booksmonthly review of books April 2011 Issue 151
Wonders of the Universe

  Books Monthly Volume 13 No. 7 | Welcome to, I hope you enjoy your visit. [Cat Royal images © Egmont]

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    CD of the month: Mahler 2


    Jerry Dowlen: Three Cinemas

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By Jerry Dowlen


The Carlton, The Commodore and The Embassy: Orpington’s three cinemas.


I blame my friends Trevor and Ki for making me want to reminisce about the three local cinemas in Orpington, north Kent, where I spent (or mis-spent) my childhood and teenage years!


Earlier this year, Trevor circulated by e-mail an old photograph that showed the exterior of the long-demolished Commodore cinema in Orpington High Street. The photograph showed that the feature film was ‘Creatures That Time Forgot’ (X-certificate). Ki swiftly logged-in to inform us that Julie Ege starred in this film, in 1971.


The Commodore formed part of an unholy trinity of three cinemas within local reach when we grew up as children and teenagers in Orpington. Architecturally, the Commodore and the Embassy (in nearby Petts Wood) were pleasing enough outside and inside, but the unlovely third cinema the Carlton was an eyesore in comparison. Standing opposite the pond at the Cray end of Orpington High Street, it was shaped like an upside-down shoebox on the outside. The inside, according to Ki, was a “flea pit”!


A dip into local history reveals that the Carlton was the first cinema to come to Orpington, and this was as long ago as 1911. In terms of providing the local residents with entertainment, it was a less healthy enterprise than the activity it replaced, for the site had previously been occupied by an indoor roller-skating rink. This had started in 1908 but presumably wasn’t making money, so the landlord of the White Hart public house took over the property and installed the cinema instead.


The same landlord, a Mr May, doubled up in 1933 when he opened the Commodore cinema in the main High Street. Three years later, he had a rival when the Embassy cinema opened in Petts Wood. The 1930s was a great age of cinema-building, and the Embassy was part of a chain of new cinemas owned and operated by Shipman & King. Its architect was a local Orpington man, Mr Nye, who chose “a restrained version of ‘Art Deco’ style.”


So, when my parents and I moved to Orpington in 1956, we inherited these three local cinemas as part of our bouquet of local entertainment. However, three cinemas there may have been, but we only patronised the Commodore and the Embassy. We acted as though the Carlton didn’t exist.


Why was this? Did my parents divine from the local middle-class knowledge tree that the Carlton was “common”? Or did the Carlton only show the inferior films that were released, with the Commodore and the Embassy getting all the top box-office hits? I can recall going to the Carlton once, to see Norman Wisdom in ‘The Bulldog Breed’ (1960). It begs further questions that my mother went with me, although I was aged twelve and had been attending grammar school for a whole year. Did she chaperone me for fear of unimaginable horrors that might assail me if I ventured inside the Carlton on my own? Or did she just fancy seeing the film?


A single-storey picture-house, the Carlton was to me simply a sawn-off version of the Commodore and the Embassy. The latter two cinemas were undeniably superior, with their downstairs Stalls and the upstairs Circle. Was this another snob divide? Did the middle classes sit in the Circle (the seat prices were higher) while the lower orders populated the Stalls? I always preferred the Circle, but it lingers in my mind that when I once informed my mother that I had sat in the Stalls, she wrinkled her nose and said: “Always sit upstairs, darling.”

I was always fascinated by the lady usherettes, who would show members of the audience to their seats, or along the aisles, with their little torches casting beams of red light. But I fear that when I was rather young, I strayed once again to the wrong side of the class barrier, when I interrupted a conversation between my parents about the possibility that my mother might look for a little job, locally. “How about being a cinema usherette?” I enquired, brightly and innocently. The shocked silence that greeted my remark would have turned milk sour. In vain did I offer the explanation that what really had been in my mind was the prospect of Mum slipping us some extra ice cream during the interval, if we were in the audience and she was serving the refreshments.


1956 to 1962: War films, adventure films, family comedies


During the time that I lived at home with my parents, family visits to the cinema were sporadic rather than regular.


