April 11 2005

The Titfield Thunderbolt turned heads, but it took a mermaid to stop the traffic.
In the early 1950s, Staffordians became accustomed to odd happenings in the main street.
You want a Victor Mature lookalike in loincloth and fake tan wrestling a stuffed lion?
Right this way, madam.
But a mermaid?
In Foregate Street?
Pure fantasy.
Which, of course, it was. But it put bums on seats at the Odeon and a smile on the face of George Lockyer, the blunt  and dapper Northerner who managed the cinema (now the multi-screen Apollo) in the days when the latest from Hollywood or Elstree drew nightly queues six-deep as far as Jimmy Hardwick’s barber shop and often round the corner into the Friars.
A few days before the film Miranda, starring a half-woman, half-fish Glynis Johns, hit the screen, George had his own mermaid whisked into town by taxi. They took her into the foyer in a wheelchair, then upstairs and on to the canopy above the main entrance, from where she waved her tail at stunned motorists and pedestrians below.
Today’s health and safety inspectors would have had apoplexy.
They probably wouldn’t have been too happy either about the stunt George arranged to boost interest in The Titfield Thunderbolt.
This piece of Ealing whimsy involved the efforts of a group of rural clergy and gentry to save their branch-line from the axe. Stafford having its own railway works, George borrowed an ancient loco and parked it outside the Odeon. Drivers turning into Newport Road must have been gob-smacked.
Night life in Stafford had little to offer then beyond the pictures but the choice was wide. In addition to the Odeon, the town centre had the Picture House and, until the mid-1950s, the Albert Hall, in Crabbery Street. Half a mile away just beyond the jail, there was the Sandonia, a cavernous fleapit which had fallen on lean times after opening grandly and disastrously in the 1920s as a theatre with the London production of Chu Chin Chow.
But it was the Odeon, part of a chain of cinemas launched by Oscar Deutsch in the early 1930s, that had the best and latest films.
And for kids there was the Odeon Club, three hours every Saturday morning spent in the company of Laurel and Hardy, the Bowery Boys, Gene Autry and the Thunder Riders and others of that celluloid ilk.
It was here that George Lockyer held court, resplendent, as always, in dinner jacket, bow tie and dazzling dress shirt, his hair, jet-black and Brylcreemed to perfection, outshining his patent-leather shoes,
He judged the weekly talent show before the films began and led us in a community singing session which always ended with the club song. It was stirring stuff and we took the roof off.
It wasn’t quite Scouts and Guides, but we wore our badges with pride and we took the pledge. In song, of course:
“As members of the Odeon Club we all intend to be, good citizens when we grow up and champions of the free.”
None of us knew what a champion of the free was. But we all wanted to be one.

 

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