Back in the old silent days, there was often someone standing next to the screen when a film was being shown. And that man – or woman – had a vital job to do. Movie-making techniques were still unfamiliar to most people, and a trip to the cinema could be a confusing experience. This meant audiences often welcomed a confident voice to put them right.
These people were called film lecturers and they could be found all over Britain for two decades or more. Standing in the near-dark, they would introduce the actors, explain the plot or the setting, and maybe tell a joke or two. They could be found all over the world, from Madrid to Osaka, but few of them took their craft as far as two married couples in Aberdeen took it.
Painting the walls red and pillars cream
Dove Paterson was perhaps the most famous lecturer in the city. He had been an elocution teacher and a photographer before turning to films. His business had taken him to the USA and Canada, and it would take him to Balmoral as well on more than one occasion. In September 1908, Dove opened the Gaiety cinema on Shiprow, which would in time become the Palladium. His aim, he said, was to provide “an intelligent dialogue for every picture I show.”
He painted the walls there red and the pillars cream, and hung a sign over the door that had 200 coloured lights. When the Bioscope trade paper came to call, it was struck by “the dramatic, picturesque, and illuminative comments and descriptions” Mr Paterson supplied. His tenure there wasn’t, however, without incident. In 1911, a woman was injured when a fire broke out on an upstairs landing and she jumped over the bannister in a bid to escape.
As the years went by, Dove developed a style of presentation that was all his own and he decided to take on a collaborator. Marie Pascoe was the person he chose for the role. She was more than ten years his junior, the daughter of a silk merchant and actors, and she had herself been on the stage since she was fifteen. Dove gave her a four-week trial, followed by a short-term contract before finally marrying her. The style they developed together involved what was called ‘dialoguing to pictures’. This meant standing next to the screen and actually speaking the words merely mouthed by the actors in the film. It was very different from what lecturers elsewhere in Britain did – and it required much more than simply adding a few words of explanation, or doing a funny voice or two.
Dove and Marie performed in this way at the Gaiety, and then, from 1913, across the city at the Coliseum, which later became the Belmont and was until recently the Filmhouse cinema. The response they received was enthusiastic. It was “often hard to say which attracts the crowds”, the Bioscope said, “the pictures, or the elocutionary efforts of Mr and Mrs Paterson”. When they were indisposed, Mr and Mrs Paterson arranged substitutes who were themselves couples – Mr and Mrs Len Delmar at the Gaiety, and Miss Hilda Merrilees and Mr Philip Durham at the Coliseum. Sadly, however bold these innovations might have been, they would come to a premature and cruel end in the summer of 1916, when Dove Paterson died in hospital after an ill-fated swim in the North Sea.
Walking through the audience spraying disinfectant
By then, Bert and Nellie Gates were also well known in Aberdeen. They ran the Globe Picture Palace on Nelson Street and also the Star on nearby Park Street. This place, known to everyone as ‘The Starrie’, took its name from the large red glass sign that had hung over the door since it was the East End Mission Hall. Bert opened the Star in the same year Dove Paterson opened the Gaiety, and he doubled it in size the year Dove took on the Coliseum. There was a piano inside and a phonograph, and Bert and Nellie would go into the audience and spray it with disinfectant every once in a while, and then spray it again just to be sure.
Bert’s tenure, too, was full of incidents. A few days after the fire at the Gaiety, a youth was convicted of assaulting an attendant at the Star by punching him repeatedly in the face. Then, just before Dove Paterson died, Bert was charged with overcrowding. He admitted to the offence, but said he had done it to generate more takings, and therefore more tax to aid the war effort. He was a forthright man. When the Chief Constable of Aberdeenshire said that picture houses caused crime and made life less bearable, he wrote to the local paper. “Do these reformers wish to deny the people the right to have amusements?” he asked. “Is not life grey enough?”
Dialogue delivered in the region’s Doric dialect by truly unique people
Like Dove and Marie, Bert and Nellie loaned their own voices to the characters on the screen.
And, standing in the near-dark, they also added sound effects they had bought as a job lot for £5. “You will actually hear the lions roar,” audiences were promised when Neath the Lion’s Paw was being shown at the Star. But that wasn’t their only innovation. To go with the bird-whistles and rumbles of thunder, they added a peculiarly local seasoning. Their lectures, and those of the other lecturers they hired, had long referred to local people and events. And now, they were delivered in the region’s characteristic Doric dialect.
The dialect choice was a departure not just from what people elsewhere did, but also from what, even within Aberdeen, Dove and Marie Paterson did. This ensured that, even among the other innovative and industrious film lecturers of the time, Bert and Nellie Gates were truly unique.