– Harry's Big Night –
So there was wee Harry at the top of the marble staircase, whose steps he had personally swept and mopped only hours before, greeting the great and the good of the town and looking as nervous as fuck.
‘Well done, Harry, and good luck for tonight,’ said Tommy Watson, the primary school headmaster, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down that scrawny neck of his like a yo-yo.
Then the long streak of shite and his horse-faced wife moved off into the foyer behind Harry. As they headed for the stairs leading to the circle, they waved and nodded to people they recognised, acting as if they were fucking royalty. They and Harry’s other guests, all of them clutching pre-allocated tickets, would be escorted up to the comfort of the circle, while we lesser mortals stood in a long queue to buy our tickets for the stalls.
No wonder Harry looked nervous. It was a big night for him, a night that he had worked hard to bring about. He had spent months pleading with and cajoling the owners of the Regal until they agreed to lease it to him on a temporary basis while they continued to ‘consider their options’. Then he had spent more months raising the money that was needed to get the cinema operating again. He had organised raffles and whist drives and ceilidhs; he had sought and obtained donations from many of the town’s leading lights; he had even persuaded those tight-fisted bastards at the Town Council to part with some of their cash. Now, on a freezing night in early December, all those efforts were on the verge of coming to fruition.
You see, Harry’s great love in life was film. He had been a projectionist at the Regal from the time he was a teenager right up to when they closed the place back in the fifties. He was devastated by the closure, of course, but he bounced back quickly, opening up his own photography shop. And he was quite a success at that. Over the years, he became the official photographer not only at nearly every wedding and social event in the town, but also for the annual round of photos of kids at the local schools. Aye, if you thought of photos and the like in the Ferry back then, you thought of wee Harry; the two things went together.
But all through that time Harry hung on to his dream that he could re-open the Regal. He was of the firm belief that, even though the large majority of the population now watched the telly, there was still a place for a local cinema in every small town. And he wanted to prove to the Regal’s owners that if the cinema was properly run and the films were chosen carefully and the tickets didn’t cost too much people would flock to it – ‘to enjoy the community experience’, I think he said, or some shite like that.
As he watched yet another throng of people excitedly climb the stairs up to the foyer, Harry must have allowed himself a little smile of self-congratulation. He had been proved right so far – half the town was flocking to the opening night. But getting the place ready in time certainly hadn’t been easy. The work involved, especially in the last few days, had been a struggle not just for him, but for his family as well. Aye, that venture of his had turned into a truly family affair. His wife, Fiona, his fourteen-year old daughter, Kathryn, and his son, Edward, who was two years younger than Kathryn, had all mucked in with him. Right at that moment, Fiona, who had taken on the role of cashier for the night, was in the ticket kiosk, while Kathryn and Edward were acting as ushers for the circle and the stalls respectively. Although she only had to guide the more refined customers to their seats, Kathryn didn’t seem comfortable in the job, as if it was beneath Miss High and Fucking Mighty. Young Eddie, on the other hand, dressed in a maroon bellboy’s uniform that made him look like Buttons out of Cinderella and swinging a torch that was as big as his arm, was lapping it up.
Harry had wanted to hire Betty MacDonald, one of the Regal’s previous ushers, to do the job that Eddie had taken on. It was Harry’s opinion that Betty, who began to work in the chip shop when the Regal closed down and who became known as Sweaty Betty as a result, was the only person who could keep the hooligans from the Crossroads under control. He was definitely right about that, too; her big, ugly mug looming out at you from the dark would have been enough to scare the shit out of any fucker. Alas, though, Harry hadn’t been able to afford Sweaty Betty. It had become a toss-up between hiring her and paying to heat that cavern of a place, and heating had taken priority over security.
Those hooligans had been the bane of Harry’s life when he was a projectionist. They always slouched along the front rows of the stalls, guffawing and cackling and swearing at each other. Every time a film broke down or a reel needed to be changed, they would shout and whistle and stamp their feet until the picture restarted. The stamping was the worst part, especially during matinees when there was a lot more of the little bastards down there. It grew louder and louder, and the whole building shook with it. Up in the projection room, Harry would also be shaking, his fingers trembling as he tried desperately to mend the reel or get a new one going. Even then, years later, he often woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, with images of savages running amok in the depths of hell and with the sound of the stamping ringing in his ears. He was sure that it was those hooligans who were to blame for the nervous disposition that he had developed when he was a teenager and that had stayed with him ever since.
