Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Working in Gants Hill

I spent some time in the 1960s working in Gants Hill, at the outset of my career in cinema and theatre management.

In 1963, having been working as a clerk in the City of London since leaving school, I joined the Rank Organisation as a Trainee Manager.

I started work with Rank at the Odeon Gants Hill on 2nd September, ten days short of my 21st birthday. It would have been illegal for me to be left in charge before I was 21, not that anybody would have been stupid enough to give a complete newcomer that sort of authority. Presumably the relevant age is now 18.

Gants Hill is about thirty miles from my home town of Southend, as opposed to the City, which is forty miles away. To get to work, I used to catch the train from Prittlewell to Ilford, and then the bus to Gants Hill.

I had to start at 10.30am, which probably seems quite late to many people. Remember, though, that I was working each night until somewhere around 11pm.

Gants Hill is a suburb of Ilford, which historically was always part of Essex until the local government boundary changes in the 1960s brought huge swathes of Essex, Kent, Surrey, a bit of Hertfordshire and all of Middlesex into the new county of Greater London.

The Odeon Gants Hill was officially called the Odeon Ilford. It was a large building which dominated the roundabout on Eastern Avenue, the main road leading out from London to Essex and East Anglia. Beneath the roundabout was Gants Hill underground station on the Central Line.

In my first few weeks, I formed the impression that cinemas are always busy. We were, in fact, very busy indeed, with queues all round the building. We often had to turn people away, even though the seating capacity was around two thousand.

The main reason for the huge business was the films we were showing. In my first few weeks we showed all these blockbusters – all of them new at the time. “The Longest Day”; “The Great Escape”, “From Russia With Love”; “Tom Jones”; West Side Story”; “The Birds”. A pretty amazing collection of films.

I remember “The Birds” well for a particular reason. This famous film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier.

I went to see “The Birds” on my 21st birthday at the Odeon Leicester Square. It was usual for cinema managers to let each other in to see films, but having been in the business for a mere ten days I didn’t have the nerve to ask. I went to an afternoon screening.

Leicester Square is surrounded by cinemas, dance halls etc, but the centre is a green London square with trees. As I came out of the Odeon into the light, the starlings were flying about all over the place, which under the circumstances was somewhat disconcerting. I remember thinking “the special effects in this film are good”.

I was very much in awe of the General Manager of my cinema at Gants Hill. His name was Ted Carter, was obviously a very experienced manager and had a physique like a heavyweight boxer. He had done some boxing in his younger days.

He always called me “son” – never “Mr. Crosby”, although he referred to me as Mr Crosby to the staff, and certainly never “Colin” – I doubt whether he knew my name was Colin. Years later, when I was an experienced manager in my own right, he still called me “son”! I thought that was rather sweet. Certainly Ted Carter taught me a great deal about the business.

In my first few weeks at Gants Hill, I had to learn the staff jobs. Anybody who has ever been the manager of anything will understand that there are times when staff don’t do the job as well as they should, and one needs to get an improvement out of them somehow. But if criticising the work of an employee leads to the not unreasonable comment “you’re so clever – show me how to do it”, one looks a bit silly unless one actually knows how!

So I had to learn how to be a cashier. It’s very important to be both quick and accurate. Literally hundreds of people sometimes have to be sold tickets in a few minutes, and obviously it’s important not to lose money. Many years later, I worked out that I was the third best cashier that I had ever met.

I had to learn office administration, how to answer the phone, how to be an usherette, how to stock up and sell goods in the Kiosk, and of course how to actually project films onto the screen. It all stood me in very good stead over the years.

I stayed at Gants Hill until November, when I was promoted to Assistant Manager at the Odeon Barking, not very far away.

But I returned to Gants Hill a couple of years later, having in the meantime been Assistant Manager of the Ritz Southend. By this time I was one of the most experienced Assistant Managers with the company, and Ted Carter asked for me when there was a vacancy at Gants Hill for a House Manager – he obviously thought a lot of me.

House Manager is an important sort of Assistant Manager. I had an Assistant Manager and two Trainees working under me, and of course their training was an important part of my duties.

Over the years, one meets a lot of famous people. This process included meeting Bobby Moore, England football captain, and the actor Richard Harris, while I was at Gants Hill.

In 1966, I was appointed Manager of the Odeon Whalebone Lane at Becontree Heath. It was not a very busy cinema, but it was mine, and I was very proud to be the Manager.

Certainly my periods at Gants Hill gave me an excellent insight into many aspects of cinema management.

Lots of my experiences as a young chap coming into the business feature in my talk “Adventures of the Bearded Cinema Manager”, which I give to groups.

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