‘A Curious Death’

Annette Kuhn goes on an archival quest

Late last year BBC Television broadcast a six-part drama series called Boat Story (BBC1, November 2023), one of whose stars was Daisy Haggard. The surname rang bells–not so much because of the actress’s previous TV roles (Uncle, Episodes, Back to Life) as for its connection with one of Cinema Culture in 1930s Britain’s participants. This association was relatively fresh in my mind because I had spent many weeks at home during Covid lockdown, working through transcripts of the interviews that were conducted for CCINTB back in the 1990s, checking and standardising them in preparation for their launch on the CMDA website. As part of this task I researched and composed home pages for participants, immersing myself in their memories—a productive distraction from pandemic ennui.

In August 2020 I was working on the interviews conducted with men and women living in the London suburb of Harrow. Among these is CCINTB’s only upper middle-class interviewee, Beatrice Cooper, who was born in Hendon, North London, in 1921: recalling her earliest visit to the cinema as a five-year-old, Mrs Cooper tells the interviewer that she was accompanied by the family’s maid. The film they saw together in a cinema in Kentish Town was Seventh Heaven (1927).

Having studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in her teens Mrs Cooper was exceptionally au fait with the prewar worlds of British stage and screen, and one of the many film personalities referred to in the course of her two interviews is Stephen Haggard. This name was new to me. It turns out that, besides being a descendant of the nineteenth-century novelist H. Rider Haggard, Stephen Haggard founded a theatrical dynasty. Boat Story’s Daisy Haggard, daughter of television, film and stage director Piers Haggard,[1] is his granddaughter.

“I was fascinated by Stephen Haggard”, declares Mrs Cooper; and the memories of the actor that she shares are certainly intriguing. She recalls autograph hunting as a young woman growing up in North London in the late 1930s:

Beatrice Cooper: Erm, because at that time, I used to go very often. And eh, yes, erm, then, I was a real theatre, filmgoer. I used to go a lot to the Golders Green Hippodrome […]. And I used to wait outside the stage door and get their autographs. I’ve still got that actually–

Interviewer: Mhm.

BC: A book with all their autographs. And a wonderful actor called Stephen Haggard. Now he was in a play by Shaw, ‘Candida’. This was just before the war. This must’ve been 1938. And he had been in several films, but he was mainly a stage actor.[2]

In her second interview Mrs Cooper shows the interviewer her autograph book and alludes to this encounter again:

BC: Erm, [I] met him outside the Hippodrome. […] I was with my sister. And she had already seen eh, the play with Diana Wynyard and the one that we saw at the Hippodrome was with him and Ann Harding. And she said that she’d seen the previous one with Diana Wynyard. And he said, “Well who did you prefer?” And she said, “I think I prefer Ann Harding.” And he said, “Oh well, you obviously have a knowledge of the fundamentals.”

Int: Aw!

BC: And she was very chuffed by that–

Int: [laughs]

BC: And off he went in his little car.[3]

The Golders Green Hippodrome

A compelling instance of memory-talk, with Stephen Haggard at its centre, unfolds around this recollection. Several versions of the story, and of the associations attaching to it, recur across Mrs Cooper’s interviews. As Mrs Cooper tells it (“It was very strange, actually”),

BC: I read a book about [the artist] Chagall and discovered that Chagall had a mistress for seven years. And had a child by this lovely woman. And then when I read the book, there was a photograph in there of Stephen Haggard. Well of course, she had written the book and her name was Virginia Haggard. But I didn’t connect the two. […] But going with that photograph that was in there I realised that she was his sister. And erm, I wrote to her and eh, and we had quite a correspondence. Because I was fascinated by Stephen Haggard.[4]

BC: I erm, you know, I was in touch with his sister because his sister lived with Chagall for seven years. And erm–she wrote a book. About those seven years. […] About her life with Chagall. And reading it and looking in the book. It was a second-hand book. I saw a photograph of this Stephen Haggard who was her brother. And erm, I was so amazed by this, I wrote to her and I told her my memories of having met him, outside the Hippodrome.[5]

S. Haggard 1935.

Stephen Haggard c.1935, from ‘My Life With Chagall’

Stephen Haggard (centre) as Mozart in ‘Whom the Gods Love’ (1936)

In literary theory, a distinction is made between story time (the timeframe of narrated events) and plot time (the duration of the telling). Mrs Cooper’s story about Stephen Haggard spans the period from the late 1930s, when she sees him in a play and gets his autograph, to the occasion of coming upon a book written by his sister and entering into correspondence with her. Since the book in question was published in 1987, Mrs Cooper would have made the discovery only a few years before she was interviewed for CCINTB in 1995. While the story spans five decades, then, its telling condenses these years into a couple of (albeit repeated) sentences, bringing together the teenage fan of the distant past and the septuagenarian interviewee of the moment of recollection. But it is a bittersweet moment, for the pleasures of reliving a youthful encounter with the actor and of sharing the remembered experience with someone close to him mingle with a memory of tragedy and a lament for what might  have been:

BC: I was fascinated by Stephen Haggard. If he had, unfortunately, he was killed during the war. […] If he had lived, he would have been an absolutely brilliant actor. I remember his performance in ‘Candida’. And eh, meeting him afterwards. Eh, at the stage door. And, he was shot during the war.[6]

 BC: And off he went in his little car. And then I think, shortly after that, he joined the army. Well! He didn’t actually. He worked in Bush House as erm, broadcaster to Germany. […] It’s a whole sad history actually. He was murdered eventually. During the war.[7]

BC: I saw him in a play at Golders Green Hippodrome. It was a Shaw play and eh, he was absolutely brilliant. Did I tell you about it?

