‘In 1941 I came to Axminster by train from Catford, London, with my granny. I was three months old and my name at that time was Michael Roberts. My birth mother, Winifred Roberts, was an unmarried teenager in wartime London. Granny left me in Axminster with my adoptive parents – a brief encounter – then back to London. I so much want to meet my London family, but so far my search has been unsuccessful; my birth mother would now be in her early eighties.
My adoptive parents, John and Irene Hine, looked after me well. Irene had also been adopted at a young age. John Hine was a foreman bricklayer with Mouldings in Axminster; we lived adjacent to the Plaza cinema, at Bristol House. St Mary’s was my first school, then on to Axe Valley. I was not particularly happy at school on account of being born with cataracts in both eyes. This was thought to have been caused before I was born, by the London bombings. I had numerous operations, often missing school for long periods, but still had difficulty in reading the blackboard.
Mechanical things and art were my main interests. School didn’t mean much to me, but I was fascinated by the cinema; my playground was outside the projection area of the Plaza. One day, in the late forties, I was invited into the projection room. They were using hand-cranked projectors, showing films such as Laurel and Hardy, King Kong and Frankenstein. When the heavy steam trains came through Axminster, the vibrations would cause the projectors to shake; the screen would then judder, much to everyone’s annoyance.
When I left school, fifty years ago, Mr Pat McDevitt, the Plaza manager, offered me a job as trainee projectionist. Jimmy Crabb was second projectionist and Henry Salway, known as Tappy, was chief projectionist. We showed top films, many from the 1930s and 40s.
Most people came to the cinema on foot, cycled, or on the bus from local villages. When we showed Gone with the Wind, the queue stretched up through the town to Trinity Square. Cinema was important to teenagers and courting couples; it was one of the few warm and dry places a young man could take his girlfriend on dark winter evenings. There was the Hollywood glamour and romance: Clark Gable and Errol Flynn; Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. When we screened Wuthering Heights people cried. And of course, there were times when young people got over amorous – Mr McDevitt would then walk down the aisle and shine his torch on the couple – that stopped them.
I soon discovered a projectionist’s job could be unpredictable and hazardous. One night, in the early months of my training, I was left for a while on my own; the film which was supposed to be showing was The Pride and the Passion, starring Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra. Somehow, the reels got mixed up and I’d put on the wrong one – the audience soon pointed out the problem – I rushed to get the film changed. I tried to keep everybody happy, but we were running very late, most people didn’t get home before midnight.
Many cinemas had flea problems – but we had a rat. I spotted it when I was lighting the emergency exit gas lamps. The manager got out his gun to shoot it, but in the end said: I can’t kill an animal, so the rat ran off and continued to be a cinema resident.
In stark contrast to the small Axminster Plaza, I went on a trip with my parents to see the high-tech world of cinemas in London. Pat McDevitt had arranged for me to visit the projection room of The Empire, Leicester Square. My parents were overwhelmed with unexpected complimentary tickets for the best seats in the house; we were treated like celebrities. The film they were showing was Island in the Sun, everything was twice the size; the projector and screen were enormous. You can imagine the impact this technology had on a young mechanical enthusiast from Devon.
As television came in, the regular cinema customers dwindled; many small town cinemas were forced to close. The Plaza closed in 1961. After this I found work at cinemas in Dorchester and Bovington Camp. At Bovington I worked for the AKC, Army Kinema Corporation. I showed top secret films and therefore had to sign the Military Secrets Act. I also showed the famous 1966 film about the World Cup, all the solidiers and their families were standing in the aisles.
With cinemas on the decline, I decided to return to Axminster – I followed my cinema colleague, Henry Salway, and got a job in engineering at Shands. I started on type-making, and later moved onto heavy engineering.
I met my wife, Jenny Knight, at the Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis; we married in 1970. We have two children: Jason is a resident at Monkton Wyld Community. He read English and film studies at Kent; and Juliette is currently reading anthropology at Brighton University.
After we married, I got a job as a turner-fitter at Axminster Carpets, and eventually became the head of engineering. These jobs were quite different from being a cinema projectionist. My natural affinity with machinery led me to enjoy the new challenges. I spent thirty-seven years with Axminster Carpets, working on lots of interesting projects; I had the opportunity to travel to Holland, Belgium, France and Italy. I retired in 2004.
I felt a need to go back to the cinema, and took a part-time projectionist job at the Regent, Lyme Regis, where I still work today. It’s certainly a relief from the big multiplex cinemas of the larger towns. The Regent opened on the 11th October 1937, so will be celebrating its 70th birthday this year – it certainly has plenty of character and lots of charm. This listed building houses Silverscreen: a thriving film society, as well as popular mainstream films. Alec Orme has been its dedicated manager for twenty years, and he’s a popular character.
Even today’s cinema technology sometimes has its problems. Recently, on a Saturday evening, I had a phone call from Alec Orme to say the projector had broken half-way through a film, and could I come and fix it. The film showing was Harry Potter; the cinema was full, and some people were making a fuss. I drove across from Axminster and carried out the repair within ten minutes. The manager was still in a panic, so I addressed the public, apologised, explained the delay, and everyone was happy.
In my retirement I had the opportunity to travel further afield, including a recent trip to India, where I had a close encounter with Bollywood. In the town of Sultanbatheri, in Kerala, I was invited into the projection room of a local cinema during the film. People were up in the aisles dancing and singing along to all the music, I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the cinema staff.
The world of cinema will always be a major part of my life.’