Penistone Paramount Cinema (built 1915) is one of the oldest cinemas in the UK. Having gone there from early childhood it has been my temple of delights and a mecca of mirth to the point where, in my mind’s eye, it seems much larger than it actually is. While others aspire to play The Royal Albert Hall, The Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall I’ll be perfectly happy with the Paramount.
I had a visit there recently and made some interesting connections.
It was my sister Heidi who, on watching the new McShane & Shaw video McSwing, said she could imagine seeing it in a movie theatre while waiting for the main feature. Good idea sis! Within a week I’d booked a meeting with Brian Barnsley, the manager of the Paramount.
Brian agreed to screen McSwing in the upcoming season. Causing me to blurt out something like,
“Wow that’s amazing. So great. Thankyou Brian, a dream come true… etc.” I was probably a bit over the top for what this is, but hey, it’s my first time so forgive me if I get excited.
McSwing will be screened March 19, 2022 alongside a remastered edition of Buster Keaton’s 1926 classic The General. Which is another underdog film like It’s a Wonderful Life, both of them failing at the box office before eventually becoming recognised as masterpieces.
Better still, the soundtrack to The General will be played by a live organist on the Paramount’s Compton Organ – a heritage electric instrument from the era when organs supplied the music to a host of events from tea parties to dances. Nowadays a musician with a looper pedal can sound like an entire band, but back then a person sitting at a well-equipped organ could make melody, harmony, chords, rhythms and sound effects.
Locomotive enthusiasts think the saying “…all the bells and whistles” originates from the era of steam trains. But I know, if I were an organ salesman, I’d be pushing organs at various price points according to customer budget. And with each step-up in price the customer would get more features: as in …more bells and whistles. Obviously my biggest and best organ in the range – the creme de la crème of my organ inventory – would be the one possessing all the bells and whistles. And a discerning ear could hear any and all of these sounds simultaneously should they decide to pull out all the stops.
The meeting with Mr Barnsley turned out to be unexpectedly productive because, when I told him that McShane and Shaw also have a live Christmas show, he decided to book that too (December 18 2022 folks!) But what followed was the discovery that he loves the nuts and bolts of showbiz just like I do. He’s not just a cinema manager but a student of pretty much anything that can be done on a stage.
For some reason we got talking about how much focus it takes to be a stage technician – without being distracted by the onstage action. I recounted my own difficulty with operating a follow-spot at the Paramount during a Panto production of Aladdin when I was a lad of eighteen. My job was to train the spotlight on an actor and then keep it on them as they moved. Simple, right? But I found it impossible not to get distracted by action happening elsewhere onstage. Several times the actor moved out of my light and I didn’t notice. They’d be standing in the dark looking towards me as if to say, “Hey! I’m over here.”
I’m sure it can’t only be me that gets so easily distracted. I once got a motorway speeding fine (for going 54mph in a temporary 40 zone) and to avoid losing points on my licence, I chose to take a safe-driving course. I twice asked a question about losing focus, or “zoning-out” and both times I was ignored. Perhaps because my question sounded funny and kept getting a laugh the instructor dismissed it. But I meant it as a serious point:
The reason I’d been over the speed limit was because I chose to keep pace with other traffic that was overtaking me. At that point I no longer knew what the speed limit was because I had daydreamed. I’d assumed we were now back to normal speed and reacted accordingly. And that’s when the camera snapped me; and, I presume, all those other cars too.
But we do that don’t we? Going steadily along a road we start to think about other things and become less aware of our surroundings. And hopefully we quickly snap back to reality when our brain needs to function on all cylinders again.
But as a performer that’s when you come unstuck. You can’t afford to do that. And the more live performance you do the better you understand this principle. I believe that as we improve at a skill the more intense our focus becomes.
I heard an interview with a race car driver who was asked what music he listens to in his day-to-day driving. He said, “I never listen to music while driving – it’s too distracting.”
That blew my mind actually. This guy was so attuned to having full control over his vehicle that even tootling along a back road he still wouldn’t let his focus waiver for even a second. And yet I, with my more questionable driving abilities, feel perfectly fine with zooming around the countryside, like some kind of Mr Toad for the new millennium, singing along to the radio as I swerve around corners and fly over bridges.
Brian Barnsley told me about a legendary follow-spot operator called Linford Hudson who worked his trade at The London Palladium for over 50 years; shining his finely balanced spotlight on the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Bette Midler – without missing a move. He would faultlessly keep the light just off the end of Shirley Bassey’s fingertips when she flung her arms wide for the final note – because he’s a guy with focus.
Having established that, in some ways, I don’t have perfect focus, it turns out that my powers of concentration serve me far better during my live performances. And they need to, because I’m constantly switching thoughts: Where should I look now? What’s the next chord? How do I get the attention of that person over there? Here comes the new line I added yesterday. I’ll swell the volume now to give more expression here. Make sure to hit the high note in tune. How should I segue into the next piece? Now a sudden stop to react to what just happened – think of something funny to say… boom – now go again…
Most people don’t have a clue about what is going on in the performer’s head.
After a show I often hear these words,
“Wow you were really having fun up there weren’t you!”
A statement like that doesn’t begin to describe what this is. It’s an intense thrill, yes. In the same way that I imagine climbing a cliff face without ropes is intense. But any joy is locked within the moment – to the point where I have no clue whether I’m enjoying it or not because I’m so fully immersed in the experience. If I stopped to notice whether I was having fun or not – well that would ruin it. I smile – yes. I laugh and sing – yes. That’s the job. But I wouldn’t say it’s “fun” in any normal sense of the word.
The fun of being a performer lies more in the development and preparation stages than it does within the performance itself. Coming up with new stuff and then working on it, either alone or with musical partners, can be positively gleeful. But all that is very different to the public display.
And it’s so hard to explain this to someone who has never experienced it. Getting yourself to the top of the mountain and then back down – all in one piece – requires skill, practice, confidence, tireless focus, an ability to spot things before they happen, a loyal team and a great love for the activity itself.
But “fun”? Well, that doesn’t really come into it…