Back in the old silent days, there was often someone standing next to the screen when a film was being shown. And that person had a vital job to do. There were no standard ways of making a movie yet, or even of telling a story, and a trip to the cinema could be a confusing experience. So, audiences often welcomed a confident voice to put them right.
Film lecturers could be found all over Britain for two decades or more. They stood in the near-dark, sometimes for hours on end, introducing the actors, explaining the plot or the setting, and maybe telling a joke or two.
They could be found all over the world, in fact – from Turin to Tokyo. But nowhere had a bigger share of them than the North East of England.
Film lecturers in the North East
Will Power was the curious name of one lecturer in Sunderland. Patrons of the Wheatsheaf cinema, meanwhile, had the benefit of both Syd Clare and Herbert Callum. And the town’s lecturers also included John Hurley and James Burley.
Mr Burley could also be enjoyed in Wheatley Hill, at the Palace, which would eventually become the Royalty. He was firmly ensconced there, not only as the lecturer, but also as the manager.And it was much the same for many of these people – they often took on more than one role.
One of the North East’s first lecturers was a man named Sidney Codner. He had started out in London, playing the piano in variety theatres. He worked in Scotland as both a lecturer and a manager. But shortly after he arrived at the Central in North Shields, the place changed hands.
The new owner was Dixon Scott – the great-uncle of film directors Ridley and Tony Scott. He already owned the Kino in Jarrow, which would become the Regal and then the Crown. And he boasted that it was as “a klean, komfortable and kosy Korner”.
As befits someone connected to Blade Runner and Top Gun, Mr Scott was an intrepid man. He had travelled in the Middle East and worked in the Russian oilfields. And crucially, he liked to do his own lecturing.
No longer needed at the Central, Sid Codner was soon going off to the Great War. And then he was coming back again, with injuries that would keep him in hospital for eight months. He went back to Scotland after that and became a piano teacher.
War on film
As it did most, the war touched the lives of all these men.
Hay Hunter had been ensconced at the Central in Sunderland, the former home of Messrs Hurley and Burley. In just eight months, his son Leslie was decorated for gallantry and his son Harold was killed in action.
And it was in Sunderland, during the first winter of the war, that Peet Leslie gave his talk “Yarns from the Firing Line. He did so at the Picture House there, before doing it again, in Newcastle, but also in Manchester and West London.
Like Mr Leslie, many lecturers weren’t ensconced anywhere in particular, and instead spent their time going from one picture house to another.
When the cowboy film The Pendleton Roundup arrived in Sunderland, at the old Avenue cinema, it was quickly followed by the ‘real-life’ Montana Jim.
Harold Mitschke might have been the very first lecturer in the region. He was ensconced at Northern Pictures in West Hartlepool from at least 1910. That place, which stood on York Road, was originally the Oddfellows’ Hall, and it had only just become a full-time cinema when he arrived.
A jewel of a lecturer
Movies, though, were only one of his interests. Mr Mitschke was also a jeweller and watchmaker, and a tireless worker for charity. And he could talk about subjects as diverse as phrenology – about which he was sceptical – and the Mormons. It was, though, for his film lectures that he was best known.
He billed himself “The versatile exponent of Mirth, Mimicry, Pathos, Tragedy”. And a local newspaper said, “From grave to gay … Harold Mitschke runs through the whole elocutionary gamut without a jarring chord”.
It was in West Hartlepool that Harold encountered Clement Padden. Mr Padden was a theatre manager there, at the Palace first, and then at the Empire. And he too was a film lecturer, with a reputation that was beginning to spread far and wide.
“He has a natural gift for speaking,” another newspaper reported, “and gives a very clear and lucid interpretation of the various scenes depicted upon the screen”.
Clement’s career really took off after he swapped his bicycle for a motor car. Billing himself “England’s crack lecturer”, he travelled to North Shields as well as South Shields. And he went to the Pavilion in Ashington and the Playhouse cinema in Berwick.
The films Clement Padden talked about were the most controversial ones of the day.
They included The Sins of the Father and Traffic in Souls.
Where Are My Children? – which he talked about at the Pavilion in South Shields – starred Tyrone Power senior and was billed as “the greatest sensation of modern times”.
And once he had talked about A Victim of the Mormons, he would be billed as “The Man who Exposed the Mormons” for years to come.
It was at the Palace in West Hartlepool that Clement Padden lectured to Five Nights. This too was a controversial film.
It starred Eve Balfour as the muse of a rich artist, who woos a Chinese girl in Alaska and kills a Chinese man in San Francisco. And despite this showing – and others in Newcastle, Darlington and South Shields – Five Nights would be banned in Bradford, Bath and Brighton.
The controversy won’t, however, have worried Clement one bit, for he was a very confident man. Before one visit to the Roker Theatre of Varieties in Sunderland, he placed an advertisement in the local newspaper.
“Huge audiences will sit spellbound by his intense personality and verbal witchery,” he wrote, of himself, “as cascades of truth flow from his mobile lips”.
Clement Padden carried on lecturing until the Talkies came, and after that, he built up a modest chain of his own. He had cinemas in Horden and Blackhall Colliery. In Easington Colliery, he had the Rialto on Seaside Lane, which would feature in Billy Elliot. And he would prove the most durable of the North East’s many colourful film lecturers.
David Hewitt’s new book – Gold, Violet, Black, Crimson, White – tells the full story of the Five Nights film, which shocked half, but only half, of the country.
The book is published by Matador, and David can be found on Twitter @historycalled