Street Life: Saturday Pictures

My old headmistress insisted on calling cinemas ‘picture palaces’. The Adelphi’s art deco style certainly made it seem more palatial than the two other cinemas within walking distance (see ‘Flicks in Moston‘ by Alan Hampson).

The Adelphi matinee cost 6d, and inside the cinema, lollies were 3d. The shop opposite sold them for 1d, which left tuppence for sweets – well worth the inconvenience of sticky ice-melt running down your sleeve as you frantically sucked the lolly while queuing to go in.

The harassed looking Adelphi commissionaire had a moustache and withered arm. Wearing a uniform more appropriate to a Ruritanian operetta, the poor man was expected to keep control of a bunch of rowdy kids. But once inside, he got his own back on his lolly-stained charges.

The Adelphi was quite large and far from full on Saturday afternoons. Yet the commissionaire insisted we fill the front seats before letting us start on the second row, and so on. Only the late arrivals got to watch the screen without having their necks cricked back at an unnatural angle.

Not a discerning audience, we would watch anything so long as there was a picture and sound.

The usual programme contained a mixture of cartoons, cowboys, space fantasy and short comedy films. My personal favourite cartoon characters were Mr. Magoo, Tweetie Pie and Sylvester, which I preferred to Disney’s Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

When the nearest thing to ‘abroad’ was the Isle of Man, cinema acted as our ‘window on the world’, and we accepted what we saw there as real, or at least possible.

None of us believed in the futuristic spacemen who could both see and speak to earth from a rocket exploring the galaxy. At the same time, our credibility seemed flexible enough to accept the existence of a wild west with cowboys roping steers and shooting one another. The one implausible cowboy character was the rather rotund and misnamed Hopalong Cassidy, but I could certainly believe in his partner, Gabby Hayes.

Back then, thanks to cinema, Yanks were the ‘foreigners’ we knew most about. Kids might have been excused for thinking you would meet Amos and Andy, Our Gang, and the Three Stooges as you strolled down any US side-walk.

With that in mind, it struck me that my counterpart living in Manchester, New Hampshire, might have had an equally strange view of the British. Would she expect to encounter Sherlock Holmes, wearing his trademark Ulster and deerstalker, as he hunted for the Blue Carbuncle in a swirling ‘London particular’?

The final item in the matinee was always a serial, which concluded with the words ‘don’t miss Next week’s thrilling episode’. Virtually every serial featured the same outcrop of rock in the same desert, with little variation in plot.

Typically, a hero (often a cowboy) set out to right some grievous wrong. His adversary was sometimes masked but always dastardly and villainous. The two would be involved in a perilous chase, culminating in a thrilling ‘cliff hanger’.

Each week, with our very own eyes, we watched the stagecoach or motor car containing the hero plunging over the cliff edge. The following Saturday, the reprise showed the vehicle swerving away from the canyon’s edge in the nick of time. Discussing it on the way home, the miraculous escape was universally pronounced a ‘right swizz’.

Each serial had 12-15 parts, so practically nobody saw one all the way through. But come Monday, there was sure to be someone in the school yard willing to relate the thrilling climax (with actions for those who missed it on the previous Saturday).

Occasionally we got British ‘shorts’ featuring child actors such as Harry Fowler. One I recall was a gang of kids who decided to try window cleaning to get money to go hop-picking. They had no ladder, so had to design and build an ingenious device to do the upstairs windows. The film makers were obviously unaware that, to Mostoners, the idea of hop-picking was as foreign a concept as some of the things the ‘Our Gang’’ kids got up to.

Years later, I discovered there were such things as Junior Cinema clubs. I was miffed to have missed out on the badges, songs and yo-yo displays the ABC and Regal minors’ enjoyed.

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Get ready ’cause here they come… North West Theatre Arts Company is back!

The doors of NWTAC‘s theatre on Lightbowne Road, Moston, reopened to the public last week to a full on music and dance show – ‘The Sound and Soul of Hitsville, Motown.’

Tickets were limited for safe distancing so you had to be quick off the mark to secure a booking. Those lucky enough to get a seat were treated to a wonderful, warm welcome and a superb performance full of music, cheer, dance and sheer Motown magic.

The full company kicked off the show with ‘Get Ready’; a song written by Smokey Robinson that became a hit for the Temptations in the 1960’s. It was neatly followed by a variety of solo performances, duets and group numbers.

Who doesn’t love a bit of Motown? Timeless hits such as Walk on By, Under the Boardwalk and Heatwave followed one after the other. Pheobe Sutherland had Tracks of My Tears nailed while Anthony Horricks and ‘the boys’ rendition of My Girl was perfect. We had our socks blown off as Act One concluded with the full company gathering to deliver an impressive rendition of Edwin Starr’s ‘War’.

There was a short interval, a chance to replenish our drinks and indulge an ice-cream then we were soon into Act Two. Owen Maudsley sang a great Mustang Sally, Jade Hamer and the girls gave us I Say a Little Prayer, James Burke and Eva Carty sang Endless Love beautifully and Poppy Evans treated us to I Want You Back. There were many more hits and individual performances but before long the full company gathered on stage for the finale with Lean on Me, followed by Dancing in the Street and We Are Family.

A light, witty narrative threaded through the vocals telling the ‘story’ of Motown, including it’s early beginnings in 1950’s Detroit, the international appeal and events that inspired some of the music. I’d no idea that ‘War’ was originally a protest song by Edwin Starr about the Vietnam conflict sending a message that is, sadly, still relevant today.

