Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Working in Becontree Heath

I had two spells working in Becontree Heath in the 1960s.

Becontree Heath is actually part of Dagenham, in the area of Greater London that used to be Essex. Nearby are such places as Barking, Ilford and Romford.

In 1966, so far as I am concerned, two very important things happened.

England won the World Cup, beating Germany in the "they think it's all over" Final.

However, what also happened was that I was appointed Manager of a cinema for the first time, after being successively Trainee Manager, Assistant Manager and House Manager since 1963.

Having been House Manager at the Odeon Gants Hill, I was appointed Manager of the Odeon Whalebone Lane, sadly now demolished. This stood at an important junction known as the Merry Fiddlers, after the nearby pub, where many years before Max Bygraves had made his first professional appearance.

To be honest, the cinema was in a fairly run down condition, but it was mine, and I was proud of it.

I was also proud of the fact that at 23 I was the youngest cinema manager in the country. It's a long time now since I was the youngest anything.

There were several other cinemas not far away. The Odeon Dagenham was at the Heathway, and the Odeon Becontree was in Green Lane (always known locally as "Green Lanes"). The Odeon Chadwell Heath had, in the short time that I had been around in the area, changed its name from the Gaumont and then had become a bingo hall, while the Chequers at Dagenham had recently closed. All these were operated by the Rank Organisation.

A little further away, there was an ABC at Ilford and the Odeon at Gants Hill, and in the other direction the Odeon and ABC at Romford and the Odeon at Hornchurch. All these were no more than a few minutes drive away.

At Whalebone Lane, I more or less sealed my fate in the entertainment business. By dint of intelligent publicity, promotion and marketing, and a lot of hard work, I transformed the cinema from one which should really have closed into a vibrant, popular local amenity.

The trouble is, once one has shown that one is capable of that, one is never asked to manage Blackpool Tower, or the London Palladium, or the Royal Albert Hall. One is asked to transform run down little places.

An unusual feature of the cinema was that at the back of the Circle were several boxes, where couples could sit together romantically and watch the film, away from the public gaze.

I was surprised to find that these were not in operation. It seemed to me that we could sell tickets for these boxes at a much higher rate than for the ordinary seats.

My Area Manager then told me the reason for them not being used. They had previously been frequented mainly by ladies of the street, who found the boxes very suitable for entertaining their clients.

Saturday mornings were great fun. The Saturday Club for children was a film show consisting of a feature film, a serial, a short documentary and a cartoon.

Some managers would occasionally get up on the stage and do something, but the vast majority didn't. I went on stage every single week and chatted. Every week there was a competition. I tried to show the children that it's all very well being passively entertained, but it's far better to actually take part.

The competitions were different each week. It might be a painting/colouring competition, which was sometimes linked with a forthcoming film. It could be singing, telling jokes, fancy dress .... I tried to show that although not everybody is brilliant at everything, most of us can do something reasonably well.

The very first publicity stunt that I organised as a manager was very early in my career. We showed "The Great Race", Blake Edwards' marvellous comedy featuring Tony Curtis as the Great Leslie and Jack Lemmon as the evil Professor Fate. On the opening day, a parade of Austin Seven cars made its way from Southend to the cinema carrying posters explaining where they were going.

It was at Whalebone Lane that I learned how to speak to an adult audience. In conjunction with Michelangelo Antonio's film "Blow-Up", I organised a "Way Out Girl" Contest. It should be borne in mind that this was the era when the Swinging London ethos was becoming popular, and most young people wanted to look a little outrageous, especially in their clothing.

Several local girls entered, all wearing what at the time seemed to be strange garments, and of course I had to introduce them and interview them on stage.

A friend, Mike Johnson, the Manager of the Odeon Becontree down the road, had come over to give me some moral support. He was a former professional singer and pianist who had worked at holiday camps etc. When I bottled out and said "Come on, Mike, you're experienced at this sort of thing, will you do it for me, please?", he refused, saying I would never learn if I didn't do it then, and he literally pushed me onto the stage.

I've always been grateful to Mike for that.

Mike and I also organised something most unusual - the Essex and East London Beat Contest. Rock was at that time widely known as "beat music".

We invited groups from around the area to enter, and held a contest on a knock out basis. Each group was allowed two songs, and the heats were held on Sunday evenings, alternately at the two cinemas, in the interval between films.

This was not as easy as it sounds. We didn't have proper stages, just a few feet in front of the screen, where two groups' equipment had to be placed as soon as the preceding film had finished, and of course removed afterwards.

Mike made all the stage and technical arrangements, and I compered each heat, including the Final of course.

Each heat was judged by a local personality, such as the Mayor, or a Carnival Queen. For the Final, held at the Odeon Becontree, we got Tony Blackburn, the disc jockey who had the honour of playing the first record on Radio One, to be the judge.

The Dagenham area was home to a huge number of entertainers, including Kenny Ball; Kathy Kirby; Dudley Moore; Brian Poole and the Tremeloes; Sandie Shaw; and Keith West. I met Alan Blakeley and Chip Hawkes of the Tremeloes at the Town Hall at Loughborough many years later, and they were bemused to realise that they were chatting to their local cinema manager.

There was another young man who lived locally. He was a rock'n'roll singer with a pretty big voice, rather like Elvis, and he used to dream that one day people would buy his records. A few of us, notably myself and the Editor of the Dagenham Post, used to do all we could to promote him, including having him come along to give out prizes for me on a Saturday morning. His name was David Essex.

Just before Guy Fawkes Night, I had a problem with fireworks. Obviously, nobody with any sense would let a firework off during a performance in a cinema, but on this occasion somebody did. I happened to be in the projection box at the time, chatting to the projectionist, and saw the flash.

He later told me that I looked absolutely furious, far different from the laid back image that I generally showed. I told him to wait until he saw me approach the stage, and then stop the film and turn on the house lights.

When this happened, of course, there was a chorus of whistles and catcalls, which soon stopped as I stepped onto the stage carring a microphone. I told the audience that I would not stand for fireworks in the building, and that any repetition would be answered without further warning by the programme being stopped and everybody evacuated from the building. I told them that they had to choose whether or not they wanted that to happen, but that personally I would prefer them to have a decent place in which to watch films.

I stepped off the stage to a mighty round of applause. I never had any more trouble with fireworks in that cinema, and rarely had any trouble there at all from then on.

That's just a sample, of course, of the sort of things I used to get up to in my first full managerial appointment. After a couple of years I moved on, to become Deputy General Manager of the Multiple Unit (Odeon, Ritz and shop) in Southend.

That was interesting, and again very useful in my career development. But I went back to Whalebone Lane for another few months, before leaving the Rank Organisation in 1970, and going to work at the world-famous Windmill in London's West End.

If anybody reading this has any connections with Becontree Heath, or the Dagenham area in general (Born? Lived? Worked? Ancestors? Relatives?), I will be very pleased to hear from them.