Lives through a lens – cinema memories


Manage episode 126340564 series 101472
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The cinema has brought us a myriad of exceptional films over the past 100 years. However, it is often the experience of cinema-going that sticks in the memory – first dates, outings with family and friends, the inflated prices of pick ‘n’ mix, the architectural splendour (or ugliness) of the buildings themselves.

The Cinema Memories project at UCL is seeking to tap into these recollections in order to gain a snapshot of Britain during the 1960s. Was it swinging? Was it tied to the kitchen sink? Was it, perhaps, a mixture of the two or, in fact, something completely different? Alex Bingham goes to find out.

With the nature of memory itself also being brought into focus, this audience studies project has the cinema has exciting potential to provide insights into both the past and the present. With thanks to the Cinema Museum London.

[whispering]: ‘sorry, sorry if I can just squeeze through, yep, thanks cheers thanks … if I can just pop my coat there, thank you, popcorn there, brilliant! Ok ]…….’

Alex Bingham: ‘Aghh! Wycombe 6 cinema – I’ve got a fair few memories from here…..Coming to see Robin Hood Men in Tights with friends as a child. Creeping underage and fearful into Independence Day. And venturing in, age 17, to see Dogville on my own and sitting drained and immobile as the end credits rolled’.

Cinema has an incredible power to freeze frame moments in our lives and drop us back into a set of emotions, a time, a place or a social situation. These memories in turn can be a rich source of historical and cultural information and a new research project based at University College London is seeking to tap into such recollections. The Cinema Memories project is delving back into the 1960’s. The decade we have come to identify with mini skirts, flower power and swinging London to see what life was really like for those who experienced it.

[…….. ok, better be quiet now……….films starting [whirr of the film reel] ]

Scene 1: Take 1 – The Cinema Museum in South London.

AB: Dr. Melvin Stokes who created the project and his research associate, Dr Matthew Jones are being interviewed. They are sat in a row of plush red seats surrounded by old cinema signs, film cameras and signed photographs of movie stars. Melvin responds to the question ‘ What inspired the Cinemas Memory project?

ACTION [Clapperboard]…

Melvin Stokes: ‘ The short term answer is that I gave a talk about 3 or 4 years ago to people who’d graduated from UCL in London in the 1960’s and I was talking about cinema in the 1960’s and a whole bunch of these people came up to me afterwards with a series of fascinating reminiscences and memories about the cinemas they’d been to, such as Tottenham Court Road, in Bloomsbury and so on and I thought wouldn’t it be a marvelous idea to have a research project that would actually go around recording peoples memories of 60s cinema and so we can pass all these social and cultural experiences on to the next generation.

[whirr of film reel]

Scene 2: Take 1

AB: Matthew (Matt) outlines the nature of the project and the advantages of audience studies.

Matthew Jones:‘ What we’ve seen is that audience studies provides a way of accessing types of information about cinema going that you can’t get in any other way, and of course the 60s in Britain is seen as a crucial period of great change, politically, socially and so on and what we are beginning to find out is that actually that wasn’t true for everybody all of the time. There has been a lot of research recently that suggested that for many people in Britain in the 60s it wasn’t as radical a period as we might expect. And that the 1950s in a cultural sense at least, went on for much longer than the end of the decade, the 50s didn’t end in 59, so I think in that sense its quite important to come back to cinema going and to say well these films are often quite closely tied into notions of cultural revolution in the 60s – the swinging London films, ‘Darling’ and the ‘Beatles movies’, and there is a great sense of energy about those movies but actually to what extend were they reflecting peoples lives. To what extent were they engaging with people in thinking about their own existence and reflecting what life was like in Britain in the 1960s and we can’t do that unless we know how people responded to particular films, how they went to the cinema, what cinema going meant to them, how it fitted into their everyday lives – whether it was just a passive activity or whether they were actively and critically engaged with these films.

[organ music]

AB: The Cinema memories project is not the first of its kind to be undertaken. Annette Kuhn’s audience study for example, presented in her 2002 book ‘ An Everyday Magic’ focused on cinema going in Britain in the 1930s when going to the ‘pictures’ was the nations favorite spare time activity. Kuhn used interviews, questionnaires and original source materials to investigate cinemas impact on cultural memory and the role of cinema in 1930s British Society. The Cinema Memories project is however, the first of its kind to apply these methods to the 1960s.

