Many readers, like Mr R. Martin of Old Hill, will have fond memories of the favourite cinema of their youth. Mr Martin started going to the Forum cinema in Pensnett, Brierley Hill, as a babe on his mother’s knee, but it is the 1950s and early ’60s that he best remembers, glory years for this little picture house but also a time of transition too. Like many Black Country cinemas, the Forum had to face widespread social changes in the post-war years, and its owners had to move with the times.
Sadly, the Forum is no longer with us, recently demolished, but a view of it just before its final demise brought back a host of memories for Mr Martin, prompting him to put pen to paper and share them with Bugle readers.
Mr Martin writes, “Last March, on one of my regular trips back to Pensnett, I drove past the old Forum cinema. Standing alone, boarded up and near derelict, I had looked at it quite often but usually my mind was on the constant flow of traffic along Commonside. On this particular day, I was in a queue of vehicles behind a stationary bus and I was right outside the former picture house, and this gave me more time for thought. I pulled on to the car park for a better look and remembered my film-going days there and its later dance hall era.
“Above the foyer were the seven windows of the cafe, which was added around 1960, and it was there that I had my first Italian-style frothy coffee in Pyrex glass cups and saucers. That may seem trivial now, but back in the 1950s proper coffee was expensive, so we only had coffee essence, Bev or Camp, to drink at home.
“Many more memories came flooding back. Enquiring about its fate, I was told that housing may replace it, if there was no restriction on its demolition, but for the moment new build was unlikely. The next week I took a photo of it, for old time’s sake, and thought no more about it. Forward to August 2011 and on my next visit I was surprised that the Forum had gone, sadly now just a pile of brick rubble behind a security fence. From that moment my memories seemed even more important.
“In 1945 I was 18 months old and I am told it was around that time that I was first taken to the Forum where, as long as you sat on your mom’s lap, you got in for free. I can recall none of this, of course, but forward a few years and what I can remember are the ration coupons and the days before TV. It was a time of severe winters, smoky open fires, short trousers, and chilblains, and at the local sweetshop, if you had the money but hadn’t got the coupons to match, you didn’t get your sweeties.
“We thought it was tough times but it wasn’t nearly as tough as it was for our parents, brought up in the Depression, followed by six years of war. We were promised better time ahead and, following the street parties of the coronation and the removal of coupons from our sweets in 1953, the brakes were off and, although we weren’t quite 10 years old, we were trusted to be let out on our own to the Forum Saturday morning show.
“The next few years were a magical time for us, with liberal amounts of sci-fi, comedy, cowboys and Indians, goodies and baddies, and pretty well anything they could throw at us. The comedy duo of Abbott and Costello were often shown first; for anyone that doesn’t remember them, they were a poor man’s Laurel and Hardy.
“Next up would be Flash Gordon in his intergalactic adventures in a plywood and cardboard spaceship, getting to grips with Ming the Merciless on his home planet Mongo. Sometimes Flash would have a Saturday morning off and in his place would be a half-hour episode of Zorro. He was the masked and caped Californian sword fighter who wore a black Spanish-style hat.
“We knew our allocated time was up even before the voice said, ‘join us next week for more exciting adventures,’ because an usherette would go down the aisle to the fire door, pull the black-out curtains back, release the bars and you would see a chink of daylight shining in. Within seconds it was all over and we were being herded out like cattle, on to the rough ground at the side of the building; no front exit for us tearaways.
“Recently, I was discussing the shows with my cinemagoing pal Bill, whom I have only recently met up with after 50 years. He said he got so excited after watching Zorro, he used to go back to his prefab home in Queen Street, on the estate opposite where Russells Hall Hospital now stands, take off his jumper and tie the sleeves round his neck for a cape. Then he’d cut himself a stick from the hedge and go sword fighting around the garden.
“I never realised he took it so seriously! He also reminded me that if you were misbehaving, the usherette would crack you over the head with her torch. Imagine that today.
“The Forum opened in 1937 in an area of several recently built council estates but was never meant to rival the lavish scale of the art deco Danilos and Odeons. Although we never dressed up to visit, the management were always in smart suits and dicky-bows or ties. They were Ray Eggington and Fred Ward. I think Fred was the smaller of the two and had a thin moustache, as if he had drawn in on with a biro.
“Midweek we would see a selection of trailers, then a film, possibly Norman Wisdom, then a block of adverts from Pearl and Dean, heralded with their own music, and the evening would finish off with a low-budget B movie, maybe a Roy Rogers film or a Gene Autry western. Finishing at 10 o’clock, this was followed by the national anthem. The older patriotic types who remembered the war would stand to attention until the very last note, while the younger ones would be running down Commonside and be almost home.