In deciding against paying to hire Sweaty Betty, Harry had banked on the fact that the bunch of hooligans who had terrorised the Regal just before it closed down would have grown into adults – hopefully, better behaved ones – by then. And he prayed that that bunch hadn’t been replaced by a new generation of young thugs. He also prayed that the youngsters who did come along, particularly those from the Crossroads, would be too awestruck and engrossed by the film he would show to want to make any trouble.
For the film that Harry had acquired for the opening night was a bit of a coup for him, you see. Through his contacts in the cinema world, he had succeeded in getting his hands on a copy of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ – not the original, black-and-white Hitchcock version that was made in 1935, but the 1959 colour version starring Kenneth More. Even though it had been screened in Edinburgh at the time, few people from the Ferry would have gone to see it. So the film was only about five years old and therefore still relatively new; it was in colour; and it had been largely unseen locally. But more than all of that, it featured the Ferry’s very own backyard, with some scenes having been shot on the Forth Bridge and others along at the harbour. Harry had practically camped out on the shore beside the harbour when they were shooting the latter scenes; he had even managed to acquire Kenneth More’s autograph when the shooting ended.
Not surprisingly, wee Harry felt that the audience was in for a treat that night. That’s what he told us just minutes before the film was due to start, when all the lights suddenly went up and he appeared on the stage from behind those enormous velvet curtains, looking like a fucking leprechaun in his green corduroy suit. In a brief, nervous speech, he also talked about that ‘community experience’ shite again. Then he thanked all the luminaries and the Council for their donations, his own family for their help in getting the venture off the ground and us hoi polloi for actually getting off our fat arses and coming to the place. Promising to screen a new film at least once a fortnight, he disappeared behind the curtains, presumably to run up the back stairs as fast as his wee legs could carry him and start the film up. His disappearance was accompanied by a burst of enthusiastic clapping from the circle. Down in the stalls, the clapping was markedly less enthusiastic and interspersed with shouts and catcalls.
Less than half an hour into the film, Harry’s worst nightmare came true. From his little room high above, he heard a great roar from the audience. Seconds later, the stamping began. It was the loudest and most violent and most frightening stamping that he had ever heard. It seemed not just to come from the front rows, but from the whole of the stalls. Feverishly, he checked and checked again, but the film was still running. Nothing was wrong. He couldn’t understand it. All he could do was to stand and stare at the projector, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, while the stamping grew more deafening. Then light flooded suddenly into the room. Young Eddie stood in the doorway, fighting for breath.
‘You better come, dad,’ he gasped. ‘All hell’s breaking loose down there.’
Harry grabbed his jacket and raced down the steps. When he reached the landing for the circle, he caught sight of that lanky shite, Tommy Watson, and his horse-faced wife and their entourage storming into the foyer from the landing below.
‘Ridiculous!’ he heard one of them shouting.
‘Bloody morons!’ someone else cried.
By the time Harry got down to the foyer, the stamping had stopped and a mass exit was underway. Bewildered, he and Fiona and Kathryn and Eddie stood aside as the stampede passed by them to move quickly and noisily down the marble staircase. When only the four of them remained in the foyer, all they could hear was the sound of the film droning in the background.
‘Perhaps I should have let them turn the place into a bingo hall, after all,’ Harry said, smiling weakly, but still not comprehending.
Later that night, a group of us coming out of the pub across the road saw Harry. He was locking up the Regal, looking shocked and jittery. No doubt he was still wondering what had happened and still figuring out whether the place did have a future as a cinema. We took pity on him. The wee man had tried hard for us – ‘the community’ – hadn’t he? So we went over to explain the facts to him.
‘We loved it when we saw the Forth Bridge in the film, Harry, and we all roared at that sight,’ we told him. ‘Then, when Kenneth More allegedly jumped from the bridge and into the Forth, we were disappointed. We knew that you couldn’t do that and still live, but we were willing to suspend our belief for the sake of the film. Even when the posh English prat allegedly swam all the way from the middle of the Forth to the harbour, when he could have swum just a third of the distance to get to the Hawes Pier, we kept quiet. But then he came out of the sea and walked up the harbour slipway, and his clothes were immaculate and as dry as a bone. Dry as a fucking bone, Harry! And he didn’t have a hair out of place. Not one hair out of place, for fuck’s sake, Harry! Well, that was it, Harry. That was taking the piss, wasn’t it? We couldn’t stand for that, could we? You know, we may be rough people here in the Ferry, Harry, but we’re not fucking stupid!’
– o –