As ever, the production team put together a seamless show, directed by Prab Singh with Bethany Singh as the Musical Director, Katie Gough the choreographer, Tempany Windsor took on lighting and Weronika Czerwinska managed the sound.

While we’ve all been busy with the challenges presented by the covid crisis, I am truly grateful that NWTAC have been quietly getting on with the business of preparing a show that was ‘ready to go’ as soon as restrictions were relaxed.

If you missed out this time there are plenty more productions in the pipe-line and you won’t have long to wait. Tickets are now on sale for Puss in Boots running during half-term starting on Friday 28th May and the Broadway musical ‘Hairspray’ is scheduled for the 20th to 24th July. Also, keep an eye out for ‘Lights Up – an evening of musical entertainment’ running from the 15th to 19th June.

Book early is all I can say.

To keep up to date with everything NWTAC, including how to book, follow them on Facebook or check out their website here. The box office number is: 0161 207 1617.

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May Queen celebrations in working class Manchester

The celebrated folklorists Peter and Iona Opie, authors of ‘The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren’, describe crossing Manchester on a May Day in the 1950s and seeing children across the city taking part in May Day customs.

Until the mid-1960’s May Day customs were widespread in Manchester and Salford. They were of two kinds. One was Molly Dancing. The other was where young girls of a street, with assistance from mothers, would choose and dress a May Queen.

In 1983 an appeal for May Day memories appeared in the Manchester Evening News, what follows is based on the replies.

Mrs D. Thompson writing of her childhood in Longsight:

“We has a wonderful day on May Day. We would be getting things ready for weeks before, having rehearsals and trying on different clothes – out mother’s and fathers.

Girls that could get a white dress (few could afford one), would be the ones who would dance around the maypole.

We would put our names in a hat, and whoever was chosen would be May Queen, and we would dress her up on May Day. An old chair dressed in coloured paper would be her throne. The maypole, an old washing prop, also covered in paper and ribbons.

We has eight long ribbons coming from the top, and as the girls wound in and out round the pole, it would plat itself all down the pole.”

Helen Fedosijewski, born 1909 in Harpurhey recalled ‘The Maypole song’:

  • Around this Merry Maypole
  • And through the live long day
  • For gentle (girl’s name) is crowned the queen of May
  • Joy, Joy, Joy, dance and sing, sing and dance
  • We shall all have hearts so gay
  • Sing and dance, dance and sing, to make the woodlands ring
  • All around the maypole, we shall trot,
  • See what a maypole, we shall trot,
  • See what a maypole, we have got,
  • All our ribbons tied in a bow
  • All around the merry maypole
  • God save our gracious Queen (meaning our May queen, who was sat on a chair)

She continued “We also had a boy, a page, who carried the pole. We knocked on doors, and if we didn’t get any coppers, we didn’t finish the song, and went to the next house. We averaged about 11 pence each. The queen got a penny more, being dressed up in a lace curtain and white dress. All the mothers made paper flowers. It was WONDERFUL !”

Mrs B. Hodges wrote:

“Everything and everybody had to be in order. As the procession commenced, the whole retinue would knock at house doors.

The Queen stood between her two maids, framed in a ‘garf’, a wooden half-hoop, dressed for the occasion. When the householder opened their door, the May dancers would dance around the pole singing:

Cheese and bread, the whole cow’s head, roasting in a lantern. A bit for you, a bit for me, and a bit for the molly dancers.

The queen would be praised, a few coppers put in the box. We would say thank you, and move to the next house. The children enjoyed the planning and plotting. It was a happy time.

Each street had their May Queen, and there was rivalry to be the best. There would be three or four maypoles, from other streets, who would come round and knock on doors in our street – each one with their own Queen and dancers, But, ‘it was considered bad luck, to sing in a street where another May Queen was singing.”

This is an account describing Lowcock Street, Lower Broughton in the 1940’s:

“Great care was taken to get everything just so. It took many nights after school practicing in somebody’s back yard, so nobody from other streets could see. On May Day we would hurry from school, have our tea, then the great time would begin. One child carried a box for the money.

After we had collected our pennies, we would go to a back yard, and have a count up. Then there would be a party, cake, pop, crisps, sweets, biscuits – it was really something, and then we would have a concert, each child either saying a poem, or singing a song.

The Queen’s train would be carefully folded, and returned along with the brush stale and mother’s dress. If there was any money left, it was always shared out.”

Mrs H Thompson wrote of her own childhood in Gorton (1921-26) and her daughter’s in Reddish (1945-51).

‘There were about ten of us and we had quite a feast. Afterwards we would have an impromptu concert, with much giggling; boys hanging around the back yard door.”

Miss E. Chamberlain of Hulme included the words to five different songs, the last of which was:

  • Last year we had a Maypole. It was a pretty sight.
  • And all the children in it, were dressed in pink and white.
  • With hearts and voices joining, Queen merrily reigns today.
  • For gentle (girl’s name), is crowned the Queen of May.”

The May Day customs occurred in the inner suburbs of Manchester and Salford, encircling the City Centre. From Hulme in the west, through Salford and across to Cheetham Hill, Collyhurst, Harpurhey, Moston, Newton Heath, and Gorton, to Reddish in the east, then south through Longsight, Ardwick and Chorlton on Medlock.

What strikes me is there was no involvement of schools or churches. The activities were street based, organized by the children themselves and passed from generation to generation.

When the Opies drove across Manchester on that May Day in the 1950s, they wouldn’t have been aware that the festivities they were witnessing, probably dating back to the Middle Ages, would have died out a decade later. The last account was from Rhodes Street, Miles Platting in 1966.