Working in heyday of the reel cinema

Life and time of a former projectionist in Laindon

Radion cinema
Flashback - Michael Marchant with some of his pictures of the Radion cinema, where he was a projectionist
Luan Marshall

The projectors in modern cinemas like the Basildon Empire or the Southend Odeon are computers in everything but name. Projectionists need IT skills rather than muscles to do their job. It was different in Michael Marchant’s time.

After he walked out of the projectionist’s booth for the last time in 1969, he earned his living operating heavy-duty equipment for Basildon Council.

Wrestling with the monstrous old-time projectors had prepared him well for the job.

Michael may well be the last surviving professional in south Essex who worked in the days when cinemas had just one screen, and when small town high streets in Laindon, Billericay, Wickford, Pitsea and Rayleigh boasted their own, albeit fading, picture houses.

In his day, the likes of John Wayne, Audrey Hepburn and Peter Sellers still ruled the Box Office and the Carry On films were still carrying on.

Far fewer people had cars then. What they did have were cinemas within walking distance of home.

Michael was a rarity in his time, a young man who wanted to join the projectionist’s trade.

“It didn’t give you much chance for a social life and it could be a lonely old business, shut up in that booth for hours on end,” Michael remembers. But it was the life he had chosen and for a while at least, the life he loved.

Michael was born and raised in Laindon, where he still lives. The older male Marchants delivered coal, although Michael had set his heart on show business. “But that would have meant living away from home,” he says. “Mum didn’t want me to travel. That’s why I went into cinemas. It was my way into showbiz.”

His first break didn’t prove hard to come by. As soon as he left school, in 1956, Michael went and knocked on the door of the Radion. “I said I wanted a job. They said, ‘What, as an usherette?’ I said no, I wanted to work there, up in the projection booth.” The manager, Mr Hay, could hardly believe his luck. The cinema was desperate for projectionists. “If the duty projectionist got ill, they simply had to close the cinema,” recalls Michael.

Michael joined the cinema on January 2 1957. The film showing was the American war movie Away All Boats, starring Jeff Chandler. 

Michael took to the trade with no problem. “I picked it up pretty quickly,” he says. “I must have been all right because pretty soon they were letting me do the job on my own.”

The pay was £5 a week, for a six-day week. (The projectionist’s main duty involved changing reels every 20 minutes or so, a job that demanded split-second timing.

This meant being on the lookout for the on-screen cue. He also had I to keep a watching eye on the screen for much of the rest of the time, to ensure focusing and framing were right. “I saw the films over and over again, which I didn’ t really mind. But by the end of the week I was pretty glad of a change,” Michael says. He was also responsible for spooling the films, putting together the trailer and advertisement reels, and overseeing the changeover when new films arrived over the weekend.

If the film severed, it was spliced together – with nail varnish. “It did a very good, very reliable job,” Michael says.

Eventually, Michael fell victim to the projectionist’s occupational disease. “I got depressed,” he says. The shadows of the great movie stars on the screen were no replacement for human company. “I’d leave at night, walk home in the rain, and every one would be in bed. There wasn’t any social life within the cinema. No Christmas party. 

“It got to me. So I decided I’d better get married, that would do the trick,” he says. He met his wife, Pauleen, a Wickford girl, on his first blind date. Ironically, their meeting point was outside the old cinema in Wickford.

While some films, notably the Carry On series, were still able to attract a big crowd, audiences were steadily dwindling. This was the era before the age of multiplexes and Pirates of the Caribbean style blockbusters. TV was king. “Sometimes we only had ten people in the cinema,” Michael says. “You felt like just going home. But the show must go on.”

Apart from films, the Radion also did unintended good work as a sort of drop-in centre. “There was one poor old woman, she just didn’t know the time of day,” Michael says. The kindly staff at the Radion would let her come in and watch the films for free. “It was better than her wandering the streets, poor thing,” Michael says. “We used to make her a cup of tea.”

In 1964, Michael gave up full-time work at the cinema, though he continued to help out on occasions. “I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch,” he says.