Int: You did. You mentioned him. Yes. […]

BC: And eh, he was killed in the war. He was murdered actually. Erm, which is very tragic because I think he was just, well…. [8]

Mrs Cooper’s thrice-told tale of an actor’s death is brief in relating its salient details. It is clearly and consistently narrated. It was wartime; he was shot; he was killed; he was murdered. Considered against the ways a soldier might typically lose his life in wartime, Stephen Haggard’s fate comes across as exceptional, not only because of the tragic nature of the event itself but also in its stark and dramatic mode of telling. What happened?


An archival quest beckons, the obvious starting point being the man’s war service details in the public records. A certain amount of delving in the UK National Archives (TNA) can be done remotely, but while the collection catalogue can be searched online from home, the records themselves are largely undigitised. There is indeed a file on Stephen Haggard’s wartime service. It is in the personnel records of the Special Operations Executive, and an in-person visit to TNA in Kew, West London, is required in order to view its contents.[9] But this is the Summer of 2020: a global pandemic is in progress and there is no vaccine. Nobody is going anywhere if they can help it. And so it was not until the following April that I was emboldened to make the journey to Kew from my base in the North of England.

The TNA catalogue entry indicates that the contents of Stephen Haggard’s file cover the years between 1939 and 1946, but most of the documents I find in it are dated 1942 or 1943. The record shows that in June 1940 Haggard joined the ranks of the Devonshire Regiment and in October that year moved to the Intelligence Corps, where he was quickly promoted to Captain and seconded to the BBC where he remained until April 1942, working as Programme Assistant, German Forces Programme (Haggard was a fluent German speaker) and being paid by the BBC for the last twelve months of his service there. In May 1842 he asked to join the Middle East and Balkan Mission. “He is to fulfil the duties of The Director of Programmes, SOE European Station”.[10] The SOE functioned during World War 2 to promote sabotage and subversion and assist resistance groups in enemy-occupied territory.

Other sources indicate that he was initially based in Jerusalem for a few months before being transferred to the Department of Political Warfare (PWE) in Cairo just before Christmas 1942,[11] and that in early February 1943 he was transferred to the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, “which has a branch organisation in the Middle East.”[12] Captain Haggard was clearly doing a lot of travelling around Egypt and Palestine in these months, though his duties and activities are not detailed in his personnel file.

In March 1943 an exchange of letters took place between his offices in Jerusalem and Cairo and the War Office Casualty section in Liverpool. The events leading up to his death are set out in a letter from his Commanding Officer in Jerusalem (“I was Haggard’s O.C. from October to the end of December when he moved to P.W.E. in Cairo”) dated 7 March and marked “MOST SECRET”:

“I think I was the last person to see Captain Haggard before he left Jerusalem, since he left my house in my car and went direct to the station.

“He had lunch with me before going off to the train and was in a perfectly cheerful frame of mind, although he said how extremely tired he was.”[13]

It was on this train–taking him from Jerusalem back to Cairo–that Stephen Haggard met his death on 25 February. A telegram from Cairo dated 27 February states that he committed suicide, though “court of enquiry not yet held.” Correspondence over the ensuing two months alludes repeatedly to the court of inquiry, with some impatience expressed by the War Office (“On the 21st March we again cabled Middle East requesting them to expedite a reply to our enquiry of the 8th March, but have to date received no reply.”[14]) No official verdict is on record in the file, though, its final reference to the matter being a note dated 19 May to the effect that nothing had been made known in Cairo but that the PWE in London knew what the court of enquiry’s findings were. Other documents in the file suggest that there was some confusion over which department Captain Haggard was attached to at the time of his death (and therefore who was paying him and who was responsible for his pension), and also that the Political Intelligence Department was unaware that he had been transferred to them.[15]

And so the manner of Stephen Haggard’s death—murder. assassination or suicide—seems to have remained uncertain in the muddle of war and in buck-passing and mix-up among the various agencies involved, most of which had a stake in secrecy and/or, more mundanely, in saving money.


Those who were closest to him differ in their conclusions, some accepting that the truth will never be known. Writing just a few years after his friend’s death, Christopher Hassall sets out a detailed account of Haggard’s last visit to Jerusalem. About events on the train back to Cairo Hassall concludes:

He stepped into the corridor. And there, shortly after, he fell. […] No-one came forward as an eye-witness, and therefore such evidence as there was must leave the manner of his death unproven.