Scene 3: Take 1 – Methods are revealed


MJ: The first stage is collecting questionnaires. We are currently appealing to the public at large to fill in a questionnaire and the questionnaire asks people about their experiences of 1960s cinema going. So partially it’s about what films did you see, what films did you like, what stars did you like, which directors did you like. Partially it’s about the character of the experience itself. What were the cinemas themselves like; what did you do on a night out at the cinema? – How did the audiences behave? – Did the people talk? Did they eat; did they dance? These are the sorts of questions that we are interested in. So it’s quite a broad ranging questionnaire and as I said it’s the first stage and is available now and is where we are currently.

The second stage of the process is then to start conducting interviews with people, to look at the questionnaires and say ‘ right, well what are the themes that are emerging from this and who might be able to tell us more about this. Then we are going to invite participants to take part in a type of oral history interview, and hopefully get a little bit more into detail and follow up some leads on that.

And finally, the third stage of the process is focus groups. I’m quite interested to see to what extent people discuss their cinema going habits as a group in the same way as they discuss them individually, to provoke each others memories, to prompt each other, are there shared memories. Is there a shared collective sense of 60s cinema going? Once we’ve gathered up all that lovely data we go through it in derail and see what it tells us about 60s cinema going.

[whirr of film reel]

‘The charm, one might say the genius of memory is that it is choosy, chancy and temperamental. It rejects the edifying cathedral and indelibly photographs the small boy outside chewing a hunk of melon in the dust’ – [Elizabeth Bowen read by Imogen Church]

Scene 4: Take 1 – The memory hunters discuss the nature of the beast.

MS: I think one of the things we are interested in is the social experience of movie going. Quite often what people remember is not individual films. I mean sometimes if it is a spectacular production such as The Sound of Music or Dr. Zhivago. People will have memories of particular films or perhaps particular stars but what most people remember is the social experience of cinema going. It’s about people you went with. There is a survey by Michael Schofe in 1965, where more than half of all young people going out for the first time with a friend will actually go to a movie, so dates are a very important part of what is going on. So you associate films and film going with particular people; with particular places and sometimes people will use cinemas as meeting places then not go to the cinema. They’d say ’ I’ll meet you by the Odeon and we’ll go and have a curry or something’. It’s also to do with behavior inside the cinema. Do people react to the films; what else is happening; do people sometime tune out if the film is not particularly exiting and talk to each other, friends they are with etc. We tend to remember these things mostly in connection with individual experience. For example, in my mind indelibly, the fact that I saw a film called Mayerling three times links me up with a girlfriend at the time. (Actually, that’s about the only memory I have of her now…..[laughter]).

[organ music] …….[sound of a cigarette lighter being flicked]

Tim Bentinck: One of the extraordinary things about the cinemas in the 60’s was the smoking. The cinema would be full of smoke. When you looked up and saw the light of the projector above you, it was like the searchlight during the war and as a child it was not very nice. You’d find yourself getting through about 2 or 3 cigarettes per film in secondhand smoke. And then when they decided that this was probably too much and they restricted it to the left hand side of the cinema only so 3 rows of the cinema, the big bit in the middle and the two wings and all the smokers were put down the left hand side but absurdly, the prevailing wind or draft in the cinema was from left to right, so you could see it – these clouds of smoke from the left hand side being wafted over all the desperately non-smoking people in the middle. And even people who wanted to smoke there wasn’t enough room because so many people did .. so the left-hand side was packed, absolutely packed with people all smoking so it was like a kind of a chimney and then the rest of the place would be full of desultory people spotted here and there around the place getting this factory like waft of vast clouds of smoke coming over from left to right and so I started smoking at the age of 12 and have been trying to give up ever since. I lay the blame firmly at their door.

