Wednesday, 22 November 2017

FIFTY YEARS ON...NOVEMBER 22nd 1963



Heading based on 'Alhambra After Dark' by Bill Armsden


by Dave Roberts


Friday, 22nd November 2013

It would be difficult to tell this story without using some well-worn cliches and hackneyed language, so apologies in advance.
The cliches about Middlewich and how it has changed over the years are part and parcel of the Middlewich Diary, and the cliches about the momentous happenings of  half a century ago have been with us and part of our lives all through the decades since the day a dream died in America while I was watching the antics of Charlie Drake in Middlewich, so the story wouldn't seem right without them.

If you're venturing down to the Alhambra Chinese Restaurant tonight, try to imagine me, my Mum, my sister Cynthia and her friend Mary Moreton (of Moreton's Farm) sitting in that very same building 50 years ago to the very night watching what some now regard as 'a sixties classic' film, completely oblivious, in those days decades before the advent of mobile phones,  to the events unfolding over four and a half thousand miles away across the Atlantic.
I was 11 and in my last year at Wimboldsley Primary School; Cynthia was 7 and at the same school. Mary was just a little bit older than Cynthia and also went to the same school.
Oh, and Mum would be  44 - seventeen years younger than I am now...
We were keen picture-goers in those days and rambled all over Mid-Cheshire following our favourites. Anything with Hayley Mills or Julie Andrews in it was fine by us.
Two years earlier we had  trailed around the area watching Whistle Down The Wind in Middlewich, Northwich and Sandbach (probably in Winsford, too, I'm not sure).
It was one of our favourites and we couldn't get enough of it, so the only way to see it more than once was to get on the bus and follow it as it did the rounds of local cinemas.
We were luckier than some in this regard, as many of the local cinemas were independent and not tied to any particular distributor.
In 1962 we had spent what seemed like several days at the Alhambra watching Lawrence of Arabia.
All I can remember was thousands of shots of the merciless sun beating down on the arid Arabian desert, and desperately  hoping that the film would end soon.
If you were going to get trapped in a cinema, though, the Alhambra was probably the one to try for. It was comfortable, clean, had a large and very clear screen with good projection equipment and sound and was a very pleasant place indeed to spend time.
The only time the place took on the aspect of the more disreputable 'flea-pit' cinemas to be found in some towns was during the rare Saturday Morning Matinees when scratchy old Three Stooges shorts would be shown to the accompaniment of near-riots in the cheap seats at the front.
These were my formative years and the years when I was learning what was funny and what wasn't (the Three Stooges  weren't, as far as I was concerned, but then again it was difficult to make out what was going on during a film shown in the turbulent atmosphere and ear-splitting rowdiness of a Saturday Matinee).


The Alhambra (left), an early 1920s building with a beautiful art-deco frontage which has, mercifully, survived into the present day. At the time of this photograph, the early 1970s, the cinema had closed and Bingo reigned. The actual frontage (and most of the interior) were unchanged, though. Posters advertising the films showing or 'coming shortly' would be pasted on the boards on either side of the entrance (where the word BINGO can just be discerned). (photo: Paul Hough Collection)




One such poster, which would have been seen on  the front of the cinema in November 1963 was this one for a 'comedy classic' which attempted to team up the knockabout clowning of Charlie Drake and the smooth urbanity of George Sanders and Dennis Price.


We thought Charlie Drake was funny. We loved his slapstick style, his cheeky grin and his catchphrase.

Charlie was one of the biggest comedy stars of the early sixties. We'd watched his antics in all sorts of TV Shows, for both children and adults.
On one memorable night in 1961 we'd even seen him knocked unconscious during a live TV show, and watched as the show ended in silence and confusion.
And that's why, fifty years ago this very night, we made the short journey down from King Street to Wheelock Street to see Charlie in The Cracksman.

I don't remember being particularly impressed by the film. There was too much George Sanders and Dennis Price and not enough Charlie for my taste, but the film has, according to those who know about these things, stood the test of time, and is regarded as a minor classic.
One scene in The Cracksman, where Charlie was putting his locksmithing skills to good use,  featured electronic sounds created by Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose most famous creation was to make its debut on BBC Television the following night as  the theme music, written by Ron Grainer, for a new science fiction series for children. We'd no idea, of course, how these sounds had been produced, but we knew it was all very 'space age'.



Having followed the somewhat predictable plot of the film to its conclusion, we walked out into the cold November air of Middlewich

-a very different town in those days.

Middlewich was going through what might be called its 'yellow' period.
At night the whole of the town centre was suffused by a ghastly yellow glow from the sodium vapour street lamps (intended, according to someone from the Middlewich UDC, talking to me a few years later, to resemble 'sunlight'. If this was the intention it failed miserably).
It seems to be impossible to capture that dismal and unearthly yellow glow either on film or digitally - it always comes out a kind of nasty red colour - but when it was mixed with fog, or rain or snow as it was in the winter time, it produced an effect  unsurpassed in its  dreariness.
As a finishing touch, even the face of the Church clock had one of these yellow sodium lamps inside it, giving it a jaundiced and palsied look.
There are still quite a few yellow street lamps around, but the effect has been toned down by the fact that new, brighter, white lights have been introduced, interspersed among the dreary yellow ones.
Other than the street lamps, there were few sources of illumination.
The pubs and clubs  kept themselves to themselves, with perhaps a couple of lights over their signs, or a courtesy light so you could find the door; there were no restaurants, no cafes, no wine bars, no Chinese or Indian takeaways, no kebab shops.
In fact, nothing. Once the cinema and the pubs closed, the town went to sleep.
Except, of course, for that marvellous northern institution, the fish and chip shop.