He adds, however:

There was certainly motive enough to incite an agent of the German minority to the risk of removing one whose advocacy of the Allied cause was daily becoming better known.[16]

No further third-party accounts appear until the 1980s, by which time the verdict of suicide had become accepted in some quarters. In her 1989 memoir Cairo in the War, Artemis Cooper observes that while it is a work of fiction Olivia Manning’s recently published  The Levant Trilogy (about a newly-married English couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, who are caught up in the war in the Middle East) is broadly based on its author’s wartime experiences. Among the novels’ characters and the real-life individuals on which they are based Artemis Cooper names Stephen Haggard:

Olivia Manning recorded a curious death which actually happened. The figure of Aidan Pratt is based on a real life actor called Stephen Haggard. Before the war he had been hailed as one of the most handsome and promising classical actors of his generation. […] Stephen Haggard shot himself in the corridor of a train travelling between Jerusalem and Cairo, in February 1943.[17]

However, in My Life With Chagall, the 1987 memoir Beatrice Cooper refers to in both of her interviews, Stephen Haggard’s sister Virginia suggests otherwise: “He had been sent to the Middle East in the intelligence service and was killed there in 1943.”[18] Beatrice Cooper’s choice of words (shot, killed, murdered) suggests that she takes a similar view. In a second memoir, completed by family members and published in 2009, three years after her death, Virginia Haggard elaborates on her brother’s wartime service in the Middle East, alluding to the “heavy and responsible work in Cairo” with which he was tasked at the end of 1942: “A few weeks later came the dreadful news: Stephen had been shot in the train that was taking him from Cairo to Jerusalem [sic].”[19]

According to Virginia Haggard, his widow believed that he had committed suicide: along with reports of a stressful workload there were rumours of an unhappy love affair. She adds that his parents, “who should be left to believe what they wish” … “are convinced that he was killed by the enemy but the official verdict is suicide.”[20]. Oddly, the suicide verdict is foreshadowed in March 1943 in a note from Cairo in Stephen Haggard’s TNA file, which states that the findings of the court of inquiry were not yet known, but suggests that the outcome has been unofficially decided: “Understand finding will be that he ‘took his life under strong provocation in moment of mental aberration’.”[21] This is the version currently given in most potted biographies of Stephen Haggard.


As already noted, the precise nature of Stephen Haggard’s job in the Political Warfare Department is not detailed in his TNA file. As an intelligence officer with a background in broadcasting and with the job title of Director of Programmes , it can be assumed that he continued in this line of work; and on the subject of broadcasting there is an intriguing passage in The Levant Trilogy. While travelling in Palestine, Harriet Pringle comes across a Cairo acquaintance called Lister who is on his way to Jerusalem on a “hush-hush” mission: “Everyone knows about it, of course. Everyone knows everything here.”

The other day I got into a taxi and said to the driver: “Take me to the broadcasting station.” “What you want, sah?” he asked. “You want PBS [Palestine Broadcasting Service] or want Secret Broadcasting Station?” I said: “How d’you know there’s a secret broadcasting station?” and the fellow roared with laughter: “Oh, sah, everyone know secret broadcasting station.”[22]

Harriet proceeds to Jerusalem with Lister, but eventually decides that she must return to Cairo. Seeing her off on the train, Lister says:

“I’m afraid I’ve bad news for you, Harriet. Your friend Aidan Pratt has been shot.’

‘But not dead?’

‘Well, yes. It was on the train coming back from Cairo. In the corridor.’

‘Who would shoot him? He had no enemies.’

‘No, no enemies. He shot himself’.”[23]


Real-life events and fiction collide in CCINTB interviewee Beatrice Cooper’s account, too:

BC: And really, his life would make the most marvellous film. And his sister’s still alive. And I contemplated contacting her and suggesting it. Make a wonderful, wonderful film. I’ve already cast the main actor [..]. Erm, whose name I can’t think of. Erm, yes. Erm, Emma, Emma Thompson’s husband. What’s his name?

Int: Ah! Yes, erm, Kenneth Branagh.

BC: Kenneth Branagh.

Int: Yeah

BC: He’d be a marvellous star for the part.[24]

In 1987, BBC Television broadcast Fortunes of War, an award-winning serial dramatization of Olivia Manning’s cycle of six novels—The Balkan Trilogy as well as The Levant Trilogy. The protagonists, Guy and Harriet Pringle, are played by Kenneth Branagh, then aged 26, and Emma Thompson. The talented and glamorous couple famously met whilst filming the series and married two years later. In 1995, naming Branagh to star in a biopic about Stephen Haggard, Mrs Cooper surely has Fortunes of War at the back of her mind. In it, Aidan Pratt, the fictional character said to be based on Stephen Haggard, is played by Greg Hicks. Who might be cast today in the film that Beatrice Cooper envisions?


In memory of Karen Vibeke Jorgensen, 1947-2022

Beatrice Cooper’s interviews can be accessed in both audio and transcript via links on her home page on the CMDA website. All Cinema Memory Archive (CMA) items referred to may be consulted in both physical and digital form in the CMA at Lancaster University, by appointment with Special Collections

If you wish to cite and/or re-use any of CMA materials, please consult  the CMDA website for information on copyright and using the materials from the collection and for a citation referencing guide.

