auditorium lighting…
Instead I was blinded by a brilliant white light that totally dominated all of my senses, overwhelmed I staggered backwards through the door holding a hand to my eyes to shield them from further damage when from out of the light stepped forward a shadow…
“Whey hello bonny la-ed, have ye-as got yo’wre ticket then like”
I peeked through interlocked fingers, peeked closer, stared harder, eyes now growing accustomed to the blinding, dazzling, pure white light, it was the ticket booth woman again, how the hell did she do that, she was still in the ticket booth downstairs, wasn’t she, how did she get past me on the stairway.
Startled and bemused I simply handed her the ticket that she’d handed to me just 30 seconds previously and was at once bedazzled again by another, slightly less intense light – she’d switched her torch on and shone it accidentally in my face – a torch, the most un-necessary object in this temple of white light was now pointed at the floor indicating the steps down the balcony seating area, the little old ticket booth woman was now walking backwards down the balcony steps and indicating that I follow her to my seat.
Still holding one arm across my eyes I meekly obliged and trod carefully down the steps until, just before she fell backwards over the edge of the balcony, she indicated that I sit on a empty row two from the front, I sat, senses still assailed by the light but growing more used to it as the seconds passed until eventually I noticed that, unlike all other cinemas I had been in up until that point, the inside of the Jesmond Cinema was not illuminated by chandeliers and gentle flame-effect light bulbs, but by ten, eight foot flourescent light fittings which dangled ominously on chains until they were only just above balcony seating head height, the lighting level inside the cinema was approaching that of a city centre advertising hoarding or standing two feet in front of a magnesium distress flare.
I turned around to view the ticket booth woman disappearing through the door at the back of the balcony, presumably to serve some other poor sap who’d wandered in out of the fog to watch an ancient double bill of blood letting, and while doing so noticed that the whole of the balcony area only contained three other patrons, each of whom were staring directly at the still be-curtained cinema screen, and afterwards I realised that at no point had anyone arose to attend the toilet during the three and a half hour feast of violence, nor had I heard any signs of life such as the unwrapping of sweetie papers etc, I was not totally convinced that these people were actually alive and when I eventually left the cinema just before the 10pm power cut my cinema compatriots were not there, I was the only person to leave the place at the end.
While sitting there I couldn’t help but notice the several huge chunks of plaster that were missing from the ceiling and a glance down into the stalls indicated where they had fallen and why the stalls were closed, maybe the severe rattling that the cinema received from the Metro line trains which ran just one foot away from the back wall had something to do with the fragile plasterwork. Suddenly and without warning the flourescent lights were switched off, not dimmed and faded out, just switched off, leaving me blinded once again and thankful that I hadn’t gone to the toilet and been halfway down the balcony steps when this happened or I’d have been over the front of the balcony without a doubt.
The two films were as violent and blood thirsty as promised and remembered and I sat there bursting for a piss for three and a half hours not daring to get out of my seat for fear that they’d stop the film and switch the lights on until I came back – when the first film Straw dogs had finished the same ticket booth woman carried a tray of ancient ice cream tubs and long forgotten chocolate brands to the front of the balcony and stood there without doing any business until the fluorescents were switched off again without warning and Soldier Blue started.
When I exited the cinema at a shade after 10pm the streets were still fogbound but were now in darkness as the power-off curfew had descended on the city and as I groped my way down the street I turned to catch my last glimpse of the Jesmond Cinema which, unusually, was still only slightly illuminated by its solitary light bulb outside, the only lightbulb to be still illuminated in a power cut – how did they do that ?
I’ve done a quick Google Earth search – look for West Jesmond Metro Station, the cinema is directly opposite, but it looks abandoned, shuttered up, forlorn and bedraggled, but I’ll wager that on dark, damp, foggy nights, the light outside the entrance is suddenly illuminated again, the doors unlocked, and Straw Dogs/Soldier Blue is on the menu again.