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Cinema from below the horizon

A personal history of Brynamman Public Hall

If my home town of Brynamman is known for anything, it’s not its rugby team, its long gone industries or its famous sons. It is known for its Cinema. As a concept at least, and physically for the most part, it has survived war, depression, recession and the television age to stand tall and proud in the 21st century at the midpoint of Station Road. For, and by, the edification of the community.

The Cinema’s own website details the history of the establishment from its inception in the 1920s as the community Public Hall, paid for by deductions to the local miners’ wages and now run by volunteers, but it is my own memories of the Cinema that I will relate.

Certificate U

My earliest recollection of the ‘Hall’ was of its imposing presence at the bottom of the council estate I grew up on in the sixties. My mother would take me in my pushchair to visit my grandmother in Lower Brynamman. Down the hill through Heol-y-Gelynen and on to Hall Street, past the “Aelwyd” and then, to a little chap, below the seemingly insurmountable steps up to the front door of the Hall. What went on there was to remain a mystery to me for a couple of years yet until my father, always a fan of the “flicks”, decided I was ready to sample the low lighting, plush red seats and darting torches of the usherettes to see “Thunderbirds are Go”. I was four.

I lasted about half an hour, didn’t even make it to the interval choc ice, having been lulled to sleep by the closeness of the enveloping darkness. I was carried home up the hill in my dad’s arms, but the brief experience left its mark and the regret I felt at missing the film resulted in me never falling asleep in the cinema again until I was myself a dad, and had a better excuse.

As with many of the films I saw I can’t recall the next one I actually sat through, it was most likely a Disney animation but regardless, it would undoubtedly have been eagerly awaited. In those days the film prints followed a trail of geographical hierarchy around the provinces, premiering in Swansea, then Ammanford and eventually three or four weeks later in Brynamman.

The Cinema’s monthly programme would be distributed throughout the area to advertise the coming attractions. Printed cheaply on coloured paper, it took the form of a hastily folded A5 sheet with adverts back and front and the listings inside. These were often a rich source of comical spelling mistakes, my favourite being the children’s movie “Redknobs and Broomsticks” which I imagine attracted a somewhat unexpected and bemused section of society it was not intended for. A similar thing occured when Clint Eastwood fell foul of an unfortunate typo.

On a film night the first stop would be at Siop Laria to stock up on sweets or crisps. I remember the cloying smell of white mice, cola bottles and refreshers tempered with the seeping aroma of paraffin and petrol from the pumps just outside the door. Doug or his aunt Laria would serve the swarm of kids and herd them back out into the darkness with a big enough supply of sugar to ensure a noisy viewing experience that night and a well employed local dentist for some time to come.

Prior to the doors opening the eager audience would gather outside in a boisterous but fairly orderly queue along the pavement and up the precipitous steps to wait. We would often be passed by people going in through the right hand door to the library which was housed in a little room adjacent to the upper circle of the cinema. The library itself prompts a whole set of memories of its own, the content within somehow enhanced by its proximity to the double doors of the circle. If you went to the library after the film had begun you could hear the sound from inside and occasionally snatch a furtive glimpse of the screen as someone went in or out. This was particularly exciting if the film was a double A or an X certificate but the annoyingly vigilant usherettes were wise to the practice and patrolled outside on such occasions, guarding young eyes from viewing anything remotely corrupting.

Back in the queue tensions would rise as opening time approached and the jostling often resulted in a stumble down the steps for some unfortunate. When open, we split into three lines against the dark polished wood of the ticket booth. ‘Pit’ and ‘Stalls’ led you to the downstairs seating while ‘Circle’ gave access to the upstairs. If it was a children’s film ‘Pit’ was an accurate description as it was a raucous crowd that enjoyed their movies from a perspective below the horizon. If you were with your parents the tickets spooling out of the metal dispenser would allow access to the loftiness of the circle.

Then, as now, the “programme” on the night would begin with Pearl & Dean adverts — shiny glimpses of impossibly exotic worlds where people smoked Benson & Hedges, drank Chivas Regal and ate Indian food. As far removed from Brynamman as Neil Armstrong on the recently conquered moon. More down to earth however were the local ‘notices’. These hand written slides advertising the Tregib Arms or Morlais’ chip shop were shakily scratched into smoke blackened glass and coloured with Quality Street-wrapper-like cellophane of yellow, green or blue.