MJ: What we are not accessing here is a historical document of what happened to people in cinemas in the 1960s. We are accessing memories of what happened. I cant tell you how many times I have mis-remembered things in the past because I’d either wished that they had happened a certain way and somewhere down the line my memories have become mashed up with my hopes, my desires and so on and I’ve mis-remembered something only to be corrected, often quite embarrassingly later, and so part of that sense of fantasy of illusion, is bound up with memory and also specifically with cinema because cinema is illusion it is fantasy, it is desire . It’s all sorts of different emotive ideas woven together and the fact that memory and cinema are both constructed out of fantasy, hope desire and so on says to me that there is something quite interesting in comparing one to the other and using one to explore the other and I find that fascinating. Around the notion of smoking, the fact that we don’t smoke indoors, for a while now we have not smoked in cinemas makes smoking in cinemas in the 1960s stand out in memory. It’s my suspicion. I have no evidence of that, we’ll see where the data leads us but I suspect that actually that will stand out because of our current circumstances and so again, social activity filtered through memory, filtered through actually the present and our current circumstances informing how we remember, what we remember and what we place significance on so for me its not a problem that we are talking about memories of something that happened so very long ago now. That’s part of whats interesting about it – memory itself becomes the object of study. The past is the past. What we’re accessing is memory and that’s quite fun

[organ music

]AB: Although Cinema attendance figures were declining and American films remained ever popular, the British film industry blossomed in the late 1950s and throughout the 60s . The social realist or kitchen sink dramas including Look back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, brought depictions of working class life to big screen and unflinchingly dealt with issues of poverty, racial discrimination, marital breakdown and teenage rebellion. Conversely this youthful rebelliousness was portrayed somewhat more glamorously in the swinging London films such as Blow Up and Alfie. London may have been lacking in morals but it looked a fun place to be all the same.

Scene 6: Take 1 – The Cinema Memories Project: Coming to a Cinema or ‘Lorry’ near you.

[sound of vehicle horn – clapperboard]

MJ: We are planning something of a road show. There are really two strands to this at present. The first is that as planned in the application for the project that Melvin put together, there’s going to be probably 11 or 12 film screenings in different cities and towns across the whole of the United Kingdom. We have plans for Manchester, Liverpool, Norwich I believe is on the cards, London as well, and we are also looking to use these in two ways. Firstly as a means of getting the project out into all sorts of communities across the country to let people know what we are doing to see if they would like to participate and secondly, also to prompt memories, to show a 60s film, to talk a little bit about it and then to have the audience tell us what they remember of 1960s cinema going. Or, if they are too young for 1960s cinema going, tell us what they remember of their early years of cinema going. I wasn’t around in the 1960s certainly, but I remember going to the cinema as a child and all of the issues that this project is raising in terms of memory and cinema are important to how I remember my cinema going too. So I think there’s scope for real public engagement with this and we are working to use these events across the country in all sorts of different locations to help people think about what role does cinema memory play in my life, what has it played.

The second strand is a project called ‘ The Screen Machine in Scotland’ and its their 15th anniversary, and for their 15th Anniversary they are taking their bus which they have which is an articulated lorry onto which sits a fold up 80 seat cinema, and that drives around remote communities in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, pitches up in a different town each day and screens a film. I’m delighted to say that we are going to be joining them for some of their 15th Anniversary screenings. We are going to be going into some of these communities, screening 60s films, giving an introduction and then talking to people in these communities afterwards and asking them to remember what was 60s cinema going for them. And that’s fascinating because there is always the danger that projects like this will get caught up with large urban areas – we’ll find out what Londoners, Manchurians and Liverpudlians remember about their experiences of the 1960s, but we may not find out what people who live in more remote, more rural areas think. So were are very grateful to Screen Machine and exiting to be joining them on the road.

(Whirr of film reel]

Final Scene – over to you

If people want to find out more about the screenings and the other activities that are going on with the project then they can visit

That will take them to our web site where there is all sorts of information about the project, about how people can contribute and also on the right hand side of the page a little section on events. As events are confirmed they are going to go up on there and at the present there is stuff about past events and things we have done recently. Or, they can contact us by e-mail. Our address is or, they can write to us at: The Department of History, UCL,Gower Street, London.

[film reel and organ music]

AB: Do be sure to check out the Cinema Memories web site and spread the word. The ore participants, the wider the lens angle will be through which we can view Britain, the 60s, the cinema and indeed the way our memories work.

[Roll End Credits]

Lives through a lens, 1960’s British Cinema-going and cultural memory.

Produced by: Alex Bingham for Pod Academy

Transcript: Sheena Bateman

With thanks to:

  • Dr Melvin Stokes
  • Dr Matthew Jones
  • The Cinema Museum, London
  • Tim Bentinck
  • Imogen Church

Organ Music written and performed by Benedict Bingham

For more information and a wide range of other pod casts visit

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