I was passing through Victoria Station yesterday on my way to Chislehurst and as I looked around me I began to remember various journeys I had made from there as a child. Back then of course the trains were steam powered and the noise and the dirt were terrifying. I remember going with my mother and father to Littlehampton when I was about 4, and the journey was several hours, so they came well prepared with colouring books and especially a magic colouring book – you would cover the page with a little bit of water and the colours of the pictures would reappear. Heady stuff, I remember, but nowhere near as satisfying as colouring my own – or even better, watching my mother doing the colouring in with pencils. She would be so careful, so accurate…
On that journey, too, I remember little sparks of coal and soot would occasionally career in through the open windows; too hot to shut them, too dangerous to leave them open. What to do?
But yesterday it wasn’t so much the journeys that made me think, but the station itself was often a destination. For one thing, it had a news theatre – a cinema which showed cartoons interspersed with news reels. I sometimes went with my father as he didn’t have a tv – he was afraid it would distract him too much -but he liked watching the news. I am sure he also loved the cartoons, because his laugh was louder than most. I did not like the newsreels much but I did enjoy the “Look at Life” filmlets which featured the oddities of the world. I learnt everything there is to know about the new comprehensive education system from the film about Holland Park Comprehensive School, which was extremely controversial in its day. (Judging from the mess a lot of education is in today, it is still a controversial theme!)
You could go to see the films at any time of day or night, I think, and you could stay as long as you liked. Sometimes we would watch the whole programme having started in the middle of a showing, and then watch as it rolled through and then some more. I am sure there were lots of people who did that to keep warm etc. There were often some hefty snorers in the audience. You could also smoke in the cinemas, so the atmosphere was pretty dense. I can’t remember minding, though – not as much as I mind the sound and smell of popcorn and Chinese takeaways now!
When I was eighteen and waiting to go to University – my gap year in fact – I was working at Gabbitas Thring Education Trust as a receptionist – no qualifications and therefore nothing to do except smile – very boring – I decided to go on a Speedwriting course in Oxford Street. This is a now very outdated form of shorthand and typing – easier than Pitman’s but not as fast or as prestigious, but almost equally expensive. I signed up, paid my £100 pounds (a month’ s wages) and went for three hours a night three times a week. Well, they taught me how to type inaccurately and slowly on vast Remingtons to the sound of an angry hag banging a clackety rhythm with a stick at the front.
This was horrendous. I couldn’t talk to anyone and I can’t say I was too highly motivated once I’d mastered the basics of touch-typing. I certainly couldn’t rival Precious Ramotswe’s assistant Grace Makutsi!
At the speedwriting lectures though things were a little bit different – slightly more human. We were taught by a fantastic looking film star of a man – lantern jaw, deep-set eyes – only the scar across his face was missing or he’d have made a great Heathcliff. Anyway, as he talked us through how to shrtn ip wrds and use a . for the, I noticed that there were others in the group who looked more interesting as individuals. And so it came to pass that one day two of us decided to play truant. Ridiculous really as it was our own money we were wasting. We went to Victoria News Theatre for the cartoons! And that is all I remember about that encounter.
Yesterday, however, I spent a few minutes trying to work out where exactly it was on the concourse. I think it may be where there is a currency exchange office, but I am not at all sure.
Then I found this
Viewing: Photo | Street View
Located adjacent to Platform 19 on the Buckingham Palace Road side of Victoria Railway Station in the centre of London. The Victoria Station News Theatre was opened on 12th September 1933. A quite amazing little cinema positioned over the concourse of the station with just a small but highly stylized entrance pay box and staircase at ground floor level leading to the 1st floor auditorium.
This contained a single flat floor with seating divided into three blocks – two outer with 4 seats per row and a central block of 7 seats per row.
The auditorium was barrel shaped with an attractive proscenium and a large clock on the left-hand side. The whole was specially insulated against noise and vibration from the railway station outside.
It never moved on to presenting feature films – one major drawback was that it had no toilets of its own (patrons had to come down the stairs, exit the cinema and walk a few yards to the public toilets on the railway station concourse).
Operated by the Classic Cinemas chain, the Victoria Station News Theatre was one of several small newsreel theatres in London and in later years showed continuous 1-hour programmes of short subjects and cartoons. It was quietly closed on 27th August 1981 with the Walt Disney short cartoon “The Hound That Thought He Was a Racoon” and an edition of Movietone News featuring the 1937 Coronation. It was later demolished.