Well, Did You Ever...

Well did you ever ....! - Reminiscences in 7 parts

The following is extracted from an article written by Nigel Leicester (Sparta, 1948-1949) for the 2011 Magazine - the full version appears in the Magazine.

It occurred to me two years ago that some of my experiences ought to be of interest to my two sons - and eventually their children – so, as an exercise, I put together the first two covering totally different subjects. Reaction to reading one aloud to a small group of U3A members encouraged me to offer the stories to our local U3A magazine - resulting in a further five with themes taken at random ... with more to come when time and opportunity permits.

7 of 7. Appearing once nightly

Moving to a country where the language is not one’s own – especially when one is still employable – usually sorts out those who can, those who would like to try ... and those who never should have. Fortunately, when I arrived in West Berlin to join my second wife-to-be in the early 1980’s the Allies were still occupying and yes, said the ‘Brits’, we need a cinema manager. At first temporary the job soon became permanent and kept me out of mischief until two years after the Wall came down.

At first, crowd-pullers such as Messrs Stallone and Schwarzenegger still packed them in. But, within five years, the ‘squaddies’ stayed away in their hundreds, preferring a pirate video they had viewed six months previous to our screening. Meanwhile we continued with the same crew (in later years we six front of house and two operators often outnumbered the patrons) all paid for from the Berlin Budget - a wonderful pot of money courtesy of the German government. “West Berlin is cut off from the West ... it must remain a showplace of Western Democracy” etc. etc. More on this source of funding when the move to new premises is mentioned.

We screened six evenings a week with a children’s matinee Saturday mornings: in later years an oasis of chaos in an otherwise quiet week. Overheard conversation between two eight year old boys looking at the photos for that night’s 18-rated adults-only horror movie, while they waited in the matinee queue for sweets: ‘... warn’t it luvly when the ‘eads flew off’. Which reminds me, one evening I had just finished the paperwork from a full house and had popped inside intending to see a little of tonight’s attraction. Normally, the operator was expected to keep an eye on what he was screening. That night maybe he had had enough of it and did not check as he switched from one reel to the next. “I don’t believe it”, said I as one reel ended with our hero up to his neck with problems in dense jungle ... and the next reel took us into someone’s modern home ... there’s an argument going on ... and this is definitely not our Show For Tonight’s next reel! So, break the four minute mile from inside the cinema to outside and up a spiral metal staircase and ....”Dieter, Dieter ... Halt der film, sofort!” ... followed by me down to the inside and up front for a short, quick speech giving them the bad news, the good news about a refund for everyone of the one thousand and more patrons, and our hopes we’ll have a returning screening of the entire film asap.

Waves from the Iraqi war eventually beat upon our shores, to use a phrase. The British military had obviously realised, with our doors opening directly to the street, their soldiers inside were much too vulnerable to terrorist attacks. So, in business as a cinema for the British military since 1945, with immediate effect after the evening screening of January 20 1991 the doors closed, never to reopen. Everyone kept their jobs and within six months we found ourselves temporarily sharing the operation of the second, smaller military cinema behind security fences in RAF Gatow, of Berlin Airlift fame.

Meanwhile, following the death of Hess, decisions had been made and cash was being spent on new British-designed buildings. Within days, much of Spandau prison (in the British sector of Berlin) was demolished and the debris transported to an unknown destination: No Souvenirs, Please and That’s an Order! In its place rose a new NAAFI, and this left the cinema isolated. In the middle of all this the Wall came down at the end of 1989. Many probably expected the old cinema to ‘soldier’ on until it was no longer required, on the assumption all occupation forces would soon leave Berlin. But no. The British garrison (for as long as it remains in Berlin) will have its new cinema, courtesy of the German government. And constructed it was with all manner of odd shortcomings. Maybe they thought it more expensive to cancel than build? It was to have been all-purpose – a cinema, theatre, for conferences and social functions. But somewhere along the way, like a salami, bits, many of them vital were sliced from the plans. For example, we found a sort of projector, as used in long distance air travel, in its little den under the front of the stage. It looked very superior and sometimes we used to play with it, pressing its Open Sesame button and watching it as it slowly emerged like a snail from its shell. Apart from that it was never used. Sadly, this cinema had a relatively short operating life: it opened for business during 1992 and was closed as a cinema soon after the troops left in 1994, eventually becoming part of the Berlin economy.

