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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
This story is a nostalgic look at the British cinema industry from the 1960s to the big changes when cinema exhibition abandoned film and converted to digital in the years following 2010.
it follows the fortune of three characters, each of whom starts in the business during different eras and describes how they cope with an ever changing workplace.

Last Reels - 8. Moving Up



She didn’t get to see Alfie for nearly a week, due to days off and the different shift patterns.

Jimmy had called in sick, so until Darren came in at six she was the sole member of staff responsible for selling tickets and sweets and also directing the odd few customers to their respective screens. It wasn’t ideal – people could inadvertently wander into the wrong screens – but as it was just her and Mrs Thomas on duty there was no other way around it. Mrs Thomas never liked to be out of the office much. Today she had the perfect excuse as she had to figure out all the times for next week’s films and send them through to the local papers.

Cat had finished the design for the mural, so today she was keeping herself occupied sketching the foyer’s original features. It was a good job the architect had designed it with an open portion in the centre, as it had prevented them putting in one of those horrible suspended ceilings she’d seen at other cinemas. From her visits as a child, she remembered an elaborate light fitting that had taken up much of the empty space, but the details eluded her memory.

Voices from the inner foyer made her look up. Alfie was just coming out of the office with the timesheets in one hand. She knew that he always liked to check them personally. It was impossible for one person to be in two places at the same time, but that didn’t stop the managers from scheduling in unworkable clashes. He crossed the foyer briskly. This was her chance.

‘Er, Alfie,’ she called, as he passed by. ‘Could I just have a quick word?’

He looked over. ‘Hello, Cat. What is it?’

‘Well, I was talking to Paul the other day about something and he said I should speak to you.’

Alfie looked puzzled. ‘About what?’

‘I was thinking… I mean, I was wondering…’ Deep breath now and straight out with it. ‘If there are ever any vacancies for projectionists and if there are, how I’d go about applying for one.’

‘Hmm, I see.’ He paused for a moment. ‘So why do you want to become a projectionist?’

‘Well, like you said, I’ve got the cinema bug. I like the business and projection seems to me to be the closest you come to the heart of it. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but I didn’t know what I needed to do. So, I’m just finding out if there’s a chance, really.’

‘As it happens, we’ve been trying to get someone else here. We’re supposed to have an establishment of three, but since George left, we’ve been one short. Mr Garner’s desperate to cut back on overtime. Mind you, he’d prefer to take on someone experienced, so they could go on shift straight away.’

‘Oh, right.’ So that was it, then.

Alfie continued. ‘Only trouble is, we’ve not had any suitable applicants so far. These days, it can be hard to get the right person. There’s just one problem I can see, apart from you needing to be trained up.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘You’re a girl.’

‘Woman,’ Cat corrected quickly.

‘Well, female anyway. When you get to my age, anyone under forty is a lad or a girl. Though it can be hard to tell the difference these days. I’m not prejudiced myself. Plenty of women did the job through the War. I worked with a lady projectionist for years and she was one of the most conscientious operators I’ve known. But you’d have to get through an interview with the zone engineer and he’s a bit old fashioned. You’d have to prove you were capable.’

‘But how would I do that if I’ve not been a projectionist before?’

‘That’s the catch,’ he said. ‘But there might be a way. Let me go and have a think about it.’

Cat carried on sketching, but her nerves were on edge. Having made the move and asked the question, it was all she could think about. Which must mean she really did want the job, she supposed. Something she’d started off thinking about in an abstract sort of way had solidified into reality.

It was just before five o’clock when Alfie came back down to the foyer. Under one arm he carried a dusty black folder.

‘Here you go. I knew it was about somewhere,’ he said, handing it over. ‘If you’re really serious, then study this. Get all the facts and figures in your head. You might be in with a chance then.’

It was heavy with the weight of knowledge contained inside. The pages were yellowed and smelled old. Motion Picture Presentation Manual was stamped on the cover.

‘I’ve been having a think,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot to be said for taking on someone who’s already working in the cinema. At least you’re comfortable with shifts. You can get someone from outside as a trainee and then find out they don’t want to do every other weekend, late nights and the like. You spend months training them up, then they leave.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘It’s happened a few times.’

He sounded, thought Cat, as if he was definitely warming to the idea.