“It was always enjoyable because at home we only had one TV channel, the stuffy BBC. The test card was on all day and we only had one hour of kids’ TV from five until six. Unbelievably, it closed down again for an hour until seven o’clock and then the adults got just three hours. At 10 o’clock sharp that ended and they also got the national anthem.
“Cinema going was so captivating that if the film snapped at a crucial point, with the vertical frames slipping and the sound slowing down before total failure, within a split second the whole place would be in uproar, with whistling, shouting and foot stomping. Cigarette packets, ignited matchboxes used as incendiary bombs, crumpled up ice cream cartons, or anything else to hand, would be thrown around.
“The usherettes would appear and run down each aisle, flashing their torches and appealing for calm. The house lights would come on, a deadly silence would ensue and the staff, with arms folded, would scan the audience looking for troublemakers trying to prolong the chaos. Anyone who didn’t adhere would be frogmarched outside, grownups, juveniles or youngsters, even if they were only 10.
“1957, and our cinema was approaching 20 years of age and, according to my mom, it had served our community well right through the war years and the rest of the 1940s, playing to capacity crowds just before the dawn of television. But the whole building was now tired and shabby, the seats were torn, many with cigarette burns and the padding hanging out, and some of the armrests were missing. The seats were replaced or repaired and any surviving base box cushions in reasonable condition were stacked in a storeroom at the side of the screen, where you could see them if the usherettes left the light on.
“Why had they been saved? We soon found out, because Elvis Presley was about to hit Pensnett. Everyone wanted to see Jailhouse Rock and we had to queue to get in. The building was designed to hold 550people but when we got in those spare box cushions had appeared, placed in rows down each side of the aisles, leaving just enough room to get through. There was even a row of cushions across the front, close to the high screen. Luckily for me, I was in the side aisle on a cushion and we had a great evening. I don’t think fire regulations were as tight then as they are now but everybody was well behaved and there were no problems.
“I heard this story from a slightly older friend who frequented the Forum about the same time as me but I didn’t know him then. Aged 18, he used to ride his motorbike down from his home in Dudley and meet friends outside the cinema. Two sisters he knew lived on the Dudley Fields estate and one of them was an usherette at the Forum. He asked her out on a date several times but she always refused. One night at the cinema, he was sat on the end of a row and saw her over the other aisle, carrying the ice cream and pop tray. She walked up that aisle, then across the back and, carefully turning round, she had to walk backwards down the slope of the other aisle in semi-darkness. The gangways were not very wide and seeing her coming down the slope, he put his foot out through the arm of the seat to hopefully match up with her posterior, catch her attention and ask her out again.
“His boot must not have been high enough, because as she slowly shuffled down in the dark and came level, it caught her on the back of her knee and down she went. The tray went over the top of her and the ice cream pots and Kia-ora drinks sped off down the slope and under the seats. The manager and staff were soon on the scene with their torches, crouching down and looking under the seats to retrieve the goodies, but they didn’t find many because the customers had beaten them to it. My friend was asked to leave and given a further ban.
“By that time we had a second channel on TV and we were spoilt for choice with Hopalong Cassidy on one side and the Lone Ranger on the other, and a plethora of light entertainment shows for everyone. We still visited our beloved Forum but it now had some serious competition. The cinema was still our favourite venue to meet up at but if it was bad weather or we hadn’t got the funds, we stayed at home. With dwindling audiences and without the financial security of the bigger cinema chains, the proprietors probably wondered whether it had been worth having the refit only a couple of years before.
“In 1959 much was about to change, we were leaving school that summer and it was rumoured the Forum was closing down. On one visit to the flicks we saw the notice pinned up in the foyer, ‘This cinema will be closing on 30th May’. We were surprised but the note next to it read, ‘Opening soon, the New Dance Hall with Live Music’. Our beloved Forum was about to enter a new era.
“We were disappointed that our cinema had shown its last film but we looked forward to its re-emergence as a dance hall. The question was, how would they convert the purpose built, sloping floored picture palace into a dancehall without it resembling the Crooked House? “Opening night came and we were amazed to see soft lighting, a glitter ball reflecting from the ceiling, and a fully sprung maple dance floor with a live band playing the kind of music we were used to hearing on our record players.
“We had been too young for the dances at the old Town Hall in Brierley Hill, but that had been the domain of the teddy boys and the hall was well known for trouble and fighting. We never saw any ‘teds’ at our new venue, they seemed to have gone out of style or moved on.