Like any advertising I often wonder if they worked, there were several pubs in the village and a couple of chip shops too but each held their own advantages over the others and I doubt many would have been swayed by the crude little slides to change their habitual patronage. No doubt the businesses that advertised were just doing their little bit to support the marvellous facility we were privileged to have so near.

Each film was accompanied by a supporting short feature. This could be a public information film, a short documentary or a B-Movie but I naturally favoured the cartoons, usually ones not seen on TV — Astronut, Mighty Mouse and Deputy Dawg, Mr Magoo, and the Jetsons were all accompanied by the sound of children competing to laugh the loudest and longest to build up a Kia-Ora thirst before the big film.

That enjoyably won thirst was quenched by the interval after the short. The lights went up, the doors swung open to propel in the usherettes with their dimly lit trays filled with Orange Maid lollies, milk and dark choc ices and plastic tubs of ice cream with the spoon hidden in the lid. The queue was vivid with the excitement of children anticipating the chilly treats. The matronly usherettes would allow no barging or queue jumping and a cluck and flicker of the searchlight torch in the eyes could quell any nascent rebellion at a stroke.

Patience was rewarded and, with one of the items and the exotic square pot of orange squash secured, you had to make your way back carefully to your seat. This could be a tricky exercise depending on the audience for a particular film. Squeezing past legs with polite ‘excuse me’s’ to adults was one thing, but trying to get by older boys without being tripped or jostled into ice-cream dropping embarrassment was another and this prospect often resulted in elaborate avoidance manoeuvres via several rows of packed seats.

After a few minutes of happy munching and slurping the lights would go down, the adults light up, and the projector pour its grainy magic through the smoke filled air onto the biggest silver screen in South Wales. Whatever the quality of the main feature we were sat there for an hour or two with brains switched to neutral letting the experience wash over us. Occasionally a movie would capture the imagination like no other and would see us leaving the cinema buoyed up by the experience, imagining we were a character from the film or singing one of the songs as we walked home through the cool evening air.

Certificate A

Being taken to the cinema by a parent or even both parents was a double edged sword. Sitting up in the circle was an advantage, as was not having to pay for anything out of pocket money, but it could also be an embarrassing situation if all your friends were there on their own, or if the film held some saucier content preferably viewed without your mum and dad. This was often the case when it came to Carry On films which were engineered to appeal to all ages with their mix of obvious jokes, subtle innuendo and not so subtle seaside postcard humour.

I can’t remember at what age the realisation dawned that what they were on about was sex, but from that point the naughty bits were tainted with a quiet dread and a rising redness to the cheeks mercifully camouflaged by the dark. My mum shared my discomfort but I envied how my dad seemed to laugh all the harder at the racier jokes.

Potentially embarrassing moments also cropped up in the annual James Bond film to hit the screens but these I had usually seen before they made it to Brynamman. Bond and other blockbusters tested our loyalty to the local hall and we sometimes succumbed to the hype surrounding a new release by jumping the gun and going to see it in Swansea’s magnificent Odeon a month at least before it showed at the hall.

My dad hated driving and so we would embark on a trip to the metropolis by bus. This was a tortuous route pre-bypass times when the bus stopped every mile, or so it seemed. The journey could take a couple of hours but it only enhanced the itchy-sweet feeling of anticipation. We would lunch at the Kardomah, The Golden Egg, Asti’s, the Burlington or the Number 10, each judged by my dad on the quality of their mixed grill and by me on their knickerbockerglories.

We’d make our way up the Kingsway to join the inevitable queue up the mirrored stairs to the first floor foyer. ‘Foyer’- just the word brings back memories of plushly seventies carpeted floors, expensive wallpaper and huge displays for forthcoming attractions. When we went to see “Herbie Rides Again” they had a real Volkswagen Beetle in the corner — I still have no idea how they got it up there — maybe it actually was magic. There was ice cream, Butterkist popcorn and Westler’s hot dogs; family bags of Maltesers and an eye-popping selection of pick-and-mix. This was living it large to us hicks but it all paled into insignificance when we walked into the wonderful, huge auditorium. Wide steps passed enormous hexagonal wall lights that seductively faded in and out to different colours in the semi darkness as we were led to deep seats you could get lost in.

Despite the patience-sapping torpor of the journey home afterwards it was all fabulous, but it lacked the homeliness of the hall and we would usually redeem ourselves for our disloyalty by going to see the movie a second time when it eventually made it up the valley.

