I don’t often go to the BFI, and if I’m honest, it’s because I find the audiences there off-putting. Not just the famous NFT2 front row of elderly bag-rustling men, some of whom seem to have forgotten about soap and water, but also because across the whole auditorium there seems to be a barely contained undertone of aggression and hostility. I suppose one could be charitable and say that this stems from the high degree of ownership that this particular audience feels about its favourite cinemas. One particular person this spring attracted my attention because they were so ferocious in protecting the territory around their seat that the hapless woman who was sitting next to them actually crouched in the aisle during the second half of the programme, rather than repeat the trauma of attempting to get past to her seat.
On another occasion a few years ago I was in NFT2 with a friend who had spent the afternoon browsing on the Southbank and bought a mug as birthday present for a friend from one of the gift shops near the Festival Hall. She placed it on her lap when she sat down – a square box contained in a white plastic bag. As the lights dimmed a person two seats away leant across and hissed with unconcealed rage that eating and drinking were forbidden at the National Film Theatre and so if she was intending to eat that Chinese meal she’d better leave immediately.
There are plenty more stories where those came from. I’m sure you have your own favourites too (here’s one of mine from Charley Moon (Guy Hamilton, 1956), although it’s a theatre, not a cinema). It got me thinking about aggression in cinemas in the past. Generally I’d say, we tend to associate the cinema with good feelings, and historians and film-makers have tended to highlight feelings of togetherness, community, belonging and benevolence in their accounts of cinemagoing in the past – community singing in The Long Day Closes or shared laughter and lust in Cinema Paradiso for instance. Even in tragic or difficult circumstances, cinema audiences can be conceived as coming together in grief or loss, rather than being at loggerheads with each other. I often show my students the astonishing local Roll of Honour films from World War One or the Calling Blighty series from World War Two in order to encourage them to understand the cinema itself as a central part of a community – a point of contact for people – one with another, but also between ‘home’ and those away from home.
Cinema Assaults during the Second World War
Nevertheless, I am aware from my work on Kinematograph Weekly in 1940s that conflicts also arose – often quite ordinary trivial disputes, that somehow took on a life of their own and got blown out of all proportion until they were worthy of a report in the press. This aspect of such incidents fascinates me – the ways in which they can be understood as traces of ‘everyday life’ – irritations such as you might feel in passing, that for whatever reason have been amplified until they have entered the historical record, to be pored over by future historians – like you and me. So, over the past few weeks I’ve been revisiting a few of them. My favourite example of this sort of thing is referred to in a November 1943 Kinematograph Weekly report of an LCC Public Control Committee hearing. It relates to the opposition lodged against the renewal of the entertainments licence for an unnamed West End Cinema by a Mr Paul. His objection stemmed from a visit he’d paid to the cinema six months earlier in May. He and his wife had occupied two front row stall seats, but when he had attempted to answer a call of nature, Mr Paul discovered that:
he was not allowed to use the lavatory at the back of the auditorium, which was nearest to the seats he was occupying, but was directed to another on the mezzanine floor; and that, while he was protesting to the manager, whom he interviewed on his way to the second lavatory, and who eventually waived a rule of the house in his favour and directed him back to the first lavatory, he suffered such physical discomfort from the delay that he was compelled to absent himself from his place of business for three days.
