FILMS / Hugging and hissing in the back rows: Or rather, the people who watch them. Martin Kelner hears the stories from the men, women and children that cinema history forgot

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The Independent Culture
The first time I was touched by one of those sleazy men was at the picture house in Filey. I was so shocked and disgusted I didn't say anything but just walked out and sobbed the sordid tale out to my mum when I got home.

' 'Always take a hat-pin with you in future,' was her advice. Blow me if I wasn't sat in there a couple of weeks later when it happened again with another bloke. I took out the hat-pin and rammed it into the back of his hand. The yell he let out was very satisfying.'

This is the sort of experience that rarely makes it into histories of the cinema. 'People write about stars, directors, the films, but nobody writes about the audience, what they experience,' says Brian Lewis, who tries to correct the balance in a new book, Talking Pictures, The Popular Experience of the Cinema. 'Before I did this book, for instance, I didn't realise how terrifying the cinema sometimes was for adolescent girls. Sitting with strangers in the dark for the first time.'

The terror is captured quite graphically in at least two of the tales in Lewis's book.

'I was as green as they come,' writes one anonymous contributor. 'George from the weaving shed offered to take me. He even paid for my ticket.

'Once the film started, his arm came round my shoulders to comfort me from the dreaded monster. I was soon to realise that the real monster was George. He lost no time at all in trying to unbutton my blouse. His hands were everywhere. I writhed and twisted. His hands moved from my knees to my boobs. I had nowhere to go but under the seat in front of me. I gradually slithered down until neither he nor I could do anything but wait for the lights to come up and escape.'

A teenage girl, recalling her battle with a Monster From The Back Row during Bonny and Clyde, notes of her experience: 'It took ages to get over it, and even longer before I went to the cinema again.'

Neither of these terrified cinema- goers, nor the 200 or so other story- tellers in Talking Pictures, is named. Lewis calls it a 'gobbit' book. 'Little bits from the gob. It's a formula which has proved extremely effective in compiling social histories built round a particular theme.

'We actually roam the streets hanging round bus shelters and in fish and chip shops to get people's stories. For this book we spent two days at a multiplex cinema in Sheffield talking to people, spoke to customers in Asian video shops and advertised in local newspapers.'

The 'we' Lewis refers to are his colleagues - four full-time and 15 part-time - in the Yorkshire Art Circus, a community arts project operating from an old school near Castleford, West Yorks. They have a simple goal: 'Everyone has a story to tell. We find ways of helping them tell it.'

Founded 13 years ago, the group has now published more than 70 titles, several of which, claims Lewis, are 'bestsellers in this area'. Many of the books have been more obviously agit-prop - miners' feelings about pit closures and the like - than the cinema book. But Lewis, who is a history lecturer, insists this latest collection is in the same tradition. 'Ordinary people's stories. Up to now even the buildings have been treated as more important than the people. I've lost count of the number of books I've read saying such and such a cinema opened in 1910, showed its first talkie in 1930, The Singing Fool, and became a bingo hall in 1963. They don't tell you anything about what the cleaners found under the seats. We spoke to the cleaners. 'We found all sorts,' one of them told us, 'Some things you eat. Some you use.' '

The inextricable link between the cinema and sex is a recurring theme in the memories recorded: 'If you wanted to see a so-called mucky film, you joined a cinema club. But in the early 1950s there were a number of risque images in Italian films that caught the imaginataion. In Bitter Rice, the heroine tucks her skirt into her knicker legs and wades through a paddy field. I'd seen more explicit things on the sands at Blackpool but this black-and-white image has remained with me for 40 years.'

And from a younger cinema- goer: 'The girl in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet was 15 years old when I was 18. I became obsessed with her and went to the cinema at least four times that week. Later I saw it, surrounded by students in a small cinema, and became very angry when one of them started laughing during the balcony scene. The fascination continued: whenever I found it was showing, I would travel miles to see it, although I was happily married. Recently I looked it up in a movie guide. The critic said: 'For all Hussey's prettiness and Whiting's shy charm, it is clear they do not understand one 10th of the meaning of their lines.' '

Some of the most enthusiastic contributors to Talking Pictures were former cinema managers, usherettes and projectionists who responded to a newspaper advertisement. 'These workers have as much right to their place in cinema history as any others, but so far mostly they have been written out,' says Lewis. 'One usherette, for instance, summed up her craft for us in one sentence: 'The only skill needed is to be able to walk backwards up steps in the pitch dark and to sell ice-cream in total silence.' '

The film Cinema Paradiso constantly comes to mind reading reminiscences like the following from the manager of a small village cinema: 'For the Saturday morning shows we used to hire entertainers to keep the kids amused in between films. We had a steady stream of people ready to work for nothing - frustrated stars who were happy just to have a chance to perform for an audience. This was their moment of glory and they were going to make the most of it. We had a very tight schedule, and our biggest problem was these entertainers. Once they got out on stage, some of them just wouldn't get off. I had to open the window to the projection box and scream, 'Get off]' '

The final anecdote in Talking Pictures, from another of the unsung heroes of cinema history, is almost a perfect expression of Yorkshire Art Circus's philosophy: 'When I see a film on television that I know by heart, I am back in my uniform, flashing my torch. 'Move along there, please, and make a double.' Standing in the spotlight with my ice-cream tray. 'Vanilla and choc-ices, orange squash, sixpence each.' I suppose that, in my own way, I'm a show business great.'

'Talking Pictures' available from bookshops or direct from Yorkshire Art Circus (0977 550401)

(Photograph omitted)