[1] Ryan Gilbey, Piers Haggard obituary, Guardian 30 January 2023: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2023/jan/30/piers-haggard-obituary [accessed 17 March 2024].

[2] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow, 20 July 1995. BC-95-208AT001. Cinema Memory Archive. Stephen Haggard’s feature film credits are Whom the Gods Love (Basil Dean, 1936), Knight Without Armour (Jacques Feyder, 1937), Jamaica Inn (Alfed Hitchcock, 1939) and The Young Mr Pitt (Carol Reed, 1942).

[3] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow, 27 November 1995. BC-95-208AT002. Cinema Memory Archive.

[4] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow, 20 July 1995. The book in question is Virginia Haggard, My Life with Chagall: Seven Years of Plenty. London: Robert Hale, 1987.

[5] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow 27 November 1995.

[6] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow, 20 July 1995.

[7] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow 27 November 1995.

[8] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow 27 November 1995.

[9] TNA, Special Operations Executive Personnel Files (PF Series), HS9/643/4, Stephen Hubert Avenal Haggard — born 21.03.1911.

[10] TNA-SOE HS9/643/4, note dated 26 May 1942.

[11] Christopher Hassall, The Timeless Quest: Stephen Haggard. London Arthur Barker Ltd, [1948]: 208-211; Virginia Haggard, Lifeline. Milton Keynes: AuthorHouse, 2009: 98, 100; Haggard, My Life with Chagall: 46.

[12] TNA-SOE HS9/643/4, telegraph from Cairo, 4 March 1943.

[13] TNA-SOE HS9/643/4, letter from G.S.I.K. Jerusalem, 7 March 1943; corroborated by Hassall, The Timeless Quest: 217.

[14] TNA-SOE HS9/643/4, letter from War Office Casualty Branch Liverpool to War Office Whitehall, 9 April 1943.

[15] TNA-SOE HS9/643/4, letter dated 8 July 1943.

[16] Hassall, The Timeless Quest: 218.

[17] Artemis Cooper, Cairo in the War: 1939-1945. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989: 159-160. Aidan Pratt’s death takes place in the third volume of The Levant Trilogy, ‘The Sum of Things’, which was first published in 1980.

[18] Haggard, My Life with Chagall: 40

[19] Haggard, Lifeline: 101, 102.

[20] Haggard, Lifeline: 102.

[21] TNA-SOE HS9/643/4, 25 March 1943.

[22] Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. London: Penguin, 1982: 502.

[23] The Levant Trilogy: 532.

[24] Beatrice Cooper, Harrow, 20 July 1995.

The Composed and the Heartfelt

Annette Kuhn presents some written memory work creations

Last September’s blog, ‘Chroniclers of Picturegoing’,  surveyed a number of personal documents held in the Cinema Memory Archive—records of cinema visits and listings of films seen by Cinema Culture in 1930s Britain (CCINTB) participants. Many of these had been made at, or very close to, the time the visits took place; some had been compiled after the 1930s; while others were put together in the 1990s in direct response to calls for participants in the CCINTB project.

Each of these records is shaped by the writer’s conception of its purpose and intended readership. For example, a simple list of films seen might have been compiled initially as an aide-memoire for the writer or purely for the joy of list-making; or it might include comment, explanation or exposition addressed to the writer’s peers, family members, descendants—or to posterity. Accounts of cinema visits written at some distance in time from the events recorded may embody an element of hindsight, looking back or reflection on the writer’s part: these, by definition, are in some way or other productions of memory.[1]

CCINTB participants’ written ‘memory work creations’ take the form of essays, published and unpublished articles and long-form, essay-style, letters. None of these were actively solicited from participants. Many arrived in the CCINTB office in response to press and radio calls for 1930s cinemagoers to make themselves known to the project. Others were elaborations on responses to CCINTB’s 1995 postal questionnaire survey: along with their completed forms many respondents enclosed detailed recollections of and thoughts on their youthful cinemagoing. A number of written memory work creations were donated by CCINTB interviewees.

Produced by men and women living in various parts of Britain and representing a range of social backgrounds, life experiences and relationships with films and cinema (“ordinary” cinemagoers, film-lovers, avid fans of particular stars, people with personal connections with the film industry), these writings vary in style and content. At the same time, they share some common features of tone and address, ranging from carefully constructed and expressed ‘writerly’ accounts to enthusiastic and spontaneously expressed reminiscences–from the ‘composed’, that is, to the ‘heartfelt’.

