What’s on your mind?

Isn’t it strange how random memories come to the surface when you least expect them. Especially when you wake in the middle of the night, and your mind seems to race away.

I’ve not been sleeping particularly well in recent weeks. I’m not sure if this is due to Covid-19 anxiety or what. Whatever the cause, it’s increasingly annoying to wake up around 1 or 2 am, then lying awake for an hour or so, while your thoughts are whirling round and round. That’s what happened a couple of nights ago.

All of a sudden I found myself thinking about the cinemas in the town where I grew up. Leek, in North Staffordshire. My family had moved there (from Congleton in Cheshire, 12 miles away) in April 1956 when I was seven.

I have no idea what sparked these memories, because none of this had crossed my mind before I went to bed. In fact, I can’t remember ever thinking about this topic. And this is all the more strange because I have very little interest in film. I watch the occasional movie on TV (I like a good Western), but I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema. Might be 35 years ago when my daughters were small.


Anyway, let me fill in some details. In 1956, Leek boasted three cinemas: The Grand Theatre (on the corner of High St and Field St); The Palace (at the end of High St on the corner with Salisbury St); and The Majestic (on the corner of Union St and Horton St, off Stockwell St). Leek doesn’t have any stand-alone cinema today. [1]

The Majestic was destroyed in a fire around 1961. Part of the Buxton and Leek College has since been built on that site. The Grand closed its doors in 1986 and was demolished and replaced by housing in 2003. The Palace (later renamed the Regal) converted to a bingo club in 1963. After the bingo club was closed down in 1987, it became a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was also demolished in 2003 and replaced, like The Grand, by housing.

The photos below show (clockwise from top left): an aerial view of High St with The Grand in the center (you can just see the curved roof of The Palace on the right); The Grand Theatre; The Palace; and The Majestic after the fire in 1961. These photos were originally posted by members [2] of the Facebook group, The History & Heritage of Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands.

The Grand also had a stage, and each year a local amateur operatic society, The Leekensians, staged a production there, generally one of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas.

The Majestic was somewhat of a ‘fleapit’, rather run down. I don’t think it was much of a loss to the town when it burnt down.


Anyway, there I was, still lying awake around 3 am or so, wondering why on earth memories of cinemas back in the day were coming to the surface. I haven’t lived in Leek since October 1967 when I moved away to university—apart from short visits to my parents.

To complicate my ‘insomnia’, I then wondered what ‘memorable’ films I had seen at each cinema. And, as if by magic, the titles of three films spontaneously popped into my mind, films that were released in 1956 and 1957: High Society, Old Yeller, and The Mountain. While Old Yeller was a ‘children’s film’, I’m not so sure why I was allowed to see the other two.

No wonder I wasn’t able to sleep. The films are quite different genres (musical, family adventure, action), none regarded as blockbusters in their heyday. But there they were, emerging from the deep recesses of my mind.


Cole Porter in the 1930s

I watched High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra at The Grand. It is a romantic musical comedy, and was directed by Charles Walters. This was the last film that Grace Kelly made before she gave up this kind of stardom and married Prince Rainier of Monaco.

The film features many classic songs penned by Cole Porter, but among the most memorable are Who Wants To Be A Millionaire performed by Sinatra and Celeste Holm, and the duet between Crosby and Sinatra, Well, Did You Evah!, (originally written by Porter in 1939 for another musical, and adapted for High Society). The film also featured Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and his Band (as themselves).

High Society was a commercial success, and is revived on TV from time to time. But I’ve never seen the next two films again since the 1950s.


Old Yeller, a ‘family picture’ directed by Robert Stevenson, was released in 1957 by the Walt Disney studio. It starred Fess Parker (of the Davy Crockett miniseries fame) Dorothy McGuire, and a young Tommy Kirk. The film is based on the 1956 book by Fred Gipson. I watched this at The Palace, with my elder brother Ed, and I think with my Mum and Dad.

The film tells the tale ‘about a boy [Travis] and a stray dog in post-Civil War Texas.’ The dog, Old Yeller, is a labrador-retriever cross.

The bond is strong between Travis and the dog that, in the course of the film, is attacked by feral hogs while out hunting. Old Yeller develops rabies, becoming aggressive. Towards the end of the film, Travis takes it upon himself to shoot his dog. You can watch that scene on YouTube.

Quite a powerful message for a young audience. Typical Disney.

In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


Now the third film, The Mountain (directed by Edward Dmytryk) is quite dark. I know I went to watch it with my mother at The Majestic. But on reflection it probably wasn’t altogether suitable for a boy of eight or nine.

Set in the french Alps and starring Spencer Tracy and a young Robert Wagner, The Mountain was based on the novel La neige en deuil, a 1952 French novel by Henri Troyat. This novel was inspired by the crash of an Air India flight in 1950.

Spencer Tracy (in 1948) and Robert Wagner (in 1967).

A plane crashes on Mont Blanc and is reputed to be carrying gold bullion. Christopher Teller (Wagner) persuades his reluctant elder brother and skilled mountaineer, Zachary (played by Tracy) to take him to the crash site so he can rob the dead passengers.

When they arrive at the crash site, they encounter one of the passengers, a young Indian woman, still alive in the wrecked fuselage. Despite greedy Christopher’s insistence that they should leave her to die, Zachary prevails and they begin the long climb back down the mountain with the injured woman. Christopher attempts to cross a snow bridge (against the advice of his experienced brother), and falls to his death.

For some reason this film has always had a ‘hold’ on me. The moment when Zachary and Christopher discover the injured woman (probably the first time I’d seen an Indian woman) has stayed with me. It’s strange how these things can have an impact although not dramatic.

The Mountain was not a box office success. Maybe it was the implausibility of Tracy playing an older brother to Wagner. He was, in fact, thirty years old than Wagner.


Since this bout of ‘cinema insomnia’ I’ve actually been sleeping somewhat better. Having brought these remote memories to the surface they are no longer niggling away in the background, so to speak. I wonder if others have this same problem?


[1] Local Leek historian Neil Collingwood recently published a couple of articles about the town’s cinemas in the town’s Post & Times newspaper, and he has kindly shared them with me here.

[2] Matthew Adams; Jason Brown; Neil Collingwood (x3)

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