Unless you’re Mr Paul himself there’s a humorous element to this slightly preposterous incident but other Kineweekly reports of the mid war turn out to be rather more sobering. Many of them involve violence escalating from disputes in the auditorium – usually patrons turning on cinema employees when they attempt to regulate unruly behaviour. When an usherette reported that John Seaman (18) was creating a disturbance in the balcony of the King’s Cinema, Langley Park (Co. Durham), the manager approached him and requested that he leave. He was rewarded with a split lip and broken ribs – an assault for which Seaman was fined £2 10s. by the magistrate. William Wareham attempted to deal with a similar incident at the Gaiety Picture House in Southampton where a group of youths was creating a disturbance in the auditorium by throwing bottles into the audience. Wareham (who was not the manager but the chief operator) told them to leave, and banned them from the cinema. Their response was to threaten him with reprisals, and sure enough a larger gang of them returned a couple of weeks later but were refused entrance to the auditorium. They hung around the foyer instead, obstructing others from entering and refusing to leave even though they were repeatedly asked to. When Wareham appeared to eject them they set upon him, blacking both his eyes and bruising his ribs so that he needed ‘surgical treatment’. The gang leader, William Lovell was fined £5 for this assault. These incidents (as well as similar ones at the Regal, Stirling, and the Millfield, Sunderland) perhaps conform to our expectations of who might be likely to be involved in such incidents – young men approaching conscription age throwing their weight around in wartime cinemas policed only by women and elderly male employees. Other reports confound such expectations though, giving a general impression of the often febrile atmosphere of violence and trauma that some writers suggest characterised the Home Front. When an attendant sent a child home for throwing things into the audience at the Palace, Westhoughton (Bolton), he soon found he had to deal with the child’s aggressive father, who came to the cinema especially to threaten to ‘bash his —brains in’ and shoved him ‘across the cinema’ (he was fined 10s 7d by the magistrate).
Women and children also appear in the reports. At the Odeon cinema in Ashford a woman and her daughter appear to have had a running dispute with the cinema. Having allegedly assaulted one of the 14 year-old ushers, they were barred. They tried to get into the cinema again a few weeks later, but the manager (Reginald McIver) spotted them and called the young usher over to verify their identity.
When she did so, the older defendant struck her and abused her. McIver tried to shield her and was then assaulted. In evidence, he said that he received many severe blows on the head, several kicks and that his hand was bitten.
The pair were fined, but not before they had made a counter claim against Mr McIver, which was dismissed by the magistrate. Perhaps the most shocking report – the one most redolent of the kind of youth ultra-violence and moral decay evoked in popular fiction of the period like Brighton Rock or No Orchids for Miss Blandish occurred at the Rotunda cinema, Dublin. Kinematograph Weekly reports that the attendant at the cinema thought a boy patron was ‘too young to be admitted’.
An altercation ensued and the boy suddenly slashed [the attendant’s] face with a safety razor blade, inflicting a wound 5 inches long, needing 11 stitches.
Beyond the War
These incidents are rather more gruesome and depressing than I had anticipated – they seem to go far beyond the behaviour of the recalcitrant lady at the end of the row in NFT3. A quick search on the British Newspaper Archive online also reveals that they are just the tip of the iceberg. This is perhaps just the beginning of a project, so I’m not going to apologise yet for my lack of meticulous research methods. As an initial exploration I shoved the search terms ‘cinema assault’ into the system, and I now have a fat, depressing file of 62 incidents dating from 1914 through to 1958, not to mention an additional and even more depressing file dedicated to ‘indecent assaults’ (of which more later). Of these a disproportionate number (28) date from the 1940s, although that could be down to changes in reporting and charging terminology, the increase in cinemagoing generally in the mid 40s or numerous other reasons rather than the war-related ones that immediately spring to mind.
The vast majority of these incidents, like those above, involve patrons turning nasty when asked by the cinema staff to behave. Patrons hit managers when they don’t offer a refund (Bangor, 1914), bite ushers who ask them to leave after they’ve been accused of groping (Falkirk, 1935), throw bricks at cinema attendants (Cambuslang, 1939), get angry when asked to clear the gangways (Sheffield, 1928) or to desist from handing out beers (Bishop Auckland, 1938), or are refused cigarettes (Cheltenham, 1946). They punch managers on being told the cinema is full (Darwen, 1940), get into fights with doormen about their position in the queue (Walsall, 1925: Londonderry, 1949), are frequently drunk (Dundee 1926: Glasgow, 1935: Coventry, 1941: Canterbury,1941: Falkirk, 1942: Kircaldy, 1943: Aberfeldy, 1948, etc), and often threaten to return or otherwise to get revenge at a later date (Belfast, 1946: Nottingham, 1948).