We walked down Wheelock Street through the November gloom.
Everything we all remember about our 'lovely little town' was present and correct.
Beyond Wheelock Street in Pepper Street were the salt works of Henry Seddon & Co, simmering away in the darkness and getting ready to produce clouds of salty steam and dirty black smoke all over again on the following Monday.
 Beyond the Town Bridge, Seddon's other works in Wych House Lane and Brooks Lane, and Murgatroyd's Works nearby were all in the same state of suspended animation.
The works had another three or four years to go before our  salt town days would be done.
Lower Street was still intact in those days, with Vernon Coopers, Stanway's fish shop and Harold Woodbine (Radio TV & Electrical) all in place opposite Hightown with its Victorian Town Hall and shops still standing and still doing useful jobs.


Lower Street shops as they were just before demolition in the early 1970s.
 The chip shop we used in 1963 is hidden behind Woodbine's shop

Incidentally November 22nd 1963 was also the day on which With the Beatles was released and I ordered my copy from Woodbine's a few days later. It took weeks and weeks to arrive.
Next to Woodbine's was an oasis of light and cheer - the chip shop which, I knew from my short-lived career as a choirboy in 1960, did a great cod and chips (the 'piece of cod which passeth all understanding').
We walked in, and  were told the news which, as David Frost said the following evening on  That Was The Week That Was, was the most unexpected news ever.
The last thing we expected to hear. The last thing anyone expected to hear.
President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
I can still remember the feeling of bewilderment and disbelief.
It was, as they say, a defining moment.
We were all young, of course, and knew little about politics - any politics, let alone the politics of the American Presidency - but we all knew, instinctively perhaps, that President Kennedy was a good man, intent on doing good things and that, at that moment, evil seemed to have triumphed.
It was the first time I can remember feeling that impotent anger which comes from being powerless to do anything except feel sorry.
We hurried home, over the Town Bridge with the Trent & Mersey canal in the darkness below, coming to the end of its long commercial career and waiting for better times in the future with the advent of pleasure boating, past the Talbot Hotel and the Boar's Head, and the row of shops and houses leading up to Moreton's Corner (the place where the Middlewich Diary began its perambulations around the town in 2011) and turned left into King Street.
Back at no 27 (later 33) our television was not, as would be the case these days, pouring out endless news reports and analysis on the tragedy, but quietly showing a programme about zoo animals ('a change from the advertised programme') as a mark of respect.
Life went on, of course.
The following day Dr Who, with Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire's amazing theme music, made its debut and, in the evening, we watched the remarkable tribute to the late President put together by David Frost and the TW3 team.
On Monday morning our teacher at Wimboldsley, Miss Mason (my mother's cousin), was beside herself.
She had only recently come back from a trip to the USA and, like so many at that time, was a fervent admirer of 'JFK'.
Miss Mason knew, as we all knew, that an era had come to an end; an era that had promised so much.
Nothing, to use another cliche, would ever be the same again.
Of course the greatest cliche of them all is to say that everyone can remember what they were doing when John F Kennedy was assassinated.
Well I certainly can.

Footnote: The American Presidency was very much in the news in November 2016 when the election of Donald Trump concentrated minds all over the world. This is how we reminded Facebook followers of this grim anniversary fifty-three years on from the Kennedy assassination.

'Time marches on, and now it's fifty-three years since our world turned upside down. We pause to look back at a time when the US Presidency was a cause for optimism and hope rather than fear and misgivings, and remember how, on a cold and grey November night in Middlewich we learnt how events thousands of miles away had blighted those hopes and quenched that optimism.'


Photo montage: CBS News

 © Dave Roberts 2013

First Published 22nd November 2013
Re-published 22nd November 2016
22nd November 2017

The fiftieth Anniversary on Facebook:



FROM FACEBOOK, 22ND NOVEMBER 2015:

Jacqui Cooke I was 13 and had a paper round at that time. It was about this time that The Sun newspaper took over from the Daily Herald. But my biggest interest at the time was The Beatles!

Dianne May I was 6!

Gemma Collins I didn't exist.

Rob Dykes I was one day old.

Geraldine Williams I was devastated by the news of JFK's assassination. He had withstood all the anti-Catholic prejudice to become President, had a lovely young family (who could not have been moved by the sight of John Jnr. saluting his father's coffin?) and on the face of it the Kennedy dynasty was doing a great job in promoting the USA (although some history books may disagree!)

Cllr Bernice Walmsley Thanks for posting that again, Dave. I enjoyed it. It captures perfectly the time and the events.

Dave Roberts Thanks Bernice!

Donald Jackson I had a paper round in Middlewich. I used to sell papers at the pictures, and then go round all the pubs and clubs.

Peter Dickenson I was 19 at the time and working on the night shift at Foden's when I heard the news.

Liz Corfield It's great to read how Middlewich was back then, along with your memories of such a poignant time in history. Thank you for sharing your memories. I enjoyed reading them.

Dave Roberts Thanks Liz!







4 comments:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, I remember we were rehearsing for a play in Middlewich Town Hall with MADS.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Remember walking to my grans on Park Road after watching a film at the Alhambra and watching the news of the Kennedy assassination on her little black and white TV. Why had this stuck in my mind for so many years? The film I had just been to watch was PT109 still sends a shiver down my spine when I think of it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. GERALDINE WILLIAMS22 November 2017 at 11:48

    Good to revisit this account of turbulent times, Dave. Have to disagree about Charlie Drake though. I thought he was the most unfunny and annoying character on TV - and as for his grating voice......!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah well....each to their own. And I was only 11 at the time...

      Delete

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