Programme Notes from Les Miserables

Look down, look down,

Don’t look ’em in the eye.

By the time Jean Valjean and his fellow convicts had hauled in the French Man O’ War, the couple to my left had nodded off – the man’s head tilted back against the wall, jaw loose,  the woman’s body twisted awkwardly over his chest.

Little surprise considering the intense heat laid on for matineés and the draining events of Les Misthe previous half hour. I’d counted sixteen of us filling the back row when the doors  opened and, in our early 60s, my friend and I were clearly the youngsters of the party. Outer clothes had been quickly discarded, and with the screen curtains still shut, a buzz of anticipation had filtered along the row as film reviews were shared and medical matters dissected.

‘I’ve heard it’s not as good as the stage version,’ the woman by my friend said, loudly. ‘But I’ll give it a chance’

‘Very noble of you,’ my friend replied.

‘Javert’s got a kidney stone. They take it out later,’ I thought I heard a woman say, although I doubted the stage show had been tampered with to that extent. Perhaps she meant someone else.

We’d hardly settled when a young usher came in.

‘Anyone dropped a Bus Pass?’ he called out. ‘Sorry, can’t give the name – Data Protection. But we’ve put it behind the hot chocolate counter.’

At this, the women of the row emptied purses of cards used for this, that and the other, whilst men checked front, back and side pockets of coats and trousers. To echoes of, ‘I know it’s in here somewhere,’ sixteen Bus Passes were eventually accounted for, and the usher had unwittingly added to our camaraderie.

But then the mood changed. A string of men in track suits came through the swing doors and took up the row in front of us. Word went round that they were basketball players from Bucharest at a tournament in Gloucester that evening. With their average height of six foot eleven and the cinema’s mean seating rake, we had a problem.

Taking the initiative, and not without a good deal of tutting and muttering, the couple at the end of our row moved into seats in front of the Romanians, encouraging others to follow, until we were all neatly ensconced in the third row from the back.

But to our surprise, in what seemed an intuitive counter-attack, the basketball team moved purposefully from their seats, once again lining up in front of us. Some people saw this as Les Misdecidedly anti-British. I heard mention of the European Community and unfounded comment on cultural differences, the net result of which was our second, more boisterous shift into the seats below the Romanians, followed by a bilingual exchange of views about what was right and who was entitled to what in Europe and in Cineworld.

It had become a grudge match. With the temperature rising in every sense, the Romanians took no time at all in re-establishing a positional advantage, and as the screen came to life and lights dimmed, so the battle between sixteen lanky basketball players and sixteen people of leisure, tumbling in childlike fashion down the centre stalls of Screen 6, had continued until the Romanians reached the front row.

The ignominy of defeat hung heavily over us. But we were not finished. Hushed tactics passed along the line, and at a signal from a man with a tartan cravat and navy Pringle sweater, we crept, under cover of a booming trailer for Red Dawn with which our rivals seemed pre-occupied, back up to the seats we’d started off in. The next few minutes, in which we sat tight-lipped, anticipating a re-run of the ten minute charade, passed peacefully. The Romanians seemed happy having extra leg room and  no-one in front of them, and we’d restored our viewing advantage.

‘Marvellous how they’ve designed a car that doesn’t need a driver,’ said the man next to me, as a slinky, red Golf drove itself across the screen.

‘No point advertising if it doesn’t need one,’ I suggested, wondering why in this heat he was still wearing his narrow-rimmed, check trilby.

With fifteen minutes to go, a mouth-watering advertisement had then informed us:

‘There’s still time to collect your refreshing Werther’s Original from the foyer – and, gentlemen, why not take the opportunity to make yourselves comfortable while you can.’

Announcement of this intermission, tailored for matineés, led to evacuation of the back row, but not before we’d possessively laid cardigans and cagoules across seats to discourage trespass. Outside, the eight women formed an orderly queue at the sweet counter while we men split into two groups, one taking up the four Gents urinal spaces while the other four of us chatted for five minutes about sundry coach trips until it was our turn.

Armed with various sized tubs of freshly-produced Werther’s Original, we headed back in, relieved to find the Romanians still at the front. As the familiar Werther’s crunch rattled through the air, a screen message beseeched us not to spoil others’ enjoyment by leaving mobiles on. Women foraged deep in handbags and men in pockets to retrieve phones.

‘It’s that silver knob on the side,’ said one woman, as her companion tried switching off his mobile, only to get successive, tinny renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth. I could see the light on another man’s phone coming back on as quickly as he turned it off, whilst the woman next to my friend was using a key-fob torch to browse an instruction booklet before poking randomly at a screen with a life of its own.

Now, with the movie taking hold, a glance along the row showed people at various angles Les Misof repose.The couple next to me were already away; the Family Bucket of Werther’s was sliding off my friend’s lap; and my eyes too were growing heavy. By the time a cropped Fantine was ‘dreaming her dream’, I barely noticed what must have been a minibus outing of Marge Simpson look-alikes slip silently into the row in front of us.

Paul Costello © March 2013

The story of how I can fall asleep anywhere is told in:

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.

Illustrated by Emma Hames.  Header image above from chapter titled: Caught Napping    

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions 

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2



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