Only the screen was silent

I was pleased to find a copy of Harry Blacker’s Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974) in a second-hand bookshop recently. This memoir of a childhood spent in London’s East End in the early years of the twentieth century has a marvellously evocative section on going to the cinema before the First World War. Here’s an extract:

On the diminutive screen, the ‘big picture’ had already started. Under it, curtained off from the main audience, Miss Daniels, a heavily made up brunette, played a piano accompaniment to the tragic drama that flickered overhead. The heat was terrific. A perpetual buzz of conversation mingled with the crackle of peanut shells that littered the floor like snow in winter. Every step in any direction crunched … Nearby, children were reading the titles out loud for the benefit of their foreign parents. Some even translated the words directly into Yiddish. Babies cried, kids were slapped, and an endless procession to the ‘ladies and gents’ was greeted by outraged cries of ‘Siddown’. Only the screen was silent.

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