Occasionally there appears on television an old film that revives long forgotten childhood memories of ‘going to the pictures’, as we used to call it back then, and where we saw it, even who we went with.
Watching television the other evening I came across Against All Flags, a swashbuckling pirate adventure made in 1952, and starring Errol Flynn, Maureen O’Hara and Anthony Quinn. I sat through as much of it as I could bear – it is a truly terrible film – if only to bathe in the recollections of the first time I went to see it, and what that involved in circumventing the rules governing what films children were allowed to see.
I saw Against All Flags at the Gaumont cinema in Bromley High Street. A huge theatre designed inside and out in the art deco style, it had steeple-cantered stalls, a wide stage framed by red velvet curtains and an organ pit. On one or two occasions which I can’t otherwise recall I heard it played, the seats vibrating with the bass notes that rolled around the building. I can still conjure up but can’t adequately define the numen of the place: warm, creamy and soft, suffused with the odour of stale tobacco.
As to those rules that I mentioned, in those days films were ‘certified’ by a body called the British Board of Film Censors, the cinema’s equivalent of the live theatre’s Lord Chamberlain. Certified meant the issuing of a certificate by the BBFC rating the film as suitable for viewing by an audience of all ages or one that required children under a certain age – twelve I seem to remember – to be accompanied by an adult. The first category was designated ‘U’, for Universal, and the second ‘A’, for Adult.
These rating seemed to be applied somewhat whimsically. A pirate film like Against All Flags, plainly designed by its Hollywood studio to appeal to children, might be given an ‘A’ – and so it was, as I remember vividly – while a film with a more ‘adult’ theme – one that children would have no interest in seeing – would pop up with a ‘U’. There was a third category, ‘X’, but this was so rarely used as to be almost irrelevant.
Part of the BBFC’s role was to protect children from scenes of an overt sexual nature, a worthy objective except that few films then had much sex in them, and nothing of the explicit nature to which we have since become accustomed. Violence was also something that the BBFC kept in mind, but again few films then had the menace or the blood and gore that in later years would become commonplace.
The BBFC invariably erred on the safe side of whatever dividing line they had devised to determine ratings.
This made life very frustrating for fervent juvenile cinema goers like me and my friends. The ‘A’ certificate for Against All Flags meant that we had to resort to hanging around outside the cinema asking adults – complete strangers, mind – to take us in as if we were family members. This couldn’t be done hunting in packs. An individual might be taken in, perhaps a pair, but grow-ups seemed to balk at more than two.
Many grown-ups balked at taking one. Younger ones, not much older than we were, could be the most offensive – “Get lost, kid” a frequent response. Older grown-ups sometimes chided us. “This is not right, you know. Do your parents know you’re doing this?”
My parents didn’t know because I didn’t tell them, and I didn’t tell them because it didn’t seem important to at the time. I’m not sure they would have cared even if they had known, although they might have worried about us being taken in by an older man by himself, though we would never ask a man on his own because we had heard the lurid stories of children being ‘interfered with’.
I got in to see Against All flags, I remember with crystalline clarity, by importuning a middle-aged couple, who as luck would have it turned out to be neighbours of ours who recognised me. I asked them if my friend Ray could join us, and they readily agreed. Once inside, grown-ups were not made to feel obliged to sit with us – and would rather we didn’t – so we would thank them heartily and slope off into the darkness, somewhere down towards the front of the stalls.
Why did Against All Flags merit that inexplicable ‘A’? I have no idea. The only violence in the film comes from the many sword-fights from which not a single drop of blood flows. There is no sex in the film. Maureen O’Hara is well buttoned-up in breeches and doublet – she plays the tom-boy type, who might be mistaken for a man until she lets her red hair down – and only in the final scene does she submit to a kiss from Errol Flynn, and a chaste one at that.
There is just once scene that might have agitated the BBFC members, involving the hero and a companion being tied to stakes on a beach to await the incoming tide and the accompanying man-eating crabs. I remember we kids found this, even at the time, more hilarious than terrifying.
It is odd, I think, how we remember certain films and where we saw them and with whom. Against All Flags is a poor excuse for a film, but it struck me as wonderfully exciting at the time, and here it is memorialised in my personal history.