What made a film sufficiently special for one or both of my parents to take me to see it? Sometimes, a kind-of mass hysteria went round the town, or round my school, that a particular film was a must-see. ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’ (1957) was certainly one example. For weeks on end, everyone whistled the theme tune. We queued with what seemed to be the entire population of Orpington, to see it at the Commodore.


My father liked war films (he had fought, in the army) and he took me to see ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ (1956). I fidgeted through what seemed to be interminable long scenes of naval officers and civil servants talking, before at long last there was a bit of bish, bash, boff and the Graf Spee was sunk. War films all seemed to be like that – a long and boring wait for the guns and bombs to start. ‘The Dam Busters’ (1955) was another one.


Kenneth More seemed to be a fixture in those days. I saw him in ‘The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw’ (1958), an excellent comedy, and then in ‘The North West Frontier’ (1959), a tense adventure story set in colonial India.


Researching some of those films now, I note that Jayne Mansfield starred in ‘Fractured Jaw’. Hmm – did my father egg me on to say that I wanted to see that film, whereupon he kindly volunteered to take me? I remember too that my Dad and I once saw a B-film that was as good as if not better than the main film. I cannot recall what the main film was, but the second film was a silent comedy, in French. Brigitte Bardot was in it. Hmm …


Hayley Mills was another regular. I saw her in ‘Tiger Bay’ (1959) and again in ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ (1961). The latter was another film whose catchy theme-tune resonated for a long time.


1963 to 1966: British ‘New Wave’ cinema; girls, X-certificates


During these years, cinema-watching for me and my friends became more of a social habit. We were not especially selective of the films that we went to see: it was enough to be joining in, if the word had gone round that we would meet after school, maybe go to the new Wimpy Bar next door to the Commodore, and then see the latest film. We were not yet old enough to meet and drink in pubs; and outside of sport, our social lives were very limited.


We sometimes made cinema visits in company with girls. The church youth club was productive for this, and so were friends at school who had sisters. A one-to-one date was an especially prized arrangement.



As regards choice of films to go and see on such occasions, I learned, perhaps a little painfully, to compromise. It was legendary that boys tended to be bloodthirsty and liked to see lots of guns, gore and action, with no silly “love” scenes or things like that. However, as a lady friend was to tell me many years later: “If there is a handsome male lead hero in the film, of course all the girls in the audience want to see him kiss the leading lady, before the end.”


On one occasion when I went to the Commodore with a few of my friends, and a group of girls came too, the film was ‘The Sandpiper’ (1965) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. It seemed like, and probably was, a dull and long drawn-out “love” film. I didn’t enjoy it much, but I had a much better evening when a girl of our acquaintance informed me that she had a crush on the actor David Warner, and that meant a visit with her to the Embassy to see ‘Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment’ (1966).


I was not necessarily conscious of it at the time, but ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ (1961) was one of the earliest and ‘Morgan’ (1966) was one of the latest of a genre of so-called British ‘New Wave’ films that thrillingly made their mark in British cinema as the 1950s drew to a close and the 1960s decade began. Shot mostly in black & white, these films embraced a new, social realism. Julie Christie is another female star who comes to mind when I think of these films, and also the ubiquitous Rita Tushingham, who starred in ‘A Taste of Honey’ (1961) and ‘The Knack’ (1965). On the male side it was a first era for the likes of Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Oliver Reed.


A good few of these films were X-certificate (over-16) in view of their “sexual content”, so I never saw them at the time, although I did read the books when my parents borrowed them from the library. The films ‘Room at the Top’ (1959), ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ (1960), and ‘A Kind of Loving’ (1962), for example, were based upon novels by John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, and Stan Barstow. There were some well-thumbed pages in those books, although you’d read them today without much of a stir.


‘A Taste of Honey’ (1961), based upon the play by Shelagh Delaney, might have been a triple XXX-certificate at least, bearing in mind all the banned boxes that it ticked: under-age sex, mixed-race sex and homosexuality.