The ‘composed’ writings incorporate a variety of themes, styles and intended or implied readerships. Some are memoirs of the writer’s cinemagoing life, taking the form of ‘motion picture autobiographies’ written perhaps for their own satisfaction or prompted by a CCINTB call for contact from 1930s cinemagoers. These typically open with an account of the writer’s first remembered trip to the pictures and then trace his or her cinemagoing activities through subsequent years. There are also a number of essays on films and cinemagoing in the 1930s that are framed to some extent as witness accounts and also presented in terms of their social-historical contexts. These ‘community histories’ are writings of a kind that might be produced in reminiscence groups, say, or writing workshops. CCINTB participants’ motion picture autobiographies and community histories frequently mix autobiography and history.[2]

‘Composed’ stories about film location shoots witnessed by the writer as a bystander make for lively reading; while ‘insider’ recollections by participants who had worked in cinemas or experienced other personal connections with the film business might convey the quality of the ‘oft-told tales’ that are typically conveyed orally: their spoken-word quality reaches out to the reader, sometimes in a ‘heartfelt’ manner. The most unambiguously—and movingly–heartfelt expressions, though, take the form of letters penned in spontaneous and enthusiastic response to CCINTB’s media calls. Seizing the opportunity to relive youthful pleasures, these participants express delight that the memories they treasure might be of interest to others.

1.‘Motion picture autobiographies’: Mick Mitchell, Raymond Aspden, John Ford and G.W.  Pleasance

In his 1948 study of cinema audiences in Britain, the German-British sociologist J.P. Mayer adopted a method of empirical inquiry into film audiences that had been developed in the influential Payne Fund Studies conducted in the USA in the 1930s: the motion picture autobiography.[3] Seeking to gather data on the place of films in British cinemagoers’ lives, in 1940 Mayer asked readers of the popular weekly film magazine, ‘The Picturegoer’, to write to him about how they first became interested in films, who they went to the cinema with and their film preferences at different ages.

Mayer’s informants were overwhelmingly young, members of a generation who, like CCINTB’s participants, grew up with cinema in the 1930s. Their motion picture autobiographies are consequently composed ‘on the pulse’ rather than from the standpoint of older people looking back on their youthful picturegoing from a distance of several decades. Moreover, Mayer’s informants were given instructions on how to compose their motion picture autobiographies; CCINTB participants were not prompted at all. However, while the CCINTB memoirists appear to have adopted the motion picture autobiography approach more or less instinctively, none of them record a lifetime of cinemagoing–perhaps due to the project’s declared interest in the 1930s. More significantly in terms of the operation of memory,however, it undoubtedly also reflects the fact that most of the CCINTB participants had given up regular cinemagoing on reaching milestones of the life course such as marriage or starting a family–events that for many of them coincided with the nationwide decline in the cinemagoing habit and the widespread cinema closures that took place from the 1950s.

That said, though, the memoirs of Mayer’s informants and of CCINTB participants are alike in some respects, most notably in their opening gambits:

My first introduction to films was at the age of seven, when my parents […] decided that I was big enough to go with them [and] took me about once a fortnight to one of the local cinemas. (Male, age 21, occupation audit clerk/soldier) [4]

I was probably about seven years old when my cousin Gordon took me to the Children’s Matinee for the first time at the Coliseum. (Mick Mitchell)

The second quote is from an essay entitled ‘Some Recollections of Cinemagoing’, which was composed expressly for CCINTB in 1995, at around the time the writer was interviewed for the project. Its author, Mick Mitchell, was born in Liverpool in 1926 and his motion picture autobiography covers the period between the early 1930s and the late 1940s—from his childhood until his early twenties [PM-95-024PW001]. It includes notes on cinemas frequented and films seen in his home city and when away from home on family holidays. Mr Mitchell also mentions his cinema visits as an evacuee in North Wales at the start of World War 2 and describes his first job on leaving school (packing and delivering film reels for a distribution company). He looks back on film screenings he attended while on military service in Egypt and Greece after the war:

During my nine-month stay [in Macedonia] we had two or three visits from the Army Kinema Corps (AKC). Our camp had no suitable building for the showing of films, so the projector was set up on an earthen bank and aimed at a whitewashed wall. On one occasion we were shown a boring film and our attention was distracted by the sight and sound of gunfire, some five or six miles to the west, where the Communists and the Royalists were shelling each other. We had a certain regard for the AKC. The projectionist, usually a one-man band, would appear at a camp, having travelled alone in a pickup truck, with a projector and films.


In Summer 1995, Raymond Aspden (born in 1923 in Blackburn, Lancashire) saw a newspaper article about CCINTB and responded by composing a long, essay-style, letter setting out his recollections of cinemagoing during the 1930s, “from the viewpoint of a young boy to a young teenager” [RA-95-232PL001]. Launching into his account in classic motion picture autobiography style, he writes:

My first recollection of the cinema was being taken to see All Quiet on the Western Front, which stayed vividly in my memory, especially the scene at the end where the young soldier strays above the trench to catch a butterfly and is shot by a sniper.

He goes on to name local cinemas, mentioning memorable films and stars, describing boyhood ruses for getting in without paying–and alluding to the joys and hazards of continuous programming:

Starting at two o’clock and continuing till late evening. I enjoyed Lives of a Bengal Lancer so much that I sat through it twice. My mother going berserk when I got home wondering where I could be.