Then in 1969 the Radion’s owner, former Basildon Council chairman Bert Phelps JP, announced its closure, almost overnight. “It was sad people lost their jobs, but it was really no surprise,” Michael says. “It was obviously losing money. I think Mr Phelps had kept it going as long as he did just out of habit”

The last film run by Michael was Zulu. “I still like that film,” he says. “I watch it every now and then – on DVD of course.”

Michael spent the rest of his working life digging and maintaining roads for Basildon Council.

“I used to get a bit depressed there, sometimes, as well,” he says. “So to cheer myself up, I started to wear an Aussie hat.” The hat attracted a good deal of attention. Some passers-by even asked to photograph him. He might have been sitting in a JCB rather than a projection booth, but Michael Marchant hadn’t said good-bye to showbiz completely.

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  • Saturday morning kids club, Roy Rogers, if you were flush, maybe a Kia-ora drink, a sweet from Griffith’s across the road and then just maybe a bag of chips from the chippie. The chippie as I remember it was a long, white painted shed on the opposite side of the road, part way between the Radion and St Nicholas Lane/Hiawatha. What a treat on the occasions when it was affordable, what a good memory to look back on. 

    By Donald Joy (03/03/2017)
  • Mr Hay who first hired Michael to work at the Radion in 1956, lived in Vowler Road at the junction with Berry Lane on the north side of Vowler. We lived seventy five yards north east in Raglan Road at the bottom of a field. Mr Hay’s son Denis was in my class at Langdon Hills and LHR. The V2 which fell in Vowler Road fell just two houses east of the Hay’s residence. I do remember that my first career aspiration was also to be a projectionist at the Radion. I was determined to avoid the freezing cold weather that accompanied those of my family associated with the building trades. At eight years of age I could think of nothing better than being inside, in the warm, being paid to watch films. Even though it was the same old film.

    By Alan Davies (03/03/2017)
  • Oh, the hard decision of choosing between a choc ice or a tub with a little wooden spoon, when the ice-cream lady appeared with her tray during the intermission.

    By Nina Humphrey(née Burton) (03/03/2017)
  • The Radion for me was one of the icons of Laindon High Road. Quite often I would walk past, usually after school, to have a look at which films were on and to stare at the still pictures from the movies which were mounted outside in a frame of about six pictures. I was always interested in the X films and hoped that the stills would give me an idea of what the movies were about. My parents took me to see films such as April Love and Ton up Boys quite a treat for a youngster. When I was older some of us from LHR would get in to see the X films such as Night of the Blood Beast and another one The Head without a Body, fascinating stuff. The film Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was excellent and we all enjoyed the war film Dunkirk. The Radion was always a cosy place to take your girlfriend and this was another attraction of course, especially in cold weather. From my bedroom window in Nichol Road the red glow of the dome on the Radion cinema was always visible at night and is still a memory to this day. Fabulous times indeed.

    By Richard Haines (03/03/2017)
  • Thanks Michael for all your hard work keeping the “Radion” going. I have lots of happy memories of wet winter afternoons, spent in there. One memorable matinee was with my mum and brother, watching Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly in “High Noon”. Sat in the 10d seats (equates to less than five new pence), about six rows back from the front. Had to dress for the occasion, hat, coat and scarf, to fend off the cold! Not many people in on an afternoon, easier to see the screen, as in the evenings it was like a fog in there, due to all the smokers.

    I recall being in a long queue that wound round the side of the cinema, into New Century Road to see a film starring Anthony Steele as a South African game warden,  ”Where no Vultures Fly” (shown back in the fifties) he must  have lost the battle, as the poaching still goes on today! Incidently have never seen it on TV, but High Noon has been shown, also The 3.10. to Yuma. This Western had a remake a  few years ago.

    Sunday evenings was Hammer Horror night, then a headlong rush to get to the Laindon Hotel with minutes to spare before “last orders” were called. Closed at 10.30. pm. in those far off days. Another great film was “The Conquest of Everest” went with a large contingent of pupils from LHS.

    Cheers Michael, hope to see you at the next Manor Mission gathering 2017.

    By Robert Springate (02/03/2017)

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