“Our new dance hall was open six nights a week and we visited as often as we could afford. Ray and Fred were still the owners and they did us proud, finding bands from all over the country, including some that were making their way up the charts.
“Our basic rock and roll skills were soon brought up to speed on this new dance floor, with numbers such as Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock, and Buddy Holly’s That’ll be the Day, Peggy Sue, and Raining in my Heart. Hairstyles copied from Elvis and Cliff Richard came into prominence and for the girls the favoured ponytail changed to the backcombed beehive held up with eye-watering amounts of hair lacquer, the style made famous by Helen Shapiro.
“If some of the boys couldn’t get a dance they would ‘sit one out’, which wouldn’t be too disappointing considering the girls were rock and rolling in flared skirts and seamed stockings. We also wore sharply pointed winklepicker shoes that were fine when new but after a few months of wear the pointed bit turned up and they looked ridiculous.
“New chart songs arrived with new dances; Chubby Checker’s Twist, followed by Let’s Twist Again, saw eager new dancers overdoing it on the super-fast dance floor and they would have to retire with a bad case of stitch in their sides.
“Outside there would be a row of powerful motorbikes; Triumph Bonnevilles, Royal Enfield Constellations, BSAs, Nortons, and at times many other makes of British bikes. From the coffee bar windows girls would scan the car park and road outside and if anyone was about to drive off and had a spare pillion seat, they would obtain a pass out from the box office and be straight on the back.
“In the early ’60s helmets and leather suits were not much in evidence, many riders turning up in open shirts with rolled-up sleeves. The girls would just hang on and, to impress all the others watching, a quick blast at about twice the speed limit up and down past the cinema.
“The Brierley Hill police, semi-independent from the Dudley force, at that time only had Austin Westminster and Wolseley area cars, and they kept to the main routes. There were no panda cars, just the odd Ford Anglia, like in ITV’s Heartbeat, and the local plod living nearby patrolled on a bike, and no matter how fast he pedalled, he never stood a chance. Sometimes onlookers would be waiting for the next flypast but it didn’t always happen because, at the top of Commonside, the riders would change their minds and extend the trip and be gone for an hour on a ride to Kinver or Enville. Sadly, we lost one or two friends to the roads, when safety didn’t seem a priority.
“I chose to drive the family car, a sit-up-and-beg Ford Prefect, having passed the test at 17 years and five months. I would turn up in the car, we would have an hour at the dance and then my friends would pile in and we would be off to Stourport or Bridgnorth. And that’s the way it was, meeting up there but spending less and less time at the Forum.
“Before I came of age and obtained some ‘wheels’, the Forum was the most important thing in my social life. For as long as I could remember, it was there for my filmgoing days and then it had followed through with a magical few years as a really good dancehall with some fantastic times for everyone.
“For me, I was approaching adulthood, I was drifting away through work commitments and the Forum, sadly, was losing its importance for all of us. By the mid ’60s it was all over once more for the Forum and it closed as a dancehall, but once again emerged, like a phoenix from the ashes, as a bingo hall. For us it was the end and we moved on.
“The Forum’s history as a bingo hall is unknown to me because I had moved away, but luckily Ned Williams visited there in 1981 for information for his first volume of Cinemas of the Black Country. Ray and Fred were still the owners but were about to lease it to one of the larger bingo chains. It was from them that Ned gleaned the valuable information about the Forum’s early days.
“The Forum arose from the dreams of a small time cinema mini-magnate, Cecil Couper, who took the gamble of building an out of town picture house for the working classes. This, his final cinema, was to complement his other two, the Savoy in Netherton and the Coronet in Quarry Bank High Street. Sadly, he never lived to see its success, because on opening night he was seriously ill in a nursing home in London and passed away later that same year. His final resting place was Holy Trinity Church, Amblecote.
“Of course, we never knew him, but he brought much joy to the kids of Pensnett and I, belatedly, thank him for his vision and inspiration.
“Through its bingo years, the Forum soldiered on and, following Ray and Fred’s retirement to Brighton, our old cinema passed through various changes of ownership until it struggled into the new millennium. Struggled was the appropriate word because, similar to film-going and dancing in the past, bingo was losing its popularity and with its demise the Forum finally closed for good.
“Several ideas for its use were suggested but nothing positive came of it and it had closed its doors on Pensnett for the last time. Although it was boarded up, deterioration set in while it awaited its final fate.
“Now we come full circle back to March last year, when I pulled onto the car park and my memories came flooding back. By the summer the Forum had disappeared; just a pile of rubble behind a security fence. It was the end of an era, but for me and many others who attended during its happy days, it will never be forgotten.”