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  • Writer's picturefergusfcooper

Once Upon a Time in my Childhood

My love of films began at a very young age. The youngest of 4 boys, I tagged along with the brothers to the Saturday morning film club at the ABC Strand cinema, on Belfast’s Holywood Road. The 90-minute programme included multiple cartoons, a couple of Laurel & Hardy films and an instalment of a weekly serial such as Batman & Robin or The Lone Ranger.

Mum and dad loved films as well, dad being a big western fan. It helped that we did not get a television until I was 10 years old. In addition to Saturday mornings my parents would take us to the cinema at least once a month. There were the family films, Mary Poppins, The Incredible Journey, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Jungle Book. And who could forget every boy’s favourite western, The Magnificent Seven, with its all-star cast and Elmer Berstein’s musical score!

When I was nine, we moved from Ashmount Park to Sydenham Gardens which was just around the corner from the art deco, Strand. Shortly thereafter I started taking myself to the cinema every Thursday, when I received my pocket money, 1 shilling and 6 pennies in my case as the youngest. It was 1s-3d into the back stalls of the Strand leaving 3d for sweeties. Mum would look up the Irish News to make sure that the films were suitable. Back then there was usually a double feature with an intermission between films.

I can’t recall all the films I saw but certain movies made a lasting impression with me. Dr Zhivago directed by David Lean with a memorable music score by Maurice Jarre was spell binding. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie had the lead roles ably supported by Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chaplin, Tom Courtney, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson and Rod Steiger. Set against the backdrop of WW1 and the Russian revolution there were enough battle scenes to captivate a young boy’s mind and shot in Panavision the scenery was amazing. Jarre’s score won an Oscar and Lara’s Theme was truly beguiling.

I like musicals and an early favourite of mine was My Fair Lady. The director was George Cukor and the leads were Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfred Hyde White, Jeremy Brett and Stanley Holloway. To this day I can recall almost every song. Audrey Hepburn’s singing was over dubbed by Marny Nixon whereas Rex Harrison’s non-singing style wasn’t! For me Stanley Holloway stole the show as Eliza’s binman father on the make! However, one musical I saw that rarely gets an outing now was Oh What a Lovely War by first time director, Richard (Dicky) Attenborough. Featuring an all-star British cast that included Maggie Smith, Dick Bogarde, Jon Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier, it satirised WW1 and its insane leaders through songs from that era and keeping scores of the dead as if it was a cricket match. Lauded in America and loathed in Britain it nevertheless launched Attenborough’s career as a director.

Of course, as a young boy, I loved a western and had early ambitions to become a cowboy. (Some of my less charitable work colleagues would say that I realised my ambition.) John Wayne is synonymous with the western and his best films were made with John Huston. However, I saw a couple of his later films in the Strand directed by Henry Hathaway. The Sons of Katie Elder featured Wayne, Dean Martin, Earl Holliman; Michael Anderson Jr. Martha Hyer & George Kennedy. Then in 1969 I saw Wayne’s Oscar winning role as Rooster Cockburn in True Grit along with Glen Campbell and Kim Darby. I also saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the Strand, this time along with the rest of the family. But my all-time favourite western is Once Upon a Time in the West by the great Sergio Leone. It features a haunting musical score by Ennio Morricone, Sergio’s classmate in primary school in Italy. For filmmakers everywhere there is much to admire from the opening 9-minute music free ambush scene at the train station, to fantastic editing, the close up shots in the dualling scenes and the individual score for each main character.

Two films I love to this day are Cool Hand Luke and In the Heat of the Night. I’m a Paul Newman fan and don’t think there is a better prison movie than Cool Hand Luke, directed by Stuart Rosenburg. (Sorry Shawshank Redemption fans!) Newman owns the screen and every scene in the movie, ably supported by George Kennedy, Robert Donner & Jo Van Fleet. I doubt that today’s Hollywood, with its pre-release market testing screenings, would allow its fateful ending. I can still recall some lines in the movie.

What we've got here is... failure to communicate.”

– The Captain (just before sending Luke to the Box for the umpteenth time.)

“I’m shaking it Boss. I’m shaking it!” – Luke (before he make’s his first run for freedom.)

“Your running days are over forever, boy. Hell, I'd like to see you try to run again. You know, you getting’ so you smell so bad I can track you myself." - Dog Boy. (When the blood hounds track down Luke).

In the Heat of the Night directed by Norman Jewison, memorably paired Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger as the main protagonists with Warren Oates as the Sheriff’s deputy. Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Chicago homicide detective arrested as a murder suspect at the train station in Sparta, Mississippi. Steiger, in his Oscar-winning role, is Bill Gillespie, the town's bigoted sheriff. Having been released from wrongful arrest Virgil is then ordered by his superior to assist the local police department with their murder investigation. The film provides a toned-down Hollywood version of the racism of the deep south while Poitier and Steiger spark off each other in scene after scene.

The above is not an exhaustive list, just some of the films that made a lasting impression on a young boy. What films do you associate with your childhood and why?

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Jun 15, 2022

You’ve stirred some memories Fergus! The first film I saw in the cinema was Mary Poppins which began a lifelong love of cinema/films. I saw Dr Zhivago on the small screen and so envy the experience you had watching it for the first time. Like you, I loved the music - haunting and so emotive. My father was a big John Wayne fan - we all had to be very quiet when the big man was on the screen.

How wonderful that this love of film has led you to the other side of the camera!

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