Of course, the greater the “sexual content” that these X-certificate films were alleged to contain, the greater the compulsion for my friends and I to try and see them. It became an important rite of passage for us all, to see an X-certificate film, and to brag about it afterwards. However, this was easier said than done. At the Commodore and the Embassy, the ticket-staff were annoyingly efficient in netting under-age teenagers who tried to con their way in. I remember one night when two or three of my friends and I confidently tried to storm the citadel, but, humiliatingly, we were ejected back outside on to the pavement and we grudgingly had to spend the evening in the Wimpy Bar instead.


It eventually became a mission for me that I had to break my duck of never having seen an X-certificate film. I chose a film called ‘The Yellow Teddy Bears’ (1963). The plot-line was school girls with voracious appetites for sex. And wasn’t I proud of myself when, having bunked off school early one midweek afternoon, to try my luck at the cinema in Sidcup where I reckoned that the staff wouldn’t know me, I got in! If I duly then took my illicit seat in eager anticipation of witnessing a sexual extravaganza that would turn me into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, I was soon to be disillusioned. ‘The Yellow Teddy Bears’ was a dire film indeed. I don’t doubt that I nevertheless talked it up afterwards, when I casually mentioned to my friends, about a thousand times, that I had seen it. This film has never surfaced again on television, to my knowledge, but if it ever does, take my advice: don’t bother taking time out to watch it!



I haven’t mentioned horror films. Many of these were rated X-certificate because of the alleged extremes of scariness or violence that they contained. But I was never much interested in them. Most of my friends and I paid considerably more attention to the films that were alleged to be “lewd”. As regards any such films that might contain “explicit” scenes, the school classroom grapevine was ever a source of information and recommendation, although one had to be wary of exaggeration and hype. One wag declared of ‘Operation Petticoat’ (1959): “Yeah! They slit open the petticoat, and they show you what’s underneath!” Alas, not true – ‘Operation Petticoat’ was actually a war film. 


Albert Finney as the swashbuckling ‘Tom Jones’ (1963) engaged in some of the most high-octane sexual innuendo that I had at that time seen in any film. An expedition to Sevenoaks with a few friends, had proved to be a successful enterprise for deluding the cinema staff that we were of sufficient age to get in.  


I shall not attempt to mention every single film or type of film that I saw, in the good old bad old days of the Commodore and the Embassy, and the frowned-upon Carlton. Against my better judgment, for I knew they were pretty feeble hacked-together stuff, I saw a good few of the pop films like ‘It’s Trad, Dad!’ (1962), and ‘Some People’ (1962). These light entertainment films paraded many of the then-top British and American pop stars such as Acker Bilk, Jet Harris and Helen Shapiro. They were supplemented by “real” actors and actresses such as Kenneth More (yes, him again), Ray Brooks and Angela Douglas, for sake of the paper-thin story lines that cemented the numerous musical interludes.


There was a steady diet of comedy films – the best ones starring Ian Carmichael, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers … but plenty of forgettable dross, too.


Cowboy films were not the least “hip”, and you wouldn’t have dreamed of going to see one, for fear that your friends might find out. However, the new phenomenon of the Spaghetti Westerns attracted a cult following in 1964. The best ones starred Clint Eastwood and were directed by Sergio Leone, with music by Enico Morricone.  


Later 1960s and early 1970s:


After I left school and I started work in London, in 1966, the local cinemas rapidly dropped out of my social world. I won’t say that I never went to any of the Orpington cinemas again, because I assuredly did make a few visits. Nancy and I went, for example, to see ‘The Triple Echo’ (1972). This film starred Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson, who at that time seemed to be in everything.


However, when I think of the films that I saw in the late 1960s and afterwards, I mostly recall London cinemas as the venue. London became the main hub of my social life, but the cinema increasingly had to compete with the theatre and with live music concerts, for a share of my time and my budget.


According to the Orpington local history book, cinema audiences were already starting to decline at the end of the 1950s, The Carlton was the first of the three to close. The Commodore became part of the EMI Group in 1968, and it clung on until 1982. The Embassy, in Petts Wood, had gone in 1973. Its prime site next to the railway station on the main shopping street had surprisingly remained derelict for four years before Safeways arrived to build a supermarket.