‘Now, assuming we don’t get anyone experienced applying – which might still happen, you know – then if I drop a hint there’s someone already here who’s interested in projection, you could get an interview in – ah – about a month. That should give you time to get enough theory in your head so you stand a chance of impressing old Abbott. How’s that sound?’

‘Brilliant. Thanks, Alfie.’

As soon as he had gone she opened the manual and read the first line to herself.

Good presentation means better business and better business means a better future for you.

Well, that sounded promising.

For the next few weeks she spent her free time at home and the quiet hours at work delving into its pages. Sometimes the manual raised more questions than it answered. Even though it had only been published in nineteen sixty-one it seemed written for a bygone age. There was no mention at all of cakestands but lots about carbon arcs. Alfie told her they had stopped being used once cinemas were tripled and single manning came in. ‘But learn it anyway. Like I said, Abbott’s from that era himself. Last time he was a chief they still had five men running one show. And it was always men in those days.’

She enjoyed reading about the art of presentation and film make-up, yet longed for the day when she could actually acquire the practical skills instead of just filling her head with theory. But she also had to keep reminding herself that the job wasn’t hers yet. There was no point in getting her hopes up only to see them dashed. She hadn’t been so focussed on anything since she took her final exams at college.

When the day came she was nervous, but prepared. The interview would be taking place during her normal working hours so she didn’t have the additional worry of choosing what to wear. Her office clothes weren’t formal enough (they had been fairly laid back regarding dress code) and her only suit, bought for a wedding, was cream and had a skirt.

‘Don’t look too girly, if you know what I mean,’ Alfie had said.

Unfortunately, her cinema uniform also came with a skirt, but at least that was down to company policy so she couldn’t be blamed for choosing it.

The interview took place in the projection room. Mr Garner, Mr Abbott and Alfie sat on one side of a table that had been carried up from the bar. She faced them across its expanse. Mr Abbott had obviously spent some time enquiring about her punctuality and reliability as she could see from the notes on his clipboard. Being able to read upside down was a useful skill sometimes.

‘So what makes you want to become a projectionist?’ he asked. ‘Enjoy films, do you?’

Alfie had warned her about this one also. ‘Whatever you do, don’t say you like films. Abbott’s got this theory that if you do, you’ll spend all your time staring out of the porthole and not doing any work.’

‘Well, I watch them occasionally,’ she said slowly. ‘Working front of house you have to, in case customers want some advice about what’s showing.’ She cast a glance at her manager, who nodded reassuringly. ‘But I don’t consider myself a film buff by any means.’

Abbott scribbled some notes.

She remembered the aspects of the job stressed by the manual. ‘It costs a lot of money to make a film and a projectionist can make a huge difference to someone’s enjoyment by making sure what they see and hear is as close as possible to what the director intended. I studied art and photography at college, so I’ve a good eye for detail.’

He made a noise that sounded vaguely approving. ‘And what about the technical aspects of the job? Maintenance, electrics and so on.’ He cast a glance at her hands, making her glad for once of her unglamorous short nails.

She had decided it was best to be honest. ‘I’ll admit I don’t know much about electricity, except for what we learned at school, but I’m practical and I learn fast. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.’

The questions continued. How did she feel about being alone for hours at a time? Could she lift a film? Did she intend to start a family in the near future? The latter almost made her laugh, even with its sexist implications. ‘Unlikely,’ she replied, unwilling to give any further details.

Then it came to the technical part. What did she know about projectors? How did the intermittent movement work? How many frames of film went through the gate in a second? And what about feet per minute?

Afterwards, she felt drained, but certain she couldn’t have done any more. If Mr Abbott wanted to find fault and give the job to someone else, he would.

They had said they would let her know the same day whether she had been successful, but as time continued to pass with no word, her anxiety grew. At around four o’clock Mr Abbott came downstairs and left the cinema without as much as a goodbye. This convinced her that she hadn’t made the grade. Surely, if she had done enough, he would have offered some kind of congratulation as he passed by?

The house phone rang. She stared at it for a couple of seconds, unwilling to break the spell. In the next few moments, either her hopes would be dashed, or not.

She picked it up. ‘Hello.’

‘Ah, Cat.’ It was Mr Garner. ‘I expect you want to know what we’ve decided, don’t you?’

‘Er, yes.’ This was it.

