Projectionist looks back at happy times at The Savoy in Northampton

At the piano is chief projctionist Fred Allen with usherettes. Cinema manager Arthur Lowry is at the back
At the piano is chief projctionist Fred Allen with usherettes. Cinema manager Arthur Lowry is at the back

Cinemas are often described as glamorous, places but during the Second World War years they also had great practical importance.

The Savoy, in Abington Square, (or Savoy Electric as it was originally known) was Northampton’s biggest auditorium and not only reinvigorated 1,900 war-weary souls at each sitting, but also spread vital Government information.

The fifth anniversary party in 1941.

The fifth anniversary party in 1941.

At the centre of it all were the projectionists, like John Knight, now aged 89, whose skill and graft made sure the news and silver screen magic were delivered.

“The work we did was actually quite important,” John says, “to the point where the chief projectionist was a reserved occupation meaning he couldn’t be sent away to war.

“The Government thought showing of their films was that significant to the war effort.”

The method of informing people in Northampton was by way of the iconic Pathe newsreels.

Little did the audience know back then, but even celluloid was rationed, meaning Savoy projectionists had to sprint down Abington Street to The Exchange cinema in the Market Square, with which it shared a newsreel, to meet screening deadlines. This happened six times a day.

With flammable celluloid within a single error of causing a massive fire the projectionists not only had to be quick but also alert.

What could happen was illustrated by a fire the Picturedrome during the war when an under-trained projectionist, panicking at a small flame, tossed a burning reel into a store room.

Firefighters found the room was so hot, the concrete floor almost collapsed.

Being inattentive was often a projectionist’s downfall. Mr Knight says that during a 1942 showing of the three hours forty-minutes Gone With the Wind, he and a colleague had become so bored that they had missed a reel change.

He says: “The manager could not fail, to notice it was running 10 minutes early so we had no choice but to show the missed one, but not in order.

“Characters that had been slaughtered in the Battle of Gettysburg were suddenly reincarnated and to the unsuspecting audience it must have seemed a confused mess.”

It was not only the playing of the films that the projectionists were tasked with.

Northampton was as vulnerable as any town to German incendiary bombs and each building was required to have a firewatcher resident at night to spot blazes in lieu of the over stretched borough fire service.

It often fell to Mr Knight and colleagues to stay on and protect the Art Deco building,which is now the Jesus Centre, for an additional sum of money.

Mr Knight said: “During the war I spent days on end in there. Its one of the reasons I still love the place.”

Despite all the time spent there, there was still the usual holidays, when groups of Savoy staff would congregate in Cow Meadow, now Becket’s Park.

But for those infatuated with the silver screen, and with free tickets for staff, there was only one activity Savoy staff like Mr Knight wanted to engage in.

“Well, we worked so hard putting the films on that we never got to watch them properly at work, even though we’d sat through dozens of showings, “ he laughs.

“So on days off, well, we’d go to the cinema!”

Anyone who has information about what became of those in the photographs is asked to call 01604 949270.