And so to April 2010 when Trevor posted that nostalgic photograph of the Commodore for us to see, and Ki dated the photograph as 1971 by virtue of the Hammer Horror film starring Julie Ege.


Julie Ege! The very mention of that name, and of other early 1970s Scandinavian starlets such as Britt Ekland, will guarantee a quickening of the pulse-rate for men of a certain age. For this was the screen age of “Dare to Bare”, and many actresses of this generation followed suit, or should I say birthday suit: Jane Birkin, Jane Fonda, Jill Gascoigne, Sally Geeson, Susan George, Georgina Hale, Glenda Jackson, Raquel Welch, Carol White, to name but a few.


Although I have given credit to Trevor and Ki for kindling the flame of nostalgia for those good old bad old days of local cinema in my youth, I do recall that a fond memory of the Commodore cinema came to me unexpectedly and spontaneously on another, earlier, occasion.


I was driving one night in my car along a High Street in London, and I suddenly saw, outside a building, a girl standing there in a raincoat, handbag on her arm. The sight of her instantly transported me back to the era when it was commonplace to see outside the cinema every night, especially Fridays and Saturdays, boys or girls all dressed up and waiting for their “date”. I’m not sure that such a thing is seen any more, nowadays?


In the time of my youth that I am thinking of, if you saw a pretty girl waiting outside the cinema, and then a bloke walked up to her and they kissed and he took her, arm-in-arm, into the cinema, you’d likely mutter “lucky whatsit” under your breath, and wish that you could be him. Sometimes, excitingly, it would be your turn and you would have a “date” of your own. The anticipation of such an event would invariably get me into a mental frenzy of anticipation, unable to concentrate on my school lessons or anything else. Thankfully, at this long length of time I don’t recall the detail of any agonies that I went through or gaffes that I made on the night; it was all good fun, at least I hope it was, especially if I managed to bag for my “date” and me a prized pair of seats in the back row!  


Jerry Dowlen

November 2010





Books Monthly likes: CD of the Month - MAHLER SYMPHONY No. 2 Sir Simon Rattle/BPO


Sir Simon Rattle has a long and well-documented history with Mahler's symphonies and especially the "Resurrection", having recorded it previously with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I first encountered this symphony with the Easter performance from Ely Cathedral televised on BBC TV with Leonard Bernstein and the LSO in the 1970s, and have heard many performances and recordings since then, including Sir Simon Rattle's own concert which opened the Birmingham Symphony Hall in 1991, and this surpasses them all. Rattle now clearly has the measure of the BPO and they respond to his conducting style in the way they used to deliver for Karajan. The sound is sumptuous, the recording sublime, and the whole experience is much as you would expect - spiritual and uplifting, perhaps even more so than Mahler 8. This would be my first choice for this symphony. *****





A  South African Story

by Phyllis Owen




Kwelanga looked with pleasure at the animals making their way across the countryside.   He was a rich man, great in the eyes of men.   Everyone would now respect him.   People would bow down before him.    For the rest of his life he would never have to work.   Yes, he thought, he would give one or two goats to his parents so as not to seem greedy.   Some of the cattle he would barter, but first he must cook one of the goats for himself.   He rubbed his stomach and licked his dry lips with pleasure.

   ‘Help me!   Help me!’  Nolaka’s voice grew fainter until it faded away in the breeze.   Only the rustle of the animals as they plodded slowly through the dry grass disturbed the silence.

   ‘Rrrr....rrrr....rrrr!’ came the sudden harsh grating call of the honey bird.

   Kwelanga looked up as the bird swooped past him and disappeared down the precipice.   Alarm flickered momentarily in his eyes.   Could it be the same bird Nolaka had rescued earlier in the day?

   ‘What can a bird do to me?’ he scoffed.

   By now the sun was more than half way across the sky.   Long shadows had settled over the countryside.

   When Kwelanga arrived at the village everyone came hurrying out of their huts and even the children left their games and crowded around him.   They looked at him with wonder in their eyes.