In February 1995 John Ford (born in Bristol in 1923) saw an announcement about CCINTB in a monthly newspaper for pensioners, and in response composed a four-page typed essay entitled ‘Going to the Pictures in the Nineteen Thirties’ [JF-95-141PL001]. Mr Ford’s motion picture autobiography covers his main period of cinemagoing, which he frames as coinciding exactly with the decade. His account follows his family’s several house moves during the thirties, with details of cinemas and cinema visits in each new location, along with some lively recollections of films and stars:

In 1936 the family moved to Watford, a hybrid dormitory/industrial town fifteen miles northwest of London. As far as cinemagoing was concerned I could hardly believe my luck, Watford boasted six cinemas. The Plaza (later Odeon), the Gaumont Palace, the Charlton, the Regal, the (fleapit) Coliseum (later New Plaza) and North Watford Odeon [where] I saw my first full-length colour film, Annabella (whoever she was) in Wings of the Morning, a sentimental weepie about a racehorse which gave its name to the film title.


In August 1995 G.W. Pleasance of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk contacted CCINTB in response to an article about the project in a regional newspaper, and later that year took part in our postal questionnaire survey [GP-95-289GQ001]. In addition to completing the questionnaire he composed and typed a six-page essay [GP-95-289PW001].

Born in 1922, Mr Pleasance grew up in Shepherds Bush, west London; and his motion picture autobiography covers the period between around 1930 and 1950. While he vaguely remembers being taken to the cinema at the age of about four, the real beginning of his interest in filmgoing, he says, came a few years later:

The first all talking film I can remember seeing was Atlantic (1929), a German/British production of the Titanic disaster, it was showing at the New Park Cinema, Shepherds Bush.

The memoir continues with mentions of other local cinemas that he attended as a boy, along with recollections of one or two particularly memorable films.

Much of Mr Pleasance’s motion picture autobiography is coloured by the fact that soon after leaving school he found work as a film projectionist, which was “as near as I could get to my great interest in the film industry.” Recollecting this phase of his life, he adopts the engaged observational tone of a writer with both inside knowledge of the cinema exhibition scene in his area and, injecting history into biography, a keen awareness of wider trends in films and cinemagoing:

Many cinemas had theatre organs installed and included an interlude by a resident organist, another innovation was ‘cine variety’ with a stage show by popular artists of the day. The introduction of the afternoon matinee and the admission price reduced to sixpence was most popular with the housewives, as were the tea matinees when a tray of tea could be served to them in their seat during an interval.


By the late thirties the more sophisticated musicals appeared featuring many favourites of that era, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Irene Dunne, Grace Moore, Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin to name but a few. Any film starring these artists was sure to be an attraction. Other great partnerships were brought to the screen, the great Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire musicals, a dance couple whose performances have never been equalled let alone surpassed. The child wonder of the age Shirley Temple could pack any cinema that showed her films.

  1. Community histories: Walter McCulloch, Ray Rochford and Lewis Howells

In May 1995, CCINTB visited the Harpurhey Local History Group in Greater Manchester , where one of the members gave an interview. The ‘Now and Then’ Group had been sharing recollections of daily life in their community for some time, and in 1993 produced Collyhurst Recollections, a collectively written booklet comprising short articles about various aspects of local life in past times.

Among the contributions is a piece by group member Walter McCulloch (born 1921) on leisure and entertainment in Collyhurst, an inner-city area of Manchester [EC-95-18AR002]. Illustrated with sketches, Mr McCulloch’s article describes local cinemas, adding little stories about some of them:

I have not forgotten one more miracle of the age of entertainment, the cinema, the pictures, the talkies, or whatever name it enjoyed in its progress. […] “The New Century Hall” […] was a long narrow type of building with a corrugated tin roof, all right in its infancy when it was all silent films, but what a catastrophe when talkies came in. If it rained heavily or hailstoned, the noise on that tin roof simply drowned everything out.

A page from Walter McCulloch’s contribution to Collyhurst Recollections [EC-95-182AR002]


In February 1995, in response to a press announcement about the project, Ray Rochford of Salford, Greater Manchester (born 1925) sent a long letter to CCINTB which opens, without preamble: “I was born and bred in the largest concentration of slums in Europe, namely, ‘Hankey Park’, once written about by Love on the Dole author Walter Greenwood…” [RR-95-35PL001].

In it he describes the cinemas of the neighbourhood where he grew up, painting a picture of cheap entertainments enjoyed in the face of poverty and deprivation. His ‘composed’ account, written from a working-class standpoint and adopting an attitude of social observation, community history style, mixes history and biography:

Irrespective of whatever was showing at their local cinema they would dutifully trudge up the lane to watch whatever was on. They wouldn’t even contemplate going to another cinema just a few streets away. That, to them, would be utterly disloyal. Besides that, if the film was lousy they could have a good gossip and natter. When they built the Broadway in 1933 it was the first modern cinema to be erected in Salford. It certainly was an imposing edifice of mock marble with Corinthian columns either side of the imposing entrance. I vividly remember when Noel Coward’s Cavalcade was featured they had two ex-servicemen dressed in full guardsman’s uniforms including busby and wooden sentry boxes, marching up and down stamping their feet, presenting arms, the full Monty: all for five bob a night in the pouring rain, poor sods.