The inside was being gutted in April 1997 and when I last saw it in December of that year, had been split between two supermarkets and a gambling casino. It had cost the British taxpayers nothing. The bill for 9 million DM (around £3 million) – picked up by the aforementioned Berlin Budget – meant each of the 200 seats used for no more than two and a half years eventually cost some £15,000 each. But there was another side to that short-lived cinema. By superimposing an outline of the cinema and NAAFI buildings on those of the earlier Nazi war crimes detainees prison I calculated the line of their cells would have passed through my cinema office at just below ceiling height – but the ‘ghost’ of Rudolf never bothered us.

Similarly, just to the rear of the cinema, in season we picked delicious plums and other fruit from trees obviously originally planted and tended by the inmates. Shortly before leaving the job I had the pleasure of helping present two nights of live concerts by the Pipes and Drums and Orchestra of the Gordon Highlanders. Raising cash for charity, the Gordons put on two marvellous performances and I have many vivid filmed memories of their stirring music. Looking close-up at the striking, startling Drum Major marching in the lead I am not surprised the Duke of Wellington reportedly said some of his own army scared him.

7a Supplement to Appearing Once Nightly

I sometimes have difficulty remembering names ... so let’s call her Irmgard. When I visited the earlier Jerboa cinema during the day, I would see her leaning on her mop chatting to her colleague ... or flicking dust from one place to another with her feather duster. It didn’t take me very long to learn she had a quite irritating habit of taking ‘sickies’ ... days off. I also learned of how she was to some extent protected under German labour laws and it wasn’t much use me speaking to the local British military employment agency.

It was when we moved into the new cinema that we all came to know of the true value of Irmgard ... she of the big smile and the semi-permanent apology. We discovered that the new building had been allocated one cleaner instead of two and Irmgard was to be our guardian angel. In no time it was obvious she perceived the responsibility as being far too much of a load. The odd day off soon turned into a flood and often immediately before a performance I had to press-gang my staff into doing a quick tidy-up of the previous night’s sweet papers and ice cream cartons. Saturday morning matinees generated an amazing amount of debris amongst the front two rows, despite rubbish bins everywhere. I passed all this to the employment agency, pointing out my front of house staff were not really employed as cleaners, but they were unsympathetic and I departed feeling totally helpless ...... until I had an idea.

Knowing Irmgard would not be officially back at work for another two or three weeks, why not run the cinema as usual and ignore the build-up of discarded rubbish? My staff greeted this with enthusiasm and we lasted about three weeks. There was no obnoxious smells or anything like that but there was this strange effect of a rustling sound especially as one walked near the front two rows. Not much rubbish overall was being generated as by this time as, apart from the Saturday morning matinees, our average audience size was down to no more than 10. No, one night the Brigadier himself attended a performance. As I was seeing the audience off the premises prior to checking the auditorium and locking up for the night ... he came over and said something like ‘...there’s a lot of rubbish on the floor of the cinema tonight.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I know about it. We have no cleaner.’ ‘Oh,’ says he. Within a week I was informed a firm of contract cleaners would be looking after the cinema in future and would I please let the new cleaners know what needed doing.

Unsinkable, unsackable Irmgard re-surfaced and became someone else’s cross to bear. And me. a black mark on my military record just months before I retired. As for the cinema staff, they quickly accepted an ‘honour is satisfied’ request I received from on high (probably originating from the Brigadier) that we clear away the existing rubbish before the professionals took over.

Nigel Leicester (Sparta, 1948-1949)