   ‘Where did you get all the animals?’   They were all shouting at once.

   Before he could reply, he saw Tata make his way through the crowd.

   ‘Where did you get the animals?’ he demanded, his dark eyes almost boring into his.

   ‘A little old woman gave them to me,’ he lied, his voice trembling slightly.   He explained about the clay pots and how the animals had come from the trunk of an old gnarled tree.

   ‘And where is Nolaka?’ Tata demanded.

   Kwelanga gulped.   ‘Nolaka left me earlier on today.   He said he was going home.   I thought he would be back by now.’

   ‘He’s not home,’ Tata said abruptly.

   Kwelanga knew he was suspicious and watched as he walked slowly away.

   With the help of a few eager young men, Kwelanga herded the animals into a large kraal surrounded by thorn bushes to keep away the wild animals.   Over and over again he had to tell the story of the old woman.  The men questioned him with awe in their voices.   This made Kwelanga feel good.

   When the animals were settled for the night he went to his hut.   His mother was sitting inside, weeping.   ‘Nolaka must be dead,’ she sobbed, ‘or he would have been home by now.’

   ‘He could have been lost,’ Kwelanga said, awkwardly.   He felt confused and depressed to see his mother so grief-stricken.   ‘Tomorrow we’ll have a feast,’ he promised, hoping to cheer her up, but she turned away from him and buried her face in her hands.

   He lay down on the floor looking up at the thatched roof wondering how he could comfort her.   If he had not returned would she have shed tears for him?   He had to admit guiltily that she would.

   Soon his eyelids felt heavy and he could not keep them from closing.

   Early the next morning he was awakened by some women shouting.   His mother told him that the excitement was because when the women had gone to the stream to fetch water they had seen a honey bird.   It was singing and flying around them.   They quickly ran to fetch the men.

   Tata walked into the hut.   ‘Please follow the bird,’ Mama told him, ‘and find us some honey.’

   Kwelanga hastened from the hut to see several men including Tata, set off after the bird.   A chill ran through him as if a cold wind had suddenly come up.   Instinct told him to follow.

   The honey bird circled around the men as if beckoning them to follow.

   An angry flush swept across Kwelanga’s face.   There was something familiar about that bird.   He hastened after the men, convinced the bird was the one Nolaka had released from the thorn bush.   ‘I wonder what that stupid bird is up to,’ he muttered.

   The bird led them far, far into the countryside and after several hours, tired and weary, the men stopped.

   All this time Kwelanga had kept a fair distance between the men and himself, making sure that he would not be spotted by hiding among the bushes and the long, dry grass.

   ‘This is getting us nowhere,’ shouted one of the men.   ‘I don’t believe the bird is leading us to honey.’

   Much to Kwelanga’s relief the men dejectedly turned back.   To his horror he saw the bird circle the men and sing so beautifully and earnestly that they decided to carry on the search for a short while longer.

   The bird kept circling a few metres in front of the men and if it flew too far ahead, it would return and sweep over them before moving on again.

   ‘Ha!’ he heard Tata cry.   ‘There must be honey.’

   At that moment Kwelanga recognised the area where the bird had taken them.   They had suddenly arrived at the precipice.   Panic flared through him.  

   The bird swooped down and disappeared.

   Kwelanga stiffened and crawled into the centre of a bush for he knew what was to come.

   ‘Help!’ called a weak voice from far below the precipice.

   ‘It’s my boy!’ yelled Tata.

   One of the men had a long rope which he let down the side of the precipice and Nolaka was brought to the top.

   Kwelanga knew Nolaka had told them what had happened because they became angry and he trembled when he heard the men cry out, ‘Kwelanga must be punished!   He is evil!’

   He could not go home.   From now on he was on his own.   Sadness washed over him.   He had hoped that this might be the beginning of his glory instead, it had been the end.   What was going to happen to him?

   He watched as the men, with Nolaka being carried by one of them on his shoulders, retraced their steps and made their way homewards.

   For a moment the honey bird appeared again swooping around Nolaka as if to say, ‘You helped me and now I’ve helped you,’ and flew away into the distance.

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