Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Working in the West End

I had a spell working in the West End of London, starting in 1970.

In fact, the period from 1970 to 1972 was a difficult and confusing one so far as my working life was concerned. I didn't enjoy much of it, but in retrospect it taught me an awful lot.

I resigned from my appointment as Manager of the Odeon Whalebone Lane at Becontree Heath, after working for the Rank Organisation for approaching seven years, and went to work for Classic Cinemas in the West End.

Initially, I was one of two managers running the Windmill in Great Windmill Street, just off Shaftesbury Avenue and round the corner from Piccadilly Circus. It was on the edge of what was the notorious district of Soho.

This was the world renowned Windmill which famously never closed during the war. Many well known stand up comedians learned their craft on the stage at the Windmill. Although the shows were known as "variety", most of the audiences came to see the girls in a nude or near nude state.

The funny thing was, at the time, that according to the law they had to stand still. Provided the girls didn't move, the show was respectable and decent. If, however, they moved, then the show became obscene and of course illegal.

Those comedians needed to become tough, because they were really only there as fill ins while the set was changed, and their reception was usually hostile.

When I came to manage the Windmill, we no longer had nude shows on the stage. They were on the screen instead. Most films, there and at the other West End cinemas which Classic and other even smaller companies ran, fell into the category of low budget sex films.

What I hadn't realised before was that everywhere you looked around Soho, you saw representations of sex in one form or another, usually in a very seedy manner. It was very depressing indeed.

In the Soho area, there were of course plenty of extremely hardened criminals. I'm not talking about yobbos here, I mean real villains.

The spin off, though, was that I never felt safer in my whole career. Once I had been there a short while, I came to be regarded as part of the community, and therefore somebody who must be protected.

Any time a member of the public, worse the wear from drink, started causing me any trouble, an enormous thug would come over and ask if I wanted anything unpleasant to be done to the troublemaker. Well, of course I didn't, but that was always enough to get a quick apology and an even quicker retreat.

Classic had a strange way of utilising their management, and I worked, in some cases as a Relief Manager, at several of their West End cinemas.

I worked at the Cameo Moulin, a cinema showing similar films to the Windmill. This was almost directly opposite.

I worked at the Eros, on the corner of Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue. This was one of a number of cinemas that used to be known as "news theatres". They were often sited at places like railway stations, and were aimed at travellers with a little time to kill. The programme was initially mde up of newsreels, but by the time I became involved it was mainly cartoons that were shown. The programme would last about an hour.

We had news theatres at Victoria and Waterloo Stations, but I never worked at either of these, and neither lasted much longer. There were several others, run by other companies, dotted around the West End.

The Eros was extraordinary. The cubicles in the gents toilets had only the bottom half of their doors. When I asked about the obvious lack of privacy that this entailed, it was explained to me that that was the idea.

There had been a number of gullible visitors from out of town who had been picked up by what they assumed to be male prostitutes, and taken into the toilet. Once there, they had been beaten up and robbed.

I worked at the Cameo Poly in Upper Regent Street, opposite Broadcasting House. This was a cinema deep in the bowels of the Regent Polytechnic. They actually owned the cinema, but it was operated by Classic. We showed rather more obscure films there, often in foreign languages, as this was believed to appeal to the students.

While working in Soho, I realised that many visitors get ripped off, sometimes by things like the three card trick, and sometimes in more creative ways. I was initially shocked by this, but soon came to see that most of the victims had come to Soho with the express intention of losing a lot of money, so they could go home and boast about it to friends, and it didn't really matter whether the money went to a prostitute, operators of a scam or even a legitimate purchase.

There were lots of strip clubs (they weren't really clubs, of course, but that's another story). In Great Windmill Street there were three next door to each other. Or at least, that's how it appeared. Punters would pay to go in one club, watch the show, and come out. A good number would then pay to visit the club next door, and go in to find that it was the same place.

Another jolly ruse was to sidle up to somebody and whisper the immortal words "Psst! Wanna see a dirty film?" When the reply was favourable, the punter would be asked for a fiver, and told to go up a flight of stairs to a door. He then had to wait for five minutes before knocking three times. By the time he realised that there was in fact no dirty film, the man who had taken his money was of course far away.

One man had the nerve to ask me this once. I sent him away with a flea in his ear, and then saw a couple of friendly thugs laughing their heads off and telling him he should be careful whom he asked.

The strip clubs were awful places. I had an open invitation to visit, but have never seen anything so unerotic. A succession of women would march on stage, and gradually take their clothes off, chucking them down on the stage, sometimes quite violently, and almost always glaring at the audience, whom they clearly despised.

A gay colleague once asked me to take him into one of these clubs one lunchtime. In those days, of course, you weren't supposed to even acknowledge to the outside world the existence of homosexual persons, let alone that you knew any.

He thought the whole thing was so hilarious (rightly, of course), that he couldn't stop laughing, so to save embarrassment I had to take him away again.

Actually, the strippers were probably the most hardworking people in the whole community. They used to spend hours every day walking from club to club.

Classic used to arrange, in conjunction with the film companies, a number of press shows for newspapers. I had been to quite a few of these while working for Rank. Unfortunately, the Classic publicity staff were a little too shy to host them, so the task used to fall to me. That was fun.

Among the critics who used to regularly come to these press shows were Peter Noble (whose name I had known when I was a teenager), Freda Bruce Lockhart and Alexander Walker. Peter was a nice man whom I susequently met, along with his wife, the actress Marianne Stone, on a number of occasions.

After a while, I settled down as one of two managers at the Classic Piccadilly Circus. This had a circular auditorium, a legacy from its original use as the home of Circlorama, a Russian invention in which the viewer is totally surrounded by film. It never caught on, mainly I suppose because you could never see the whole film.

When I moved over to this cinema, we were still showing "Easy Rider", the innovative film starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and featuring a young Jack Nicholson. This had been showing for some years, and we were still packing them in, with shows every two hours until late at night.

"Easy Rider" ended its run eventually, and we then showed a new film called "The Body". This title of course acted as a magnet to salacious persons in dirty macs, most of whom were seriously disppointed to find that it was actually a most interesting documentary on the human body and how it works. Some of it was so graphically presented that, in my squeamish way, I had to avert my eyes.

After working for Classic Cinemas for a year or so, I tried my luck working at a cinema club in Old Compton Street, deeper into Soho. This actually was a club. We had to get people to pay a membership fee, in return for which they were given a membership card, and they were then allowed to come and see the film after an hour or two had elapsed.

Since most visitors would never return, it was a way of effectively doubling the admission price each time.

I became even more depressed at working in the cinema club than in the public cinemas, so looked for another employer, and went to manage the Curzon at Leyton.

If anybody reading this has any connection with the West End, or London in general (Born? Lived? Worked? Ancestors? Relatives?), I will be very pleased to hear from them.