The Biograph, December 1980

My subject is memory. I wrote “1000 Memories” to record some of the many thousands of things that have played on my mind over the years. It ends during the month of my 14th birthday. Chronologically, the next step is “1000 Teenage Memories”, to take me through my last years at school and onto my first year at university.

I have drafted scores of teenage memories. As with “1000 Memories” most of them will go through many drafts before being shared with anyone else. I plan to post some of them here at some point. Every now and then something prompts a memory from those years, something that hasn’t crossed my mind for decades. It happened earlier this week, when I went to see “The Revenant”, alone.

I used to see a lot of movies on my own, at private screenings, in preview theatres and at Film Festivals, but before all that I had already started going to the cinema alone, in my late teens. I often wanted to see things that my school-friends (and later my university friends) didn’t want to see, and I wanted to see far more movies than most of my friends.

This all started in 1980, and one of the first films I saw alone was “Coming Home”. It won the 1978 Academy Awards for Best Actor (Jon Voight) and Best Actress (Jane Fonda). I had just come across the list of Oscar Winners in a reference book at my local library and this was the start of what became my “Oscars Project”, to see every major Academy Award winner of my lifetime, and then as far back as possible. (It’s on my Projects page, here.)

I had already seen “The Deer Hunter” (Best Picture, Best Director for that year), so this would complete the set of the four big awards, and the hat-trick (along with “Apocalypse Now”) of big movies about Vietnam.

In the early 1980s London still had a thriving “rep” circuit – repertory cinemas which often showed double bills, and changed their programming more than once a week, in many places themed according to the day of the week. You might get Marlon Brando movies on a Monday, Italian cinema on a Tuesday and Classic Westerns on a Wednesday. That, as I remember it, is how the early months of 1981 passed for me, at the Electric in Portobello Road on Mondays and at the Everyman Hampstead on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But in December 1980 I had yet to discover those cinemas (or the Scala in Charlotte Street). I had seen their names in the Film Listings in Time Out but I was looking out for specific films, those which had won Oscars, or been chosen in Observer film critic Philip French’s Top 10 of 1979. “Coming Home” fulfilled both of those criteria.

There was a cinema in Victoria that I’d never been to, the Biograph, showing “Coming Home”. It was paired with something called “Sex at 7000 Feet”. I had never seen a blue movie, as they were called in those days, and still haven’t. Pornography is, like drug-taking, something I have never indulged in. (Yes, I know, what a square.)

In the last few months of 1980 I had plenty of time to go to cinemas in the afternoons. Some of us had returned to school after our A Levels to sit exams for Oxford for Cambridge but most of my contemporaries hadn’t. Some had started work, some were resitting exams elsewhere, some were already away at university, and some were bumming around. Those of us who were sitting exams in November were only back at school a few days a week, and not for the full school day. By December, exams completed, I was waiting to see if I would be called up for an interview.

I decided to see the first screening of “Coming Home”, around 1pm. It was to be followed by a 3pm screening of “Sex at 7000 feet”, so if I wanted to stay I could. The Biograph had a plaque outside, announcing that it was the oldest continually-running cinema in England. It had opened in 1905, had been known as the Bioscope, and then changed its name to the Biograph. Famous stars of the silent movie era had appeared there. There were two women who seemed to be of pensionable age working in the foyer, one selling tickets and the other selling sweets. They carried on chatting while I bought my lone ticket.

I had already worked out, from previous solo cinema trips, a preferred place to sit: on the right hand side of the auditorium, about two-thirds of the way back from the screen, 4 or 5 seats in. Most of the screenings I went to were quiet, only a handful of people in the place, so I usually had an entire row to myself, but if someone wanted to sit at the end of the row they could, and there would still be a few seats between us.

At first this screening seemed like any other, but after a while I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any women in the theatre, and that there were lots of men going to the Gents lavatory, and they weren’t paying much attention to the movie. After maybe 30 minutes a black woman, not much older than me, sat at the end of my row. I felt hugely relieved, but wasn’t sure why. She was there for maybe 20 minutes and then she was gone.

With about 30 minutes of the movie left some older guy sat at the end of the row, in the seat that the black woman had vacated. I kept my eyes focussed on the screen but it felt like he was staring at me. I was pleased that I had sat so far along the row. If he moved any closer to me I would just run. I thought of running anyway. The whole place felt very uncomfortable, but I wanted to see the movie to the end – and I’m the kind of person who often sits through the credits, to check the names of songs featured in the soundtrack.

As soon as the credits came up I was out of there. The guy at the end of the row had gone and I ran back up the aisle and out into the December rain. It was still daylight.

I never returned to the Biograph, but found out two years later that it was a notorious gay pick-up point. I was at Cambridge by this time (having crawled over the finishing line in those exams in late 1980). A few of us, who wrote for a weekly student magazine, were discussing London cinemas. A friend was talking about an evening screening he had been to at the Biograph that summer with his brother. Although it showed good films, and it was cheap, they wouldn’t be going back there. The action that night wasn’t restricted to the Gents. There were guys at it right there in their flip-up cinema seats. A chap who wrote about theatre put us straight about what kind of place it was: legendary, famous for it, and he’d never been, but he felt that he really should, next time he was in town.

Homosexuality is, like pornography and drug-taking, something I have never done. (I know, what a square, again.) I have gay friends, and have spent plenty of time in rooms where everyone else was smoking dope, and for all I know some of my good friends are regular consumers of internet porn, but mine has been a straight, drug-fee life, and the sex that I have seen portrayed onscreen has been fake. That includes Jane Fonda’s sex scenes with Jon Voight in “Coming Home”, and in “Klute”, the movie for which she won her first Oscar. Was she the first actress to have topless sex scenes in multiple Oscar-winning performances? I think so. Glenda Jackson’s Oscar-winning performance in “Women in Love” had made a great impression on us during sixth form. It also featured a topless sex scene. (We were studying the novel for English A-Level, otherwise we might not have seen the movie.) But I don’t recall her topless in “A Touch of Class”, her second Oscar winner.

My memories of Oscar-winning performances by Jane Fonda and Glenda Jackson have surfaced while typing this piece, but while sat at the Vue Westfield in Shepherds Bush on Monday afternoon, watching Leonardo diCaprio in the role that’s won him the Best Actor Award, that trip to the Biograph in December 1980 came to mind very vividly. 35 years on I don’t feel very different from how I did back then. But the seats are more comfortable. And if there are any cinemas left in London which also act as gay pick-up points I don’t know where they are. The Biograph closed in the 1980s, and the building, like so much of that part of London, was demolished long ago.


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