Sneaking into the Cinema
In through the out door
In the centre of my home town, Blyth, there stands a huge building that was once a cinema, but which, like many of its fellows, is now a pub belonging to a huge national chain. The building had lain derelict for many years, so its refurbishment was welcomed, and an eyesore was transformed.
It used to be known as the Wallaw Cinema, the proprietor being one WALter LAWson, and I spent many a pleasant hour there as a child. I also have some not so happy memories, such as the film jamming during a Saturday morning sci-fi, and once at the start of a Sinbad film, I was violently sick after eating some Spanish Gold sweet tobacco (I’m convinced that in the darkness I mistakenly picked up my dad’s Old Holborn).
Teenagers Looking for Mischief
When I got to that age where I could go out onto the streets on my own and hang about with friends, we took to prowling the town centre in the evenings, looking for stuff to do. While hanging about in the alley behind the Wallaw one night, we came across an older friend of ours, V, who showed us how to open the cinema fire exit doors from the outside, using a wire coat hanger.
We soon became quite adept at this and we got to see many a film by this means. It wasn’t so much that we couldn’t afford to go to the cinema, but more that sneaking in allowed us to see films for which we were legally underage.
When we had gained entry, we would hide the coat hanger in the alley for future use and then close the fire doors behind us and dash up the stairs. At the top we would wait for a suitable moment and then take it in turns to sneak into the auditorium. Although it began as an all-male enterprise, we started smuggling girls in and, as long as we sat still and behaved, we had it made.
Intruders Ruin the Fun
But, as always happens when something for nothing is available, word of the ruse spread quickly. Gangs of urchins from other areas got in on the act, and it was through these interlopers that the whole scheme was rumbled.
One Saturday evening, my friend Mark and I went down to the Wallaw to view the latest screening, As adolescents, we looked forward to the delightful mix of adult comedy and nudity in Confessions of s Pop Performer with great enthusiasm. And so, with a longer queue at the fire exit than at the front doors, we sneaked in and settled down.
All went well until a killjoy from another estate in the area became bored with the bawdy shenanigans on the screen. He either slashed or ripped a seat and pulled out the chunk of foam from inside. He then stood on a seat and bunged the giant sponge up the square hole through which the projector was screening the film. The sudden loss of vision caused howls of complaint and booing from those in the cheap seats downstairs, and pretty soon the lights went up.
We sat nervously as the stern-faced manageress marched up towards the blockage, clearly not in the best of humour. We were all ejected (not a ticket between us) and after this incident, the manageress deployed staff at the top of the fire exits. So our days of free films were over, or so they thought.
Another Way In
Some time later, the same V who showed us how to open the fire exits let me in on an alternative way to gain ticketless access to the Wallaw. Further down from the cinema entrance, there was a blue door. V told me that with a less than robust shoulder charge, the weak Yale lock would give, but without causing any damage. So one Saturday night while roaming the town centre with my mate Ray, we decided to give it a go.
The door gave just as V had said, and we were able to lock it again behind us. We could hear the sound of the film up ahead as we made our way along a dark corridor. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw that this brought us out onto the stage itself, with the huge screen ahead of us. Our plan was to get onto the stage behind the screen and watch the film from there in reverse. We accomplished this quite easily.
Then we had a ‘just our luck’ moment. The film we sneaked in to see was The New One-Armed Swordsman, which is in Mandarin with English subtitles. Of course, from behind the screen the subtitles were back-to-front and we couldn’t keep up with the plot.
There were wooden steps at the side of the stage and we decided to creep down those into the seated area. We managed it but someone must have spotted us because soon after we got settled in, a torch-wielding member of the manageress’s elite new storm-usher force came charging down and we were led away.
This was the last straw for the long-suffering manageress, who called in a passing policeman and we were taken home in a Hillman Imp panda car. There was an unholy row when my mother answered the door to a copper, and following this escapade I announced my retirement as a freeloading cinemagoer.
I Become a Paying Cinemagoer
Then I became old enough to go to AA certificate films and I started going to the Wallaw as a paying customer. By the time I looked old enough to be served with a bottle of brown ale during the interval, I was a regular attendee. While quaffing these mid-film refreshments, I would often chat with the manageress, who seemed happy to let bygones be bygones.
The cinema closed a few years later, but it has been preserved, art deco fixtures and fittings and all, so customers can get a glimpse of how it looked in its heyday. The upper floor of the cinema is unused, and the holes through which the projectors shone their magic are still there for all to see.
So, the old cinema has gone from a state of dilapidation to a popular and vibrant bar. Of course, it’s free to enter the bar, but if the day ever comes that they start charging to get in, well that old coat hanger might still be hidden up the alley.
I drove into town, intending to take a photo of the Wallaw to use with this story, but the building is currently enshrouded in scaffolding, so that was a no-go. Undeterred, I messaged my friend Dan, who I know has taken many photos of local pubs and shops for posterity, and five minutes later I received the photo at the top of the story. Dan saved the day.