When I first attended the cinema around about 1929, some films were half-silent, half-talkies. I can only assume that talkies must have come out half way through making a silent film? Most of the elderly people in [Salford] couldn’t read or write, so when they went to the cinema they would take along a young grandson or granddaughter so that the child could read out the captions that came up during the film. […] I once was asked by old Tom McKenna if I’d go to the cinema with him to see one of these “half and halfs” as we then called them. […] Halfway through [the] film my throat was getting very sore because I was practically shouting at the top of my voice. I was greatly relieved to be slung out onto the cobble stones for spoiling the entertainment of all the other patrons.


In February 1995, responding to a CCINTB announcement in a monthly newspaper for pensioners, Lewis Howells (born in Blaenavon, South Wales in 1922) wrote to CCINTB, declaring a particular interest in the work of the project: “Several years ago I helped a local amateur publishing group with gathering nostalgic material about the way people used to live” [LH-95-100PL001]. Along with his letter was enclosed a neatly handwritten ten-page essay entitled ‘Cinema in the Town of Blaenavon, Gwent in 1930s’ [LH-95-100PW001], which opens with a community history style description of the local cinemagoing scene, complete with details of each cinema–the building, its management, its programming:

My hometown of Blaenavon had a population of approx. 10,000 in the 1930s and cinema entertainment existed at two cinemas. One of these had quite a spacious auditorium as it served as a theatre and concert venue. This was part of the building known as the Workmen’s Institute (or Hall), and really could accommodate large audiences.


The other cinema in the town, ‘The Coliseum’, was privately owned, and seemed to have access to quite a different exhibition circuit network, often netting the pictures (films) with greater box-office appeal than those showing at the other cinema. This was quite an anomaly since, being really only a small cinema, it hadn’t the capacity to take full advantage of films’ popularity.

Mr Howells then turns to more personal reminiscences, recalling occasions when he and his friends indulged in disruptive pranks at the pictures, risking “creating [a] disturbance and being ejected, banned even”. He writes about a memorable occasion when he went to the cinema with his coal miner father, who was recovering from a work accident at the time, to see a Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald film:

After his discharge from hospital he spent considerable time on crutches, and ardently following the renowned singing duo on screen he pressed me, the only other male in the house, to go with him to the Coliseum as his ‘minder’, to help him up and down the staircases and to try to guide other cinemagoers away from his broken leg and the crutches.

3.On Location: Barbara Goulter and David Moore

Though relatively few in number, ‘composed’ stories about film location shoots witnessed by CCINTB informants make for amusing reading, the events documented coming across as noteworthy because they were beyond the writer’s everyday experience—as well as being recalled as slightly ridiculous.

In February 1995, Barbara Goulter (born in Southsea in 1917) wrote to CCINTB in response to an article in a monthly newspaper for pensioners, enclosing a piece she had written some years earlier that had been submitted to, but rejected by, her local newspaper [BG-95-078PW001].  It consists of an archly written account of a week-long film shoot that took place in the early 1930s on the beach at the seaside town of Lee-on-Solent: “Most of Lee had opted out of its usual occupations to sit on the sea wall and watch the goings-on.” The film, featuring Laurence Olivier and Gloria Swanson, is Perfect Understanding (dir Cyril Gardner, 1933):

Olivier must have found it cold enough, and boring, when he spent a whole morning on one scene that involved merely swimming out to a moored boat, climbing in and starting the outboard. Of course, with this accident-prone unit nothing was that simple and it was cut and retake over and over again.


Former Naval officer David Moore’s (born in Hampshire in 1917) annotated list of some of the films he saw in the 1930s [DM-92-034MI001] is discussed in the September 2022 blog. The Cinema Memory Archive also holds an essay that he wrote during his retirement, recollecting his involvement in the production of a fiction film that featured the Royal Navy’s submarine service (Morning Departure, dir Roy Ward Baker, 1950): “I was given the job of liaising with the film company […] to advise them on naval customs and to provide any assistance with [my] ship’s company, plus a submarine crew” [DM-92-034PW002]. The essay offers a lively account, from an outsider’s perspective, into the filmmaking process, the filmmakers and the stars:

The […] departure of the submarine from alongside the ship was quite amusing. John Mills and Nigel Patrick stood up in the conning tower and gave the orders for casting off and leaving. But the real Captain and First Lieutenant were crouching down out of sight behind the bulwarks. When John Mills gave the order “Half Ahead” and the boat actually began to move, I fancied I saw a flicker of amazement cross his features as if to say, “My God, she really is moving!” Then when the submarine had run clear of the depot ship’s bows, up jumped the real captain and No. 1 and took charge, brought the boat back alongside. Certainly we had to do this shot several times before Roy Baker was satisfied.

  1. Insider stories: Helen Gilmour and Zonia Ives

Helen Gilmour (born in 1922 in Ayr in the west of Scotland) contacted CCINTB in 1992 in response to an item about the project that she had heard on her local radio station. This began a correspondence that continued over eight years, in the course of which Ms Gilmour sent two essays on aspects of her lifetime involvement with cinema, both as a keen cinemagoer and as the daughter of the manager of a number of cinemas in and around the town of Ayr. A covering letter suggests that the essays were produced in a writers’ group and that they might have been intended for publication.