On a number of occasions violent exchanges occur between cinema employees such as the extraordinary case of James Howat, a cinema attendant in a picture house at James Street Bridgeton (Glasgow) who instead of handing his colleague a ticket stub when requested, drew a bottle from his pocket and hit him with it. ‘The bottle broke and [the] accused darted from the picture house. The attendant, whose head was bleeding from a wound, and another man pursued him.’ They rounded on him in the street, whereupon Howat kicked his colleague in the thigh and aimed a blow at him with the bottle. ‘Complainer could give no explanation as to accused’s attitude towards him.’ Perhaps a more understandable case occurred in the Hampstead Picture Playhouse in 1926 when the house pianist hit his manager several times in the face after being told to go home because he was too drunk to play for the film. Once he’d sobered up he pleaded guilty to this infraction (presumably in fear of his job), telling the Police Court that ‘he could not understand’ what made him do it, and ‘he was thoroughly ashamed of himself, as [the manager] was a man he liked very much.’
Mrs Ogg v Mrs Penman, and others.
The smallest number of incidents are of the kind I naïvely thought I was looking for – only three incidents of the 62 involve disputes between patrons although of course in many of the above cases it is likely that it was other patrons who drew the cinema attendants’ attention to the unacceptable behaviour of fellow cinemagoers. Nevertheless, patrons actually assaulting each other remains relatively rare (if one excludes the numerous cases of indecent assault). Even of the three incidents I’ve found, only two of them relate to disputes over the actual business of viewing films. The other is rather a further demonstration of the centrality of cinemagoing in the routine life of a community. The fight between Maisie Napier (afterwards referred to as ‘Mrs Ogg’) and Mrs Penman in the Palladium Cinema, Kirkcaldy in 1941 is reported in two different local newspapers, although the details of the incident remain frustratingly vague. The two women evidently knew each other quite well. Mrs Penman had been ‘looking after’ or ‘storing’ (depending on which account you trust) some ‘household articles’ for Mrs Ogg. No further details about what exactly the articles were are offered, although one is left with the distinct impression that this information might be the key to understanding why the dispute arose. According to Mrs Penman when Mrs Ogg sent her brother over to collect one of the items she handed it over, although Mrs Ogg’s account was that she failed to hand over the rest of the things, despite being asked. Perhaps the brother had kept them for himself? Either way, the two women found themselves sitting next to each other at the Palladium a few days later, and:
During conversation between the two, accused [Mrs Ogg] had asked why witness [Mrs Penman] had not given her brother the rest of the articles. Witness stated that if accused wished to say anything to her, she should call at [her home in] Dysart where the matter would be settled…
…Whereupon Mrs Ogg ‘flew at her’ ‘seizing hold of her by the hair of the head, pulling her about and causing her to suffer pain…’ The women had to be separated by an usher, and both left the cinema shortly afterwards.
It’s hard to tell whether they had been engaged in friendly chit chat before the touchy subject of the household articles came up (‘during conversation between the two’ might suggest so), or if Mrs Ogg spied Mrs Penman there in the auditorium, and went over to sit next to her with the express intention of having their argument out. Mrs Ogg’s witness statement uses rather more assertive language than ‘during conversation’. She states she ‘had gone to the cinema and had sat down beside Mrs Penman. She asked her why Mrs Penman had not given her brother the rest of the articles…’ which would suggest she planned to have a row. Had she even gone to the cinema for that purpose, knowing that Mrs Penman was likely to be there? Similarly, the accounts of the violence differ. Mrs Penman maintains that the assault on her was intentional, but Mrs Ogg pleaded not guilty, claiming that her rival had struck her first on the forehead with her spectacle case, and in putting up her hand to protect herself, Mrs Penman’s hair had got caught in the buttons on the sleeve of her coat. The magistrate, at any rate, was not impressed with this account, and fined Mrs Ogg 15 shillings, with the option of ten days in prison.