‘Well, I’m pleased to tell you we’d like to offer you the position of trainee projectionist.’

He kept on talking, but she wasn’t really listening. She’d done it!

‘… can’t start you straight away as we need to recruit someone to cover your current role. You should be able to move across to projection in a fairly short time; hopefully by the end of the month.’ Mr Garner continued.

Cat felt like whooping in celebration, but restrained herself to a small, triumphant, ‘Yes!’ and a silly little dance she hoped no one saw.

‘Well done,’ Alfie told her later. ‘Abbott was impressed, and that’s not easy to do. They didn’t want to lose you from downstairs either and I think that persuaded him you’re a good worker.’

If the time until the interview had dragged, it was nothing to that last few weeks in the kiosk. She felt as though she was going through the motions as she didn’t really want to be there anymore. The customers seemed surlier than usual, the hours of boredom longer. She kept the manual under the shelf, reading it through to remind herself that better times were coming, that this wasn’t forever.

Her first day as a projectionist was a Monday. She’d handed in her front of house uniform and it felt strange and liberating to come to work in jeans and a T shirt, not to mention starting so many hours before the cinema opened. Alfie showed her where to hang her coat and stash her rucksack, then began her training with the words, ‘Let’s have a cup of tea before we start, eh?’

Tea, she learned, was an important part of the projection box routine. It was imperative to start the day with a cuppa, also to offer drinks to any visiting contractors or engineers to keep them sweet. The projectionists all put a pound a month into the kitty to pay for tea bags, instant coffee, milk and sugar.

Tea over and mugs duly washed and put away, it was time for a tour of the building. It wasn’t as vast as the Gaumont, but there were still numerous interconnecting corridors and stairs; rooms with yellowed paintwork and peeling varnish on their doors which housed the spare lamps, projection parts and all sorts of stuff that might come in useful one day. Next came the film dump, where the delivery drivers dropped off features in battered metal cases, trailers in cardboard boxes held together by parcel tape and advertising reels for each screen.

‘Now we go further down, into the bowels of the cinema,’ Alfie said. ‘Careful on those steps, they’re a bit rickety.’

The steps led under the stage, into a huge basement illuminated only by three dim light bulbs. It was a horror film director’s dream, with pipes overhead and a bank of industrial grey switch boxes against one wall. Two deep holes were covered by metal grating. Peering through, Cat saw dark water.

‘This end of the building’s below ground level so it gets flooded when it rains. The pumps are supposed to switch on automatically, but sometimes they clog up and stop working. Once I came down after a storm to find the water lapping around the mains intake.’ Alfie pointed at a thick, black cable which snaked up the wall into one of the large, grey boxes. ‘If water ever gets in there, we’ll go out with a bang. So you need to keep an eye on those pumps.’

They climbed back up and onto the stage. The boards creaked in protest as they walked across. Voices were lost in the high darkness above their heads. Cat expected to hear the sound of pigeon wings; that panicked flurry of sound, but there the resemblance to the Gaumont ended. The blacked out windows at the rear of the stage had been covered in chicken wire to prevent birds getting inside. Alfie pointed out the massive old speaker cabinet at the centre of the screen and the new, smaller speakers that had been recently installed for Dolby Stereo in screen one.

He led the way to the mini screens, served by a single projection room behind the auditoria. ‘This is what’s called rear projection. There’s not many of these about, but we didn’t have enough space to have the projection room at the back, like it is upstairs. That’s one of the reasons why the picture’s so small.’

The projectors faced outward at an angle through large windows. On the other side an equally large mirror reflected the picture onto the back of the screen.

She learned that the cakestand was properly called a Philips non-rewind. Alfie explained briefly how it worked. ‘We take out the ring the film’s wound on to and thread the beginning through the feed module. It goes over all these rollers…’ he pointed them out, fastened to the wall by brackets. ‘Then through the projector. It comes back along these bottom rollers and winds on to the same ring which we’ve placed on an empty plate. So at the end of a show, the whole print has moved to a different plate and we start all over again. No rewinding needed; you always run from the middle.’

The film lying on the top plate was covered by a sheet to stop it getting dusty overnight. Cat’s first job was to remove this and fold it neatly. Then she learned how to clean down the projector. It required a thorough clean each morning, then a brush of the sprockets and wipe down of the film path between each show.

