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The Bug House

John Braine

Elegy for a provincial cinema


NO-ONE EVER uses the little cinemas official name, a bolted together, so that when the children sway back-
Greek-French hybrid suggesting racecourses and leopard- wards and forwards together (Hiyo Silver!) everyone
skin seats. It was opened some forty years ago as the moves with them. Whether you like it or not, youre
Bug House, and the Bug House it will remain to the part of the audience at the Bug House.
natives. The children come for sociability, for the raw material
It has none of the trimmings of the big-circuit cinemas of their games, for bright words to decorate their con-
no neon signs, no glossy stills from the current film, no versation, even to have the future make promises to
huge foyer with ankle-deep carpeting, no coloured thema house with a swimming-pool, a private
photographs of the stars. Its size and prices of admission aeroplane, a girl like Jane Russell. The old, who are,
(sevenpence and tenpence, half-price for children) permit together with the children, the backbone of the audience,
only the irreducible minimum: a poster in dropsical come for oblivion, gulping it down like strong tea.
display faces a century out of date, a timetable of Theyre past the age for games and they know just what
features over the paybox, and a tiny lobby opening the futures promises are worth. Theyre quite content
directly on to the street. Through the door of the in the warm and noisy darkness, giving their feet and
auditorium float out scraps of dialogue: You cant do worries a rest; and for those who live alone, theres even
this to me, Watch out Tex, that gun is loaded, I am the Hooded the illusion of a sort of family life, the rowdy innocence
Terror, and, gaspingly, through blood in the throat, of the children around them chasing away the feeling
The treasures in the And then theres the whine of of being the only person left alive in the whole world.
bullets again or the dull matter-of-fact thud of bombs The Bug House offers something else, though. It
or the hysterical scream of sirens or the high-pitched reduces films to their essentials, it knocks off their veneer.
violin which means that Something Is Coming Out of It not only underlines the impact of a first-rate film, it
Space. There are softer sounds toothe quivering sweet- brings out the startling excellences scattered throughout
ness of Tin Pan Alley music with its suggestion of an the mediocre. Films seen there stick in the memory for
enormous emptiness in the background, like blancmange years, the inward eye prizes details like the policemans
eaten in the Gobi Desert, and the husky voices that say cape dripping with rain in the stuffy parlour, the grace-
I love you, Baby and I shouldnt have done that, and, sooner ful clumsiness and slow speed of a giraffe, the bearded
or later. This thing is bigger than both of us. One feels an soldier screaming like a fractious child under the boiling
eavesdropper, theres something sad and Noah-naked oilone has been awarded moments of truth, instan-
about these sounds from the darkness. taneous and exact descriptions of life and death and
But inside it isnt sad. Theres a smell as scruffy and geography, of the huge variousness of existence.
cheerful as the children who fill the placeorange, For its easy, in the plushy comfort of the super-
chocolate, horsehair, tobacco, and the ghost of geraniums cinema, to take the film for granted, as if it grew
from the accumulation of disinfectant with which an naturally out of the screen; we find nothing marvellous
old man in a shabby uniform, a long-service private in about the shining curves of a new Bentley being impelled
the glittering army of commissionaries, deluges the by the ignition of petrol vapour. Its only when a
theatre at the interval. The old man has long ago given Model T, square, frail, antique, chugs past us, shaking
up the attempt to keep the children in order; they yell with the vehemence of its greed for movement, that we
greetings to one another, climb over the seats, run up realise that internal combustion is a technical miracle,
and down the aisle at breakneck speed, and make an And perhaps its only in cinemas like the Bug House that
extraordinary number of visits to the Gents and the we capture the true flavour of the film, that, however
Ladies. The cinema might have been designed for blase weve become about it, we can, in that atmosphere
them; its open-back seats are so narrow and closely- so close to the sideshow and the nickelodeon of the in-
spaced that a normal adult sits with his knees either up dustrys early days, suddenly perceive with a shock of
to his chin or pressing into the person in front, his elbows delight that these shadows are telling us a story, that
digging into his neighbours. And each row of seats is these pictures really move.

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