I’m lingering over the details of this particular case not entirely through ghoulishness. It seems to me that despite initial impressions, the cinema as a central space of community had a pivotal role to play in the dispute between Mrs Ogg and Mrs Penman. The enforced proximity of the auditorium seats next to one another meant that if (‘during conversation’) conviviality turned to hostility, there was no escape from confrontation – no backing away or moving further off as one might do in the street or in a public house. The regular habit of cinemagoing also meant that perhaps patrons could be targeted by those who had a beef with them – Mrs Ogg perhaps knew Mrs Penman’s cinemagoing habits, so she knew which day of the week, and in which part of the auditorium she could continue their dispute. Finally, the enclosed environment – and the ‘rules’ of cinemagoing as policed by the ushers, by other patrons and by the cinema management – meant that once a dispute arose, it was more likely to escalate from a spat into an incident serious enough to result in a fine or imprisonment and in perpetual notoriety through local newspaper reporting, the British Library’s digitation scheme and the tiresome dweebiness of cinema history bloggers yet to be born. If Mrs Ogg had indeed gone to Dysart as suggested, they might have had their dispute there in the garden or the living room, with no witnesses to offer evidence and no further consequences. In the cinema though, there were plenty of witnesses whose attention would be drawn to the irregular behaviour of the women and who, with their own vested interests in keeping the peace of the auditorium, would be prepared to testify to the events that took place and the culpability of the players. Annie Dalrymple for instance, was another cinemagoer present, who testified against Mrs Ogg. John Gourley, the usher who intervened, also gave a witness statement. So although the dispute at the Palladium didn’t arise from anything to do with the women’s actual cinemagoing, its setting in the cinema did have a crucial effect on the way that matters developed.
My two final examples are more clearly about patrons attempting to police each other’s behaviour in the auditorium, and particularly in the first instance, their response to the film. The first example which makes clear the connection between the local space of the cinema auditorium and the ‘national’. In Glasgow during Coronation year, one man was so exasperated at the lack of respect shown by two men sitting near to him that he punched them both – one in the eye and one in the mouth. The cinema was screening a film of the coronation which had occurred the day before. The two men didn’t stop laughing and chatting during the film until the accused asked them to be quiet. All was well until the National Anthem was played, at which the two men remained seated. The man asked them to stand, and they refused, whereupon he lost his temper and struck them. He was fined £1 for the assault.
The case I want to end on is perhaps the most serious – its perpetrator went to gaol and was seemingly (and justifiably) not offered the option of a fine. As with the case of Mrs Ogg and Mrs Penman, the accounts of plaintiff and defendant don’t match up, and it’s probably impossible to tell from the surviving report what really was happening here. Here’s the report in full:
Brutal Assault in cinema: Boxer who struck woman sentenced
A boxer of ‘some repute’ who struck a hospital sister, knocking three of her teeth out during a scene at the Palladium Cinema, Shepherd’s Bush was sentenced to seven weeks’ imprisonment at the West London Police Court on Wednesday.
Henry Arthur Novell, 29, snack bar manager, of Princedale Road, Holland Park, was charged with causing grievous bodily harm to Miss Joan Gale of Westwick Gardens, W.6 by striking her on the face with his fist.
Miss Gale explained that she went to the Palladium Cinema with a man friend and noticed Novell sitting directly in front of her. He kept moving about in his seat interrupting her view of the screen. She asked him on several occasions to sit still but he took no notice and then turned around and threatened to spit in her face. Her friend intervened and Novell turned around and struck him in the face.
Miss Gale added that Novell challenged her friend to come outside and when she tried to stop the trouble Novell struck her a violent blow in the face. ‘My eye was blackened and three teeth knocked out,’ added Miss Gale, ‘I was assisted from the cinema while a crowd detained Novell until the arrival of the police.’ At the police station all that Novell would say was that he had lost his temper.
Novell declared that he was asleep in the cinema and that the woman behind him kept prodding him in the back. When he protested she began to shout at him and as he went to change his seat she attacked him, slapping his face several times.
Sending Novell to prison, the Magistrate described it as ‘a brutal assault’.
Perhaps the assailant was drunk, or unstable in some way? Otherwise it’s hard to find an explanation for why the incident escalated as quickly as it seems to have done, or why he was moving around so much, whether or not he was asleep. Either way this sort of thing was definitely not what I had in my mind when I wrote my previous post rhapsodising about the blissful pleasures of sleeping in the cinema. And I guess that’s one of the things I wanted to highlight here – for all the good associations cinemagoing has for us, and for those who reminisce about its heyday, it was never a solely benevolent space. There was always the possibility that you might emerge with a prison sentence, or with a black eye and missing teeth. What interested me at first in these reports, was the ways in which one could understand them as trivial incidents which escalated, partly as a result of occurring in the contained space of the cinema, where unruly behaviour is amplified and likely to be challenged and reported much sooner than (for instance) in the street or the pub. The ‘coat of varnish’ of civilized behaviour containing the underlying hostility of the cinema audience is still as thin as it ever was, and these incidents give us a glimpse of what’s underneath. Nevertheless, in investigating the material another clear theme has emerged. What’s underneath often has a particular flavour, as made most evident in the report of the brutal assault of a 29 year old boxer on a female nurse in the Palladium Shepherd’s Bush. It is hostility towards women. I’ve deliberately excluded from this blog post the numerous incidents of indecent assault in the cinema. Some are against young boys, it’s true, but the vast majority are against women. They are too much to handle here, so they’ll be the subject of a separate post.