For the rest of the day, she followed Alfie around, lacing the film from the cakestand to the projector and learning which buttons to press on the programmer to select the take up and feed plates. By late afternoon her feet ached from the number of times she’d climbed and descended the stairs, following the workings of the time sheet and the noisy demands of the end sequence alarm that indicated when a programme had finished and was ready to be laced for the next show.

The work came in sudden bursts. Adverts and trailers started in one screen. Then, fifteen to twenty minutes later, there would be a return trip for the feature change. If the feature was widescreen – the same as the programme – then it was just a matter of closing the curtains, raising the lights briefly, then reopening them on the certificate and setting the sound to the correct level for the feature. For Cinemascope films, the lens and masking also needed to be changed. Alfie did this so automatically he could carry on talking to her at the same time.

‘It looks easy, because I’ve done it so often. You’ll be like a learner driver when you try. You’ll be thinking too much about what button to press next. Don’t expect to get it right first time. No-one does.’

By the time they stopped for yet another cup of tea and something to eat, her head was hurting as much as her feet. ‘How long do you think it will take for me to learn all this,’ she asked.

‘I reckon by the end of this week you’ll be able to start shows. And once you’ve laced up a few times, it’ll be second nature. When you’ve mastered that, we’ll go on to film make-up.’

‘The manual says it takes four years to learn the trade.’

‘Back in the days when it was written there was a proper scheme, with a college course and all, but these days that’s all gone. Garner will want you to be able to go on shift as soon as possible so he can stop the overtime payments. Most trainees nowadays are ready in about six months.’

Six months didn’t seem like very long; not when you knew that at the end of it you would be in sole charge of the cinema. At this stage, even the routine stuff seemed overwhelming, let alone knowing what to do when something went wrong. She kept telling herself that if someone like Clive could manage, then she’d be fine. It was just a matter of practice.

Copyright © 2022 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Story Discussion Topic

It is with great sadness I must announce the death of Mawgrim, Promising Author on GA. He had been in declining health for some time and passed away on Christmas Day. Mawgrim worked for decades as a cinema projectionist before his retirement and was able to use this breadth of knowledge to his stories set in cinemas. He also gave us stories with his take on the World of Pern with its dragon riders. He will be greatly missed and our condolences go out to his friends, family, and his husband.
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8 hours ago, Ivor Slipper said:

Just hope the first time on her own won't turn out to be a Catastrophe.🙂


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14 minutes ago, drsawzall said:


Two fingers of whiskey and place  a cool, damp cloth on the forehead. Repeat every 30 minutes until the pain passes.

Edited by drpaladin
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2 minutes ago, drpaladin said:

Two fingers of whiskey and place  a cool, damp cloth on the forehead. Repeat every 30 minutes until the pain passes.

Thanks Doc!!!

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So happy for her, this was a good chapter, detailing what someone would need to go through in those days to even apprentice.  I’m wondering if everything is digital today or if they are still using film for some or most movie theaters.

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21 minutes ago, VBlew said:

So happy for her, this was a good chapter, detailing what someone would need to go through in those days to even apprentice.  I’m wondering if everything is digital today or if they are still using film for some or most movie theaters.

Some still use film or DVD, but most use digital hard drives to digital projectors.



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Cat has made a move that will change her life; for the good or the bad may yet to be decided.  Can you imagine how exciting it is to start something that had a pull that you may not even be able to explain.  So excited that she is getting this opportunity but hope she realizes the slog she is in for.  

Alfie is a good guy; but knows that he is nearing the end of his career.  His language then was considered just out of stop; but today he would be hounded out.  

Are we sure progress is a good thing?

So enjoying this.

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Alfie is a great guy for encouraging and supporting Cat to make the change to a projectionist.  Cat worked hard to learn what was needed, and I applaud both her efforts and success.  

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8 hours ago, VBlew said:

So happy for her, this was a good chapter, detailing what someone would need to go through in those days to even apprentice.  I’m wondering if everything is digital today or if they are still using film for some or most movie theaters.

Multiplex cinemas are entirely digital these days, but most of the independents have either 35mm or 70mm projectors too for special events. A lot of people still like seeing films on actual film, plus some directors prefer the look of film, too.

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Posted (edited)

This is a fascinating journey through film history. Loving Cat.


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