Intermission

The Public Hall was not only a cinema of course, the screen disguised a sizable stage which held concerts, Eisteddfod heats and the annual amateur opera there. My Auntie Vi, who lived with us at the time, was a keen singer with a tremulous vibrato Joan Baez would have envied. Preparations took place months in advance for the troupe to get into shape before unveiling their production of “Oklahoma” or “West Side Story” and she could be heard warbling every morning before work and would go to practice every evening after her shift at Aladdin or Tick Tock.

With nothing to compare it against I was massively impressed by the colour and vivacity of the cast and production, feeling sure it was one of the finest things one could witness. I was stage struck and mightily proud of my chorus line, glamourous Auntie who came home triumphantly buoyed with the adrenaline of the performance and still showing traces of the hastily removed stage make up.

They also showed matinees in the school summer holidays, and I clearly recall the simple excitement of watching a film in the morning and coming out to daylight afterwards. It was a magical experience in our conservative world where the cinema was usually a night-time only affair.

Certificate AA

Access to the more adult themed AA movies was gained as I got older as was access to other distractions that lessened the appeal of the film itself. Soft haired girls with warm, perfumed necks, lambswool jumpers and fiddly bra clasps all took their toll on the attraction of on-screen entertainment. Taking a girlfriend to the pictures never had much to do with the film, it was a training ground, and much was learned about acceptable behaviour and boundaries in those gentle moments. It was always wise to be discreet though, as no one enjoyed being singled out by a hiss and a flicker of a torch from twenty yards away if they were suspected of going ‘too far’.

This was also the time of going with a gang of male friends to see the likes of “Animal House” or “Rollerball” (if we could get in). On a Friday evening we’d gather early, either outside one of the chip shops or, if the weather was bad, a bus shelter, talking and joking noisily. There were no mobile phones so we made arrangements at school or on the way home and, remarkably, kept to them. It was usually the local boys, Phil Chip, Calvin, Twm, Andrew Roberts, Simon Lockley, Tank and Vichard Vees (who had trouble with his “R’s) and we’d sometimes meet with schoolmates from distant Garnant or even Ammanford.

After the film it was back out into the lung choking cold air to warm ourselves over the steam from some chips before trundling off to bed. The walk home one particular night sticks in my memory. After watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” I walked home alone up the hill. At the darkest part I looked up to a winter clear sky just as an aircraft flew over with navigation lights blinking. I was convinced I’d seen a UFO and completed the 100 metres home in a time that would have challenged Alan Wells.

Certificate X

The holy grail was reaching the age that you would pass for eighteen and be allowed in to X rated films. These were pre-ID days and if you looked old enough you were old enough and I saw many an X before I officially became an adult. My upbringing, I suppose, meant that it was still a furtive experience encumbered by a feeling of unwholesomeness that challenged the enjoyment of the movie. They quite often scared the pants off me too of course. “Halloween” and “Carrie” were bad enough but “The Exorcist” was something I truly wished could be unseen.

Around this time there was one experience above all that left me with lasting fond feelings towards the cinema and its staff. I had been reading about “Apocalypse Now” for over a year before it finally came to Brynamman. It had been widely reviewed and lauded, lines from the dialogue began turning up in a number of songs by some of my favourite bands and all of this piqued my interest and by the time the movie finally came around I was desperate to see it.

It was a Wednesday evening when I wandered down the hill, strode up the strangely deserted steps and bought a ticket for the pit. I entered the completely empty auditorium wondering if I was on the wrong night, chose a seat in the middle and settled down.

The lights dimmed, the adverts began and I was still alone. When the adverts and trailers finished the usherette came in with her tray and informed me that I was the only customer. I felt obliged to buy something. The film was great, as anticipated, but the strangeness of watching it all alone in such a big space made it an unforgettable night. They must have lost money showing it but it was typical that they carried on regardless.

Certificate U — revisited

They are still carrying on regardless. Brynamman Public Hall is going strong nearly forty years later and, as far as I know, still run on a volunteer basis. It’s added a new small screen, refurbished the old auditorium and the library is now a sweet shop. I haven’t been there much since sadly, having moved away a year or so after my Apocalypse Now night. I did take my own kids a few times when they were little and they in their turn were captivated as much by the surroundings as by the film itself, while I snoozed happily.

It was, and is, an independent treasure in the corporate morass we now inhabit and long may it continue.

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All this, and Welsh too.

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