“You heard. You haven’t got rag ears,” I screamed.
It was in the late 1940’s and the pantomime’s comic was below us on stage at Burnley’s now defunct Empire Theatre during “Dick Whittington” working the old “I can’t hear you” routine to wind up the kids. The more he said it, the more we shrieked back our reply. But the joy, oh, the infantile joy as, in a pause, I shouted out, “You heard. You haven’t got rag ears” I remember little else of the evening except for the cat (looking feminine, feline but suspiciously human) scampering along the front of the balcony and sliding down a tight wire to the stage. My family and I were regular visitors to the Empire, and to the Victoria Theatre. The Vic was built in 1886 as the Victoria Assembly Room. After it became a theatre it housed drama, opera, ballet and pantomime. The world-famous soprano Adeline Patti sang at the first performance and even the great Charlie Chaplin appeared there. There is no record of what the little tramp made of Burnley. Remarkably for a time at the beginning of the Second Word War it housed the Old Vic Theatre Company whose London venue was bombed. As they left for Lancashire, led by director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, one London theatre goer wrote, “Burnley? Where’s Burnley?” They were to spend two years based at the Vic with a company that include Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike.
I can’t claim to have seen any of this but it’s not impossible that a rosy-cheeked baby called Ian McKellen might have been wheeled past the theatre in his pram. Now Sir Ian, the famous actor was born in Burnley General Hospital on May 25th, 1939. A blue plaque on the wall of his parents’ house on Scott Road commemorates the fact. I was only born at Bank Hall, don’t have a knighthood and our house up Sandygate no longer exists so I’m not holding out much hope of similar recognition. This is a pity seeing as I hung around for another 19 years and Sir Ian was off with his parents to live in Wigan after only a few weeks in Burnley. On the other hand, Sir Ian’s never had an article published in Burnley Football Club’s match-day programme or written a football column for the club-supporting, “VitalBurnley” website.
The only thing I can remember about the Vic is the Lawrence Williamson Players, the resident Repertory company there. The Vic closed in 1955; it’s last play being “Hobson’s Choice”.
Burnley also had over a dozen cinemas. The 2300 seat “Palace-Hippodrome” built in an astonishing five months, opened in 1907 and housed vaudeville, silent pictures and talkies, live theatre and, inevitably, bingo. The Palace showed the first CinemaScope film in Burnley, the biblical epic “The Robe”. Its huge stage area was admirably suited to the “New Miracle Giant Curved Screen.”
I also spent one alarming morning at the Palace in the late 50’s in the company of a lioness. Working as a very junior photographer for the Burnley Express, I went to cover a publicity stunt for the visiting Billy Smart’s Circus. They had a famous lion tamer called, Bill Kerr. It was Bill’s idea to take one of his young lionesses to see a short clip of a film called “The Adventurous Life Story of Harry Black and the Tiger.” Bill thought it would be a good idea to see how his charge reacted to the film’s scenes of an Indian tiger being tracked down. This, I have to add, to an empty cinema. Health and Safety featured even then and nobody wanted a real life version of “Albert and the Lion” to unfold. The reporter and I arrived at the back of the Palace to find a yellow circus van with two small widows in the back doors so I decided to see if there was anyone in it. It’s not often you see a lions tonsils so close up. Not in Burnley. The roar that followed rippled the sides of the van and sent me half way up the street. A grinning Kerr emerged from the van with his beast on a chain leash. I couldn’t help noticing that his free arm was heavily bandaged and strapped in a sling to his chest. The lioness turned out to be a pussy cat, if you’ll pardon the expression, tame enough for me to get a cute picture of it lying in the cinema with one paw on the reporter’s notepad and the other holding a pencil interviewing a very nervous journalist. I couldn’t resist asking Kerr what he had done to his arm. All he said was, “You must never turn your back”. The 2300 seat Palace made it the biggest venue in town. The nearby “Savoy” built in 1922 had a mere 1004 seats but it did have its own separate café, where they did a fine line in pork pies. The Savoy was the first cinema in Burnley to show “talkies”. The offering was Warner Brothers 1928, “The Singing Fool” starring Al Jolson, one of the film industries first musicals. Burnley audiences would have marvelled at Jolson’s crackly and cavernous rendition of “Sonny Boy”, which was the first movie song to sell over a million copies. I saw the first King Kong there and I felt sorry to see him die. I was still of an age when Fay Wray’s scantily clad charms didn’t register on me. Burnley also had the magnificently modern Odeon, built in 1937 and seating 2136. The management showed a colour newsreel of Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 Coronation on the evening of the great day. I didn’t go. I was hunched over a roaring fire trying to thaw out after a miserable day on the back of a wagon representing St. George in one of the many parades that braved Burnley’s notorious rain.
In the 1950’s the Odeon also had a Saturday morning children’s cinema club but I was stopped from going. “Overexcited” was the parental indictment. That could have been after the morning when I was just too late to get on stage and stroke a live python brought to club members courtesy of a pet shop in Standish Street
If you were a teenager though in the mid-50’s there was also, “The Grand Cinema” with its courting seats for two tucked away at the back. There was “The Majestic,” and “The Tivoli” and the fleapit known as the “Alhambra” in Trafalgar Street, named after a Moorish castle in Spain. The Alhambra and the nearby Marshall Branch Public Library where you could get (wonder of wonders) free books were two of my favourite haunts. As was Burnley’s fine Central Library. It was there that I saw, in the 50’s, my first Shakespearean film, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Technicolor version of “Henry V”, clattering away on a 16mm projector. Viewed on a flimsy screen and surrounded by bored restless schoolmates, I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever seen.
That afternoon I decided that if I couldn’t play for the Clarets, I’d become an actor.