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.

Related Stories

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.

Street Life: Are you sitting comfortably?

‘Listen with Mother’ started two days before my third birthday, and I always called it ‘my programme’.

Miss Chamber’s classroom had a wireless set, so each day at 1.45 her kids could continue to ‘Listen with teacher’ at school. My misfortune was to be in the ‘overspill’ reception class, necessitated by the baby boom when servicemen returned home after the war. Sadly, our prefab annexe never thrilled to the sound of Faure’s Dolly Suite.

Much as I enjoyed Children’s Hour, it was on at 5pm, so unless it was dark or wet, playing out took preference.

One of Children’s Hour’s supposed aims was to introduce nature to city kids like me. ‘Out with Romany’ and talks by Nomad were interesting, but the countryside they portrayed seemed less real to me than the fictional stories in the programme.

The serial readings brought characters like Jennings and Worzel Gummidge right into our living room. Dramatisations of classics such as the Secret Garden and the Railway Children sent me scurrying to the library for more books by the same author.

For me, the personification of a ‘triumph of hope over experience’ was Uncle Mac (Derek McCulloch). Every Saturday morning I listened in the hope that the Happy Wanderer, Runaway Train or The Auctioneer would not come up on Children’s Favourites yet again. But from bitter experience I knew nothing short of a nuclear holocaust would prevent that man playing those same tunes week after week, after week.

My sister’s age group could ‘Watch with Mother’ instead of merely listening. I was too old really, but have to confess Picture Book, Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, Rag, Tag and Bobtail, not forgetting The Woodentops, became something of an addiction.

Today, it’s difficult to believe there was a ‘toddler’s truce’ that shut broadcasting down at 6 pm. I dare say some children were in bed before the restart at 7 o’clock, but not many of them lived in Moston.

The radio’s ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ like Violet Carson were side-lined on radio, while children’s TV programmes became the province of middle aged, middle class men who spoke with a plum in their mouth.

For ‘All Your Own’, Hugh Wheldon conducted starchy interviews with children about their hobbies. The only bright spot I recall was a boy who used grape stalks to make trees for his superb model railway layout created entirely from recycled material.

Whirligig, a sort of variety programme, showcased acts the BBC believed were suitable for children. Apparently it was where Sooty and Rolf Harris first came to our notice.

In Crackerjack, Peter Glaze and other actors performed comic playlets, very loosely based on historical characters. But the highlight of the show was Double or Drop. Contestants were asked a series of general knowledge questions, which earned either a prize or a cabbage. The one who didn’t drop anything they were holding, was the winner and got to keep all their prizes (don’t know about the cabbages). Runners up were presented with the famous Crackerjack propelling pencil, which became as sought after as Blue Peter badges, a generation later.

In the fifties, schools broadcasting came via old valve wireless sets that took an age to warm up. In order not to be caught out, our teacher always turned the set on far too early. For weeks we had to sit through the final five minutes of ‘Bridge of the San Luis Rey’ (dreariest book ever).

My husband’s school joined in ‘Singing Together’, while mine opted for nature study. Both were accompanied by the relevant pamphlet. The colour photography in the nature study one was so exceptional that I hung on to my copy for years.

In the old days, most households possessed only one television or radio set, and adults were the sole arbiters of what was viewed or listened to. In the middle of Saturday afternoons children’s programmes, the television was unceremonially muted, and the wireless turned on to warm up.

Apparently it was absolutely necessary for dad to hear the football results immediately, while Grandad religiously checked his pools coupon in case he had to claim for that elusive £75,000.

Meanwhile, I stared at the Cisco Kid and his sidekick Pancho as they postured silently on the TV screen. In our house, it seems the BBC’s pledge to ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’, got temporarily suspended during Sports Report.

Related Stories