Get Your Coat on, Son. We’re going to the Majestic!
High Wycombe as I knew it in the 1930s was a country market town with no theatre but four flourishing cinemas, the smallest of which was the Grand.
Despite its name, the Grand had become a flea-pit in the wrong part of town, and although jettisoning its ancient projectors and installing the latest models, it failed to attract any but a very local audience for its mainly second-release films.
Wycombe’s first purpose-built cinema had opened in 1912 as the Electroscope, but closed at the end of the silent era and for most of my youth it remained empty and semi-derelict before being rejuvenated and re-opening as the Rex, a pleasant enough small venue showing Warner Bros, pictures. During the warm summer months, an alley behind the cinema regularly echoed to the sounds of gunfire and car chases as the soundtracks of those Warner gangster films came through the open windows of the projection booth.
Variety artistes would also sometimes appear on the Rex’s small stage, and the popular vocalist Al Bowlly was due to do so when he was killed by the bomb which fell on the Cafe de Paris.
A short distance from the Rex stood the Palace Cinema, originally displaying a mock-Tudor frontage complete with beams and mullioned windows, suggesting more an Elizabethan merchant’s house than a cinema. The plain auditorium sported black velvet stage curtains with gold facings which nevertheless remained permanently open, the blank screen between films being enlivened by a projected
honeycomb effect capable of colour changes. During the interval the commissionaire would march up and down the aisles squirting perfumed disinfectant over the heads of the audience: afterwards, everyone on the bus knew where you’d been!
In the mid-1930s the Palace closed for total refurbishment and re-opened with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a transformed auditorium resplendent with waves of trough lighting sweeping up and over walls and ceiling, and stage curtains elaborately draped to ensure that, when they were closed, no central join was visible.
During one performance, however, these curtains jammed, and after being re-hung with a reduced overlap no longer displayed such uniformity – a fact which continued to offend my eyes for ever afterwards, although I suspect it was never noticed by the rest of the audience!
Such splendours were only to be enjoyed for a couple of years before wartime demands for energy-saving resulted in lighting being reduced to a minimum and never to be fully restored: the hundreds of light bulbs involved became uneconomic, and for the rest of the Palace’s existence only part of the original lighting plan was ever used.
Until the Palace’s renovation our premier cinema was always the Majestic, with one of those ‘atmospheric’ auditoriums representing an Italian castello with turrets, battlements and scenic wall paintings depicting an Arcadian countryside of cypress trees and Roman temples, all merging into the midnight blue sky with twinkling stars – quite magical
to my young self.
Over the stalls doors in letters a foot high ran the peremptory command ‘Silence!’, a legacy of the cinema’s 1930 opening when audiences still needed to be reminded that a ‘talkie’ was showing. I never passed through these doors and into the scented darkness beyond without a tingle of anticipation.
During the war the Majestic was bought by Odeon Cinemas which, with scant regard for atmospheric decor, covered the entire auditorium with a beige colour wash, totally obliterating the scenic wall painting while leaving the decorative turrets and balconies still protruding incongruously from the now-bare walls.
Wycombe’s cinemas gained in wartime from the many troops stationed in the area, and after the last performance on Saturday nights, vast queues of RAP personnel would gather waiting for the bus to return them to the nearby Bomber Command at Naphill.
By then a teenager and living in a village along the route, I was able to take advantage of this guaranteed late-night service as the Thames Valley Bus Company would continue to lay on relief services until the queues were exhausted.
All these dream palaces of my childhood have long been demolished, and Wycombe’s youngsters today view their films in an out-of-town Multiplex – better projection and better sound than I ever knew, it’s true, but never to echo the magic that always followed my father’s command: “Get your coat on, Son. We’re going to the Majestic!”