 ‘Opposition to West End License Withdrawn’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 11/11/1943:13.
 ‘Lesson for a Nuisance’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 14/12/1944:16.
 ‘£5 Penalty for Young Hooligan’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 14/9/1944:34.
 ‘Brutal Assault in Kinema’ in Kinematograph Weekly 9/11/1943:23; [no headline] in Kinematograph Weekly 21/12/1944:18.
 ‘Attendant Assaulted’ in Kinematograph Weekly 2/12/1943:26.
 ‘Ashford Manager Assaulted: Women Patrons Fined’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 4/11/1943:14.
 This is a somewhat confusing aspect of the report. In England it would have meant that he looked 15 or under, since under 16s could be refused from ‘A’ certificates unaccompanied, and from ‘H’ certificates entirely. However Ireland retained a ‘general certification’ policy until the 1960s. If films were not deemed suitable for audiences of any age, they were cut or banned.
 [no headline] Kinematograph Weekly 23/11/1944:35.
 ‘Bangor Cinema Assault’ in Northern Whig 12/11/1914:2; ‘Falkirk Cinema Assault’ in Dundee Evening Telegraph 10/2/1935:5; ‘Jail for Assault on Cinema Attendant’ in Dundee Evening Telegraph 1/6/1939:3; ‘Assault in Cinema’ in Sheffield Daily Telegraph 2/01/1928:8; ‘Assault in Cinema’ in Yorkshire Evening Post 29/3/1938:4; ‘Assault on Local Cinema Manager’ in Gloucester Echo 4/12/1946:6.
 ‘Cinema Owner Assaulted’ in Burnley Express 16/3/1940:14; ‘Cinema Assault’ in Birmingham Daily Gazette 8/1/1925:6; ‘Derry Cinema Attendant Assaulted’ in Londonderry Sentinal 20/1/1949:5; ‘Assault on Dundee Cinema Manager’ in Dundee Evening Telegraph 12/10/1926:4; ‘Assault on Glasgow Cinema Manager’ in Dundee Evening News 16/2/1935:5; ‘Assaulted Cinema Proprietor’ in Coventry Evening Telegraph 10/2/1941:2; ‘Cinema Manager Assaulted’ in Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1/3/1941:6; ‘A Perfect Uproar: Camerlon Man’s Assault on Cinema Attendance’ in The Falkirk Herald 31/1/1942:3; ‘Assaults in Rialto Cinema’ in Fife Free Press and Kirkaldy Guardian 2/10/1943:5; ‘Assaulted Cinema Manager’ in Dundee Evening Telegraph 23/10/1948:5; ‘Assault on Cinema Manager’ in Belfast News Letter 23/5/1946:4; ‘Cinema Manager Assaulted in Nottingham Evening Post 6/10/1948:1.
 ‘Attendant Hits Colleague with Bottle’ in Dundee Evening Telegraph 28/1/1935: 4.
 ‘Cinema Assault: Manager Injured’ in The Scotsman 2/9/1926: 12.
 ‘Assault in Cinema’ in Dundee Evening Telegraph 6/6/1941:3; ‘Assaulted Woman in Cinema’ in Fife Free Press and Kirkcaldy Guardian 7/6/1941:4.
 Fife Free Press Ibid.
 ‘Refusal to Stand at National Anthem in Aberdeen Press and Journal 31/6/1937: 2.
 ‘Brutal Assault in Cinema: Boxer who Struck Woman Sentenced’ in West London Observer 21/2/1941:2.