Kenneth Branagh’s 2021 film Belfast is not just a film about Branagh’s own complicated relationship with the city of his birth, but also a film which celebrates his love for the stage and screen.
While the film is presented mostly in striking black and white (bar bookends of the modern city, which sit separate to the main narrative), when the young protagonist, Buddy, is at the cinema, or goes to the theatre, the action he watches is played out in glorious colour. That includes a theatre sequence featuring A Christmas Carol, and cinema outings to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and earlier in the film, Hammer’s 1966 picture One Million Years BC.
The film takes place in 1969, some three years after the original release of One Million Years BC. It can be hard for modern audiences to get their heads around a time when films would still be playing out in cinemas for months and even years after their initial release. But it could easily take a mainstream release a year or two to reach the regional cinemas of the UK and Ireland in the 1960s.
Its worth remembering too, that in 1969 there were around 20 cinemas across the greater Belfast area, made up mostly of independently run companies and local chains, plus the bigger ABC. The programmes were hugely varied, cinemas tended to have only one or two screens, and in order to see all the films you wanted, you had to move around. The multiplex experience has given us clone-like offerings, and taken away a great deal of the uniqueness of cinema programming.
As a fellow Belfast boy, albeit one 20 years younger than writer/director Branagh, and one who has long been a writer on film and a fan of Hammer films, the use of a Hammer title in Belfast was bound to prick my attention. And the film historian in me wondered whether it might be possible to anchor the events Branagh seems to be remembering to a real-life timeline and identify both the dates and cinemas attended. After a bit of archival detective work, I believe I’ve narrowed the remembered outing to an exact day in 1969.
The opening moments of Belfast gives an onscreen caption dating the beginning of the story to 15 August 1969, and events unfurl between then and the following Easter. There’s a certain amount of historical truth to the timings of the riots etc. But we’re not concerned with those here. We’re only concerned with the film screenings.
At some point after the break out of trouble in Belfast, Buddy’s father comes come – which he does every other weekend anyway, from his job in England.
During one of those return visits young Buddy (Jude Hill) enthusiastically suggests to his father, Pa (played by Jamie Dornan – a man who earned his own Hammer credentials with an appearance in the 2006 MySpace co-production Beyond the Rave) that they could go and see Robin and the 7 Hoods, which is playing in the afternoon in the Capitol. His mum asks him if its about gangsters, and his brother says its a musical.
Buddy, confused, says:
“No it’s not. There’s Little John and swords and everything!”
Evidently Buddy and his family are thinking of two different Robin Hood films.
Pa tells them he’ll pick the film and they’ll go to the big cinema in town. The family, we know, live in the Tiger’s Bay area of North Belfast, and Buddy attends Grove Primary School. (The area is not too far from the Nelson Street birthplace of another veteran Hammer performer – Sam Kydd).
There were cinemas closer to them, but much smaller, and a little less of an event. The closest cinema would probably have been the Grove (known prior to 1965 as the Troxy), although if they ventured further up the Shore Road, they could have gone to the Lido (also owned by Troxy Cinemas Ltd, and in possession of the first cinemascope screen in Belfast).
Robin and the 7 Hoods is a 1964 film starring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Bing Crosby and Peter Falk, and while based loosely on Robin Hood, is indeed both a gangster film and a musical, including a glorious number ‘Mr. Booze’ which younger readers might be familiar with from a Family Guy homage.
It had played Belfast in 1964 and 1967, and had indeed played screens in the city in 1969, but from Monday 31 March to Saturday 4 April when it played the Classic at 12.35, 4.30 and 8.25pm daily.
The Classic cinema was a small cinema on College Square East that originally opened in 1910 and was destroyed in a bomb blast in 1971.
If the timing is right, Buddy must be mistaken about which Robin Hood film is playing. More on that shortly.
Instead of the promise of a Rat Pack gangster musical (which I would encourage you all to check out, its rather brilliant), Pa takes the family to see the glories of Raquel Welch and her iconic fur bikini in Hammer’s One Million Years B.C. – “it’s educational” he insists.
At the cinema we watch as Buddy is enraptured by the women on screen, in a vivid moment of over-saturated colour breaking through the black and white world of Belfast.
One Million Years B.C. had its UK cinema premier on 30 December 1966, so is it possible that the film was still screening in the big cinema in Belfast city centre in 1969? Indeed it is…
Distributors Warner-Pathé re-released the film across the UK and Ireland in 1968.
