My favourite cinema in Oxford – nay, in the world – is The Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road. True, it’s not especially palatial, and the uncharitable might comment that it’s only ultimate in the sense that you might die there – but it’s head and shoulders my favourite cinema. It even has its own website, but that is its only concession to modernity. That and electricity. I don’t know when it was built, but it has an aura of the 1960s about it, inside. I would say they’ve not updated it since the 1960s, but only yesterday they seemed to have changed the seating. It still feels old.
The first time I went was to see Vera Drake in 2005. I’d spent my first term at Oxford believing it to be boarded up, but discovered that this was in fact simply their decor choice. My friend Phoebe and I went, we were the first people there… we entered this dark, old room – painted inside entirely in very dark red – and it felt rather like something from a horror film. Towards the end the film simply stopped in the middle of a scene – I thought perhaps it was a clever arthouse comment on the film’s theme of abortion, but it turned out that the reel had come unstuck, or something.
I love everything about this cinema – from the raffle-style ticket they give you as you enter, to the entire lack of machinery, to the friendly amateur style of those who run it, to the fact that the whole exterior somehow resembles a railway station. If you’re ever in Oxford, do try and see it – it holds loving cult status amongst Those Who Know.
And all this is just the charm of its aesthetic. The films it puts on are equally wonderful. The Ultimate Picture Palace does play some recent films, a couple of months after they hit big chain cinemas, but also does a great line in old films, foreign films, and old foreign films.
And so yesterday I went to see Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). I hadn’t seen it before – though I have seen the 1979 remake, on television years ago – and have wanted to for a while. The ticket cost me more than the DVD would on Amazon, but the UPP is such an experience. Only 7 of us were at the screening – perhaps they thought it was The Lady Varnishes, which would be like watching paint dry [a quick credit to my library colleague, another Simon, for that witty quip].
Perhaps everyone has already seen The Lady Vanishes – if not, I recommend you do so. Despite loving 1930s literature, I find it difficult to track down 1930s films with the same success, so it’s wonderful when they are available. The plot was taken from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, and is summed-up in Hitchcock’s choice of title. A young woman called Iris befriends an old governess in an hotel, and gets onto a train with her – shortly after having been hit on the head by a flower pot. The old lady, Miss Froy, looks after Iris – gives her tea, sits with her in the compartment. The blow which Iris sustained to her head gives her concussion and she drifts off – when she awakes, Miss Froy has vanished – and everybody else in the carriage denies that she ever existed. Is Miss Froy a hallucination, or is something altogether more suspicious going on? With the help of cocky Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in the role which made him a big name) Iris is determined to work out what’s happened.
I was delighted to see Dame May Whitty – who was rather wonderful in Mrs. Miniver and is another who’d make an admirable Miss Hargreaves – as the Vanishing Lady in question. The rest of the cast is wonderful, including Margaret Lockwood and Googie Withers, and a wonderful pair of characters called Charters and Caldicott. These very English gentlemen watch proceedings with a no-nonsense, cynical eye, more concerned about the cricket they’re missing than the woman who’s missing. Exploring Wikipedia, I discovered that the characters, played by Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford, were so popular that they popped up in another two films and several radio broadcasts. The actors also played very similar double-acts in a further sixteen films and radio serials. The days of established double-acts in films, appearing as different characters but always together, seem to have gone.
And, of course, Alfred Hitchcock isn’t a bad director either. Some stunning moments – I especially liked one where the train travels over a viaduct, really beautifully shot. You can forgive the opening pan across a toy train and some plastic figures…
I’d love some recommendations for other 1930s, ’40s and ’50s films to watch. I love Mrs. Miniver (as long as you don’t think about the book), Went The Day Well?, and, of course, Brief Encounter. Others in a similar vein, please…