Growing up in Neston


Theatre Royal Bath and Hawthorn Cinema

Neston Sunday School - yes there was such a thing, use to run a yearly trip to the Theatre Royal in Bath to see the annual Christmas Maddox pantomimes. The pantomimes were a major event in the yearly calendar anticipated by  adults and children alike. Kids and parents would climb aboard one of two charabancs parked outside our house (No.8) for the trip to Bath. The shows would open on Boxing Day and run into the New Year. They were quite spectacular productions with stunning scenery, large cast, full orchestra and stars of the day like Jimmy Mac, a favourite comedian with the adults for his occasional risqué jokes and really loud voice.

I was always fascinated by how they changed the scenery so quickly and the lighting which made everything look so beautiful. The sets were absolutely spectacular and drew gasps from the audience as the curtain went up. Always fascinated by the technical side of things I probably spent more time looking at the beam of the follow-spot and where it was coming from than watching the show!

The Theatre Royal Bath is beautiful with ornate decor, three curved balconies and huge ruby red curtains hanging under an intricate proscenium arch. Not sure if it was exposure as a  child to the Theatre Royal that gave me an avid interest in theatre, cinema and general performance stuff, with a fair lean to the technical side if the truth be known.

I was lucky enough to go on a tour of the Theatre Royal when I was in England a few years back. It had just been refurbished and I was pleased to see it had been restored with great care and was just how I remembered it, even down to the red seating. What else could they do with such a marvellous old theatre? As I stood there in the empty auditorium I could almost hear the very loud voice of Jimmy Mac from all those years ago.

Hawthorn Cinema

Hawthorn Cinema was just about at the bottom of Hawthorn Hill, it was one of two places around where you could go to see a film, or 'go to the pictures' as it was known then, the other being the much smaller Regal Cinema in Corsham. Hawthorn seemed quite large inside, built originally as an auditorium for the Navy Camp. The building is still there today as Stephens Plastics. My mother, father and myself would walk from Lockscross Neston down Jaggards Lane to the cinema. After watching the film we would have to return back up Jaggards Lane in the dark. Even with my parents its seemed very spooky especially going past Jaggards House with dense black fur trees swaying and creaking in the wind.

When a little older I would go by myself to meet up with other kids from Neston school. The floor of the cinema was flat and the seats were those hard wooden fold-up type much used by the services at the time. The seats had been screwed together to form rows. I have to say sitting on those for an hour or so was not exactly comfortable! The place has fond memories for me though as we went to watch such tiles as 'Dial M For Murder', 'Them' (about giant ants) and lots of westerns. It was a great place to go with friends (and school girlfriends) to see stars such as Gregory Peck, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Danny Kaye and many more. You also got to see more than just the main feature, first a short 'B' picture was shown then ads from Pearl Dean and Youngers followed by Movietone News. A short interval followed, where, if you had the money you could buy a Walls Choc Ice for 6d or Kiora orange drink, if funds didn’t stretch that far you could buy an ice lolly for 3d and then settle back for the main picture.

The cinema could seat over 500 and was very popular with most young people from Neston and surrounds going every week. It usually had one programme for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, another for Thursday, Friday and Saturday and a separate programme for Sunday nights.

The cinema was eventually taken over by new people. A manager, Mr. Weaver and a projectionist Mr. Gould, both very nice people. Things started to improved as they installed proper cinema seating (comfort at last!) and later equipped the cinema with a CinemaScope screen. 'HAWTHORN GETS CINEMASCOPE' screamed the posters at the time. I remember the first showing of a ‘scope picture at Hawthorn Cinema and the gasps from the audience as the screen opened up to the mighty width that was CinemaScope.

I once cheekily ask Mr Weaver if I could put a cinema poster up in Neston and if I did would I get a complementary ticket! Surprisingly he agreed. I didn’t really have anything to pin the poster to, what I needed was some sort of wooden board with a frame. That’s where Neston School woodwork classes came in. The classes were held at Westwells School which was about half way up Hawthorn Hill on the right hand side, almost opposite the mound that was the entrance to Spring Quarry. A bus would take the class for woodwork every Tuesday. At the time Neston School had a number refugee kids from Hungary because of the Russian invasion. Some of them were not  very compliant and often got into trouble. I remember on one occasion at woodwork one of them was playing up and the teacher Mr. Kinch bent him over a woodwork bench and gave him three almighty whacks on the behind with a flat 36inch steel rule. The rest of us were really shocked at this but also saw the funny side as a cloud of wood dust erupted from the boys backside with every whack! Mr. Kinch was a good teacher and some of the things he taught me about woodwork still come in useful today. We had to decide what we w
ould like to make as a final project, some made coffee tables, footstools, etc. I manage to convince Mr. Kinch that a board with opening door to hold a Hawthorn Cinema poster would be a good project. After quite a few weeks  I finished and painted the board and took it home. I screwed it high up on the wall of what was our coal shed facing the road at locks cross and got my complementary ticket to Hawthorn Cinema! I continued putting the weekly posters up for several years.

Alway fascinated by how things worked and what went on behind the scenes, I once asked Mr. Gould if I could see the projection room and he allowed me up the narrow stairway to where the projectors were. I was fascinated by the mechanics of the old machines. There were two Kalee 8 projectors made in the UK by Gaumont-Kalee. They were very old but grand machines. Cinemas in those days had to have two projectors. The intense light required could only be provided by a carbon arc lamp. The two carbons rods burnt away and could only last a little over twenty minutes. After that time the carbon rods had to be adjusted or changed. Because of this films were supplied on twenty minute reels (2000 feet of film). A typical feature film would have around five reels. While one projector was showing one reel the other was being prepared. Film would be laced though the projector, carbon rods would be checked ready for the next changeover in twenty minutes time. Changeover was a critical time for the projectionist who had to peer through the little square window and look out for ‘changeover dots’ which appeared on the top right hand corner of the screen. They could be easily missed which is when the audience would see the 6, 5, 4, 3 countdown on the screen. Audiences at Hawthorn Cinema would often stamp their feet in time with the countdown until the film recommenced. Missing changeover dots was considered very unprofessional for the people working ‘upstairs’ in cinemas.

Norman Jefferies was also a projectionist at Hawthorn Cinema. He went on to own and operate The Regal Cinema in Corsham. After a tremendous amount of work by himself and his wife he modernised it and turned it into Corsham Film Theatre. He went on to open the twin Gemini Cinemas in Bath near the Little Theatre.

I have always had a strong regard for theatres and cinemas, there’s something about those places that I love.