At another visit to the second-hand book shop I was pleased to find another memoir of a London childhood with excellent material on seeing films before the First World War. Dorothy Scannell’s Mother Knew Best: An East End Childhood (1974) tells of her life before and after the war as one of ten children of a Poplar plumber, earning £2 a week. This passage on Saturday cinema-going is eloquent on how people completely carried away by what they saw on the screen (in this case, her younger sister Marjorie):
We went to the ‘pictures’ on Saturday mornings. The Picture Palace was like a huge garage with dirty red doors opposite Mrs Crutchington’s shop and it cost a ha’penny. It was called the Star Picture Palace and we would all cheer when the pictures finally started for the screen was a long time flickering and shaking and tearing itself in two with brief glimpses of the previous week’s serial before it settled down, and whenever it broke down during the performance, which was often, we would all boo loudly. A lady played the piano, sad music, frightening music, and happy music according to how the film was progressing and what was taking place. Because we had so few ‘arrants’ to do, we were nearly always the first ones there and so sat in the front row where the cowboys were nine feet tall, the horses hunched up in the middle and the heroine had a ‘Dish ran away with the spoon’ face.
Marjorie was the most terrible person to accompany to the pictures … We all left the world mentally, but she left it physically as well in a sense. When the heroine was tied to the railway line, and tried to fight her captors, Marjorie would fight in her seat. When the poor mother was pleading with the wicked landlord for her starving children, Marjorie was on her knees pleading too. Her screams of terror when the heroine was about to be tortured seemed louder to me than the frightening music being played by the lady pianist and I would thump Marjorie to bring her back to the world. All in vain, she never felt or heard me, and I ceased going to the pictures on Saturdays long before Marjorie did, for she could wait patiently until the next episode of an exciting serial. Rather than wait and wonder, I decided not to go. I hated serials, I just had to see a complete picture, and most of the films shown to the children had been cut and made into serials, for by chopping the films into little bits they would last the Picture Palace for weeks and weeks. I always thought it had been raining on the screen and it wasn’t until years later I realised it was the poor quality of the film. The black streaks moved everlastingly up and down.
The Star Picture Palace was in Poplar High Street, founded in 1914, and seated 400. It was run by the British Improved Bioscope Co. Ltd., no less.