World Cinema - Greece, March 2016

Michael Rowan, a member of Chiltern Film Society's committee, is finding out about how people from different countries experienced cinema in their homeland.

With one exception I have only ever visited the cinema in the UK and had always assumed that mine was a universal experience. One day a chance conversation made me wonder if perhaps I was being naïve and so I set myself the challenge to find out what people living in Chesham but born in another country recalled about cinema in their homeland. I am very grateful to everyone who gave up their time to give me such an insight often reviving memories that they had forgotten.

Introduction

Today I am in company with Yorgos, (known in Chesham as George) Papavgeris who hails from Greece. George’s home town is Thessaloniki which he describes as the Manchester or Birmingham of Greece in so much as it is the second city, seeing itself as a rival to Athens

George moved from Greece to the UK in the 1970s when he was 18 on a scholarship to Oxford in order to study chemical engineering though he later switched later to computer science. He moved with his young family to Chesham in 2003 because of the schools. George is married and has two children, a son and daughter.  He is a grandfather of 3 but they are in Australia as his son moved there.

Music is by far his biggest hobby; George is a lover of Folk music, both listening and performing and is still on the circuit. His latest venture is to put on a series of concerts in his home, the first taking place in March where quality will be the watch word, so the concerts will be infrequent. He also reviews music.

In May last year George was diagnosed with the early stages of bowel cancer and he stresses that ‘the early stage’ is important. His Doctor was also worried about his weight and suggested that he aimed to lose 10 kilos. The Doctor and Consultant frightened him into losing 11 kilos and 10 days after the operation he was given the all clear. George has now lost 20 kilos (3 stones)

1) How does the cinema here differ from that in Greece?

George recalls his time in Greece in the 1960s and 70s when visiting the cinema was a very popular pastime and people typically would go to the cinema 3 or 4 times a week. It was often the case that cinemagoers would enter the cinema in the light and come out in the dark.

The UK was a far more formal experience with the seating layout, the curtain drawn back and the comparative emptiness because in Greece cinemas were always full but in the UK they were often half empty.

George was amused that the formality of the UK cinema even extended to smoking which boasted a designated smoking section. This formality was, he thought, stereotypically English (in the 70s).

Of course the most obvious difference was that cinema in Greece had outdoor cinemas as well as indoor ones, though the outdoor were fewer. They were not like a drive in but more often enclosed by blocks of flats. The open air ones only operated in the summer though there were a few post ones with a closable roof that operated as both. The truly posh one had electrical motors for the retractable roof which meant that they could protect against the odd summer or autumn rain. George remembers watching some films beneath an umbrella. If the projection had to stop because the rain was too hard they received a full refund.

Food at the cinema also came as a shock when he bought his first Hot Dog and George wondered how it was possible to take sausage, mustard and onion and make it so tasteless.

No wonder George was struck by the formality of cinema in the UK - in Thessaloniki the cinema seating would be cheap weather resistant garden furniture. Some of the cinemas would have areas with tables for food.

The floor was usually gravel which had the advantage of hiding all the cigarette butts.

2) What is your first memory of going to the cinema as a child?

In Thessaloniki there was a Children’s Cinema which specialised in only showing Children’s Films suitable up to 12 to 15, anything from Disney Cartoons to Laurel and Hardy. These cinemas were less cramped and less stifling than those aimed at the adults, but they were smaller so had fewer seats. George recalls his Godfather taking him to see Walt Disney’s Snow White [Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1937], how excited he was and long after the film finished he was still buzzing.

3) What was the first film that you recall seeing?

Snow White which possibly explains why I was so buzzing after leaving the cinema. I had never seen anything quite like it.

4) How expensive was it to visit the cinema?

It was very cheap so by the time he was a young teenager it cost about 15 Drachma (20p)

The cinemas could be divided into two; one offering a first showing which is a film is shown for the first time in Greece and therefore more expensive. A second showing was cheaper but would be an older film seen before.

5) What was the etiquette in the cinema in Greece?

Etiquette doesn’t really apply in this setting. Unlike in the UK there were no usherettes and people found their own seat. Smoking was allowed everywhere and we would talk and cheer during the film so it was more of a shared experience. That said it was not rowdy unless it was a bad film, in which case there would be cat calls and wise cracks. A favourite was letting empty pop bottles roll slowly down the aisle making a noise from the rolling glass on the hard surface.

Banter and joking were part of the experience particularly in the second showing as often the film would be threadbare and need fixing rethreading which would happen at least once a month.

6) When I was a child the only food eaten in the cinema was tubs of ice cream or choc ice, Orange Juice and hot dogs. What kind of food could you buy at the cinema?

Well of course we had ice cream; soda and lemonade.  Coca Cola was too posh for us back then.

Having something to nibble on throughout the film was essential and we used to eat Pumpkin and Sunflower seeds. We would ask for ‘white’ or ‘black’. The ‘black’ were sunflower seeds salted and roasted in their shells so the sound of cracking the shells and chewing the seeds permeated the cinema. They were slightly cheaper and one you got more for your Drachma. The white ones were Pumpkin seeds

Both types were known as Passatempa from the Italian ‘passa il tempo’ literally to pass the time. We also ate Chickpeas which were available hard (roasted) or soft, the soft were fried and of course both were salted.

7) What sort of films were shown in Greece? Was it the usual blockbuster? Walt Disney or something else?

We were able to enjoy everything but always a few weeks behind the rest of the world. Home grown Greek cinema had its own following but was usually of poor quality, though my Mother enjoyed them. Greek cinema usually fell into one of two categories either slapstick or weepies. The films were heavily influenced by the Turkish film industry and at least half followed the format of poor guy meets rich girl or vice versa.

The films were always subtitled and never dubbed. This unassuming fact segues neatly to another film anecdote.

You will recall that the impetus for George to come to the UK was to take up a scholarship at Oxford. What George failed to tell me was that prior to that he had to undergo a university interview and naturally that was to be undertaken in English, which at the time George didn’t speak. The original interview had been in French and George had just two months to learn English

The British Council paid for English lessons and his tutor advised him to go to the cinema every day and watch English (but not American) films and to watch them without reading the subtitles. George still remembers that The Thomas Crown Affair [Norman Jewison, 1968] was the very first film that he could successfully follow without relying on the subtitles.

8) Do you go to the cinema in UK – if so what were your first impressions?

As I said earlier the overriding impression was the formality and also that in the UK it was considered an occasion to go to the cinema.

9) We have certain films that are shown every Christmas, is that the same in your country and if so what?  Perhaps for Christmas or another festival?

No it was not like here in UK so any I have are all from my life in the UK. The Greek character is to "move on: we have seen that".

10) And what film character would you like to be?

Somebody funny but deep, perhaps Patch Adams [Tom Shadyac, 1998] played by Robin Williams.

11) Finally what is your favourite film?

Dumbo [Walt Disney, 1941] because I watched it with the kids dozens of times

Perhaps not a favourite but a favourite memory was when I watched, In the Heat of the Night [Norman Jewison, 1967] starring Sydney Poitier from my uncle’s balcony for free. I saw it most days whilst I was staying with him.

Thank you George for your insight into cinema going in Greece it was good to meet you.