‘Nostalgia’, dated March 1987 [HG-92-025PW001], celebrates two unnamed cinemas in her neighbourhood: “How nice it is to recall these happy days when the Cinema was a place of escape from the realities of the workaday world.”  ‘”Q” Here’, written in March 1992 [HG-92-025PW002], is a community history style account which names a number of local cinemas, adding little stories about each of them. The author notes that by 1938 Ayr boasted as many as six cinemas. Her father was Managing Director of one of them, the Ritz.

My Father negotiated the ‘booking’ of his feature films and supporting programmes and it was not uncommon to screen three programme changes each week. There were special weeks featuring Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy films which always attracted packed houses.


In the Summer of 1995, Zonia Ives (born in 1926 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk) contacted CCINTB in response to an article about the project in the ‘Great Yarmouth Mercury’, her local newspaper. In a long letter [ZI-95-272PL002], she notes that her father owned and managed the Plaza Cinema in Yarmouth, “known as the local flea pit”, one of the benefits of having a showman father being that throughout her childhood she never had to pay to enter any cinema. Later in 1995, Mrs Ives took part in CCINTB’s postal questionnaire survey, and with her completed form enclosed a letter containing further details about her family and their showbiz connections, alongside memories of her father’s generosity and showmanship:

My dad and mum were music hall artistes, when variety began to die out a few artistes took cinemas all over the place. My brother started his musical career in Glasgow […] with Teddy Joyce and his 25 Kiltie Juniors.


My dad let the unemployed in the matinee for 3d. […] He would say it’s better to have a full house at 3d than an empty one at 9d [ZI-95-272PL001].

The story of the threepenny matinee for the unemployed figures in both Mrs Ives’s letters, as does another evidently oft-told tale of inexpensive treats and charity: the children’s Saturday matinee, when

The kiddies brought a 1d and a potato, they put potato’s in a sack by the cashier and these went to the local hospital which as there was no National Health Service was greatly appreciated [ZI-95-272PL001].

Zonia Ives relives happy memories [ZI-95-272PL002]

  1. Heartfelt memories: Zonia Ives and Doris English

In both her letters Zonia Ives expresses earnest gratitude for being given the opportunity to recall happy times:

You don’t know the good you did for me when I opened my ‘Mercury’, so I must start by saying a very big thank you! [ZI-95-272PL002]

Thank you so very much for making me think and realize what a wonderful life I’ve had. [ZI-95-272PL001]


In May 1995 Doris English of Cambridgeshire (born in 1916 in Birmingham) saw a press announcement about CCINTB and responded swiftly and enthusiastically:

I have always been keen to write about my teenage years of cinema. […] Now I am having my young days brought back to me by old films on TV. You can imagine the pleasure it brings me. I am 79 live alone but the years roll by and I am in my teens again. [DE-95-319PL002]

Later in the year Mrs English took part in CCINTB’s postal questionnaire survey, enclosing another letter with her completed form:

I was very pleased to help in answering all your questions you brought back many happy memories. […] PS It is nice to think that at my age 79 I am in some use to people like you. [DE-95-319PL001]

Hearing this is rewarding for researchers, too.

Other relevant CMA assets include:

MY-92-001PW001           Margaret Young                Glasgow

MM- 92-008AR001          Mary McCusker                 Glasgow

TM-95-009PW002           Thomas McGoran            Glasgow

LP-95-028PL001              Len Price                             Walsall

MP95-029PL001               Mary Pook                         Epsom

LS-95-033PW001             Les Sutton                        Ardwick

MS-95-065PL001             Mark Sandoz                     Birmingham

95-067PW001                 E. Kendrick                           Cardiff

AC-95-071PL001              Arthur Chaney                   Great Yarmouth

WW-95-083PL001           William Ward                      Manchester

MD-95-097PL001             M. de la Bertauche           Cheam

MH-95-111PL001            Margaret Houlgate            Croydon

JF-95-153PL001               John Fowler                       Glasgow

DR-95-169PW001            Douglas Rendell                 Sale

EW-95-276PL001             Eric Williams                        Great Yarmouth

Digitised versions of some of the items referred to in this blog can be accessed via the CMDA website. All Cinema Memory Archive (CMA) items referred to may be consulted in both physical and digital form in the CMA at Lancaster University, by appointment with Special Collections. 

If you wish to cite and/or re-use any of these materials, please consult  the CMDA website for information on copyright and using the materials from the collection and for a citation referencing guide

[1] The issue of memory in relation to CCINTB is discussed in Annette Kuhn, Exploring Cinema Memory. Edinburgh: Argyll Publishing, 2023: Chapter 1.

[2] Relatedly, Alessandro Portelli makes a distinction between testimony and narrative in ‘Living voices: the oral history interview as dialogue and experience’, Oral History Review 45(2) 2018: 239-248.

[3] J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences:  Sociological Studies. London: Dennis Dobson Ltd, 1948; Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct. New York: MacMillan, 1933.

[4] Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: 53.