For the week beginning 13 October 1969, One Million Years B.C. was playing at the ABC Majestic on the Lisburn Road in a double bill with Hammer’s She in a continuous show Monday and Saturday at 2.15pm, and Tuesday to Friday 5.15pm.
It was also playing at the ABC Strand (in East Belfast, still in operation today as the Strand Arts Centre), also in a double bill with She at 7.15pm each evening, with a Saturday matinee at 2pm and a minors’ matinee on the Saturday at 9.30am! Curiously both films at the Strand screening are described as ‘abridged version’ suggesting there was a shorter edit in circulation (something I’ve never come across before now!).
Meanwhile The Capitol on the Antrim Road (where Buddy mistakenly says Robin and the 7 Hoods is playing) was screening The Most Dangerous Man in the World and Gendarme of St. Tropez.
Incidentally, Hammer fans that week could also have taken themselves to see The Gorgon, which was screening every day at the Rex on the Woodstock Road in East Belfast (at a very precise 8.43pm, with Saturday matinee at 2pm). Or you could have caught *ehem* revival screenings of Kiss of the Vampire and Paranoiac at the Park Cinema on the Oldpark Road on Monday and Tuesday. Glorious!!
However, I rather suspect that the actual screening that Buddy (or indeed Kenneth Branagh) was at, was in July 1969 during what is known in these parts as the ‘Twelfth Fortnight’, where many folks take their holidays owing to the proliferation of Orange marches [I’ll spare you the history lesson on these] and shutting down of many businesses for the early part of the month.
On 12th July itself, a protestant family like Buddy’s looking for entertainment, could either join in and watch the annual Orange Order marches through the city, or plonk themselves in the ABC Cinema where One Million Years B.C. and She were playing (as they had been from Monday 7th through to Saturday 12th) – the Ursula Andress vehicle screening at 12.50, 4.05 and 7.20pm, with Raquel Welch and Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs screening at 2.35, 5.50 and 9.10pm.
The following day, Sunday 13th, and for the next seven days the Classic Cinema (yes it again) was screening Hammer’s A Challenge for Robin Hood as 2.20, 4.45 and 9.05pm (with a family special on Sunday at 7pm).
With A Challenge For Robin Hood having screened in various Belfast cinemas in 1968 already, it seems that young Buddy is describing the contents of A Challenge For Robin Hood (a fairly traditional telling with “Little John, swords and everything”), which was due to screen at the Classic (and was advertised in the newspapers alongside the listings for One Million Years B.C. – see above), but mixing it up with the title of Robin and the 7 Hoods, which had played at the same cinema a couple of months before, and that the outing must have been to the ABC screening of One Million Years B.C. on 12th July itself.
This makes sense as we know Pa is normally only home at weekends. Further, Pa is told by one of the other men that he isn’t a ‘proper’ protestant, which could easily be reflected in the family’s shunning the more traditional seasonal celebrations for the glow of the silver screen.
We can probably rule out the 9.10pm screening as this seems a little late to be going to for the 9 year-old Buddy/Branagh. If I was to take a guess, I’d hazard the 5.50pm screening more likely than the 2.35pm one, as it would allow them to enjoy a leisurely morning/afternoon outdoors, and hopefully avoid any of the traffic complications of the returning Orange Order marches when the screen got out around 7.30pm. This would also have made it quite possibly they saw the 4.05pm screening of She too, although that isn’t mentioned in Belfast.
If there was any doubt about that particular cinema’s status, the ABC originally opened as the Ritz in 1936 and was known as ‘Ireland’s wonder cinema’ with its wurlitzer organ and cafe and seating for over 2200. It was the big cinema in the centre of town. It stood a couple of doors down from the Grand Opera House on Great Victoria Street, later becoming the Cannon cinema, before being demolished in 1994. [My only memory of it is seeing Ghostbusters II here when I was a kid!]. It was also just across the street and up a few doors from the humble Classic.
So there you have it, the memory of a 9 year old Kenneth Branagh, is actually pretty good, and we can allow the slight discrepancy down to dramatic license and the passing of 50 years. One also can’t help but wonder if Branagh is a fellow Hammer fan, with interest not just in One Million Years B.C., but a voiced desire to see A Challenge For Robin Hood. Mr Branagh, if you’re reading… do let us know!
Robert JE Simpson
24 March 2022
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