Surfin’ downtown for an organ and some blondes

A bronzed surfer dude grabs a board, races into the water. I’m already there, paddling out, rays on my back, tanning through the oil.

Surf’s up – and before you know it I’m riding the crest of a wave.

Not really.

Both hands on top of the steering wheel, smiling to myself, happy to be alive, I’m actually driving into Liverpool.

In an eight year old, bottom of the range, automatic . . . Skoda.

I’m listening to BBC Radio-Middle-Class. The early evening news show. But they’re with some guy who’s driving a VW camper van.

And – they’re playing the Beach Boys.

One minute I’m just me – the next I’m California girl.

Catching waves.

In the warmth of the sun.

On top of the world.

Yeah, baby, yeah!

It can’t last, of course, but it’s an omen for the evening. You know, one of those that starts well and just gets better. (Believe me, it’s been a while.)

The guy gobbing at my feet as I walk along Liverpool’s famous Hope Street isn’t what you might call a great appetiser, but by the time the glass of Spanish rosé has been supped and the chicken liver with rosemary pâté ingested, it’s forgotten.

We opt for the £7 tickets over the £6 and end up – just the two of us – in a box. No, not experimental art. We’re talking a box in the Philharmonic Hall.

You’re thinking that’s not a lot to pay for a concert, right? Or, how did I manage to pass myself off as a student?

It’s not a concert. We’re here to see a film – a special film, on a special screen, with a very special accompanist. He’s playing as we arrive, tunes I recognise – but I won’t admit to it if you ask me. My mother’s generation tunes. The kind they played on the BBC Light Programme, around morning coffee time, in Music While You Work.

Our 79 year old organist, Dave Nicholas – the only resident cinema organist in the UK – began his career over the water in Birkenhead. Stars like Cary Grant once sailed the Atlantic to be at premieres there – but not any more.

Anyway Dave’s come over the water to be with us tonight. Probably not surfing – though he might have done a bit of wave chasing when he worked at Butlins – you never know.

He bounces off the organ bench to take a bow, the personification of a giggle. An aura of chuckles bubbles off him as he introduces himself, the organ, and the spectacle we’re about to see.

Like a budgie bouncing with health (who says advertising doesn’t work?) he’s back on his perch, feet on the pedals, fingers flying over the keys as the ‘Walturdaw rising cinema screen’ materialises from the platform.


I mean, serious wow.

I wasn’t expecting this. Never mind a screen, this is an art deco cinema – and it’s rising from the concert hall stage.

There are only three in the world and this is the only one that’s working. It’s unique. (Oh how I wish I could add an adjective, or a qualifier to that – but unique is just – unique, isn’t it?)

It’s a silent film. Alfred Hitchcock’s first thriller. And it’s all there. The angled shots, the spooky lighting, the hand on the banister seen descending several vertiginous flights of stairs.

The blonde in the steamy bathroom undressing without revealing anything. Naked toes wiggling in the clear bath water.

Sinister men and more blonde women – the theatre girls with their ‘Golden Curls’.

And the glass ceiling. The lodger – Ivor Novello – seen from below, pacing as the ceiling light swings beneath his steps downstairs. Is he the murderous ‘Avenger’?

Ivor Novello was just a name to me. I’d never seen the man before and I’m sorry to lower the tone but – phwoar!

The smouldering eyes, the aristocratic profile, the tallish frame just the right side of thin – and glamorous. Soooooo glamorous.

I’m captivated. Despite the garish make-up – and the teeth. They all have terrible teeth. But then, so do I. ‘We’re just the pre-fluoride generation,’ says my lovely female dentist, reassuringly. But hers don’t look like mine. Ah well. I digress.

Tea is drunk. And beer. The older, tired-looking woman polishes the brass fender, cooks the meals, does the dishes. The man of the house sits back with his pipe and his feet up. The fire smokes in the background.

Outside there’s fog, gas lamps – and murders. Of blondes.

This film is mesmerising. The captions archly self-aware and slightly jokey. Despite the fact that it’s a murder mystery.

We don’t see any gore.

We don’t see any torture.

We don’t see any bare breasts or bottoms.

We do see Ivor Novello hanging from the railings, snagged by his handcuffs, being attacked by a baying mob fresh out of a dismal pub in the London fog.

And there’s a romantic ending.

But then it’s all over. The organ signals the end – and so do the big words on the screen.

Mr Music bows, like a human comma in perfect evening attire, to loud applause, then he plays the screen into the ground again.

We trot back down Hope Street, turn the corner past the restaurants.

Under the dim lights of the old street lamps – their gas replaced by yellow electric lights – we pick our way along the small cobbles, past the sooty-looking brick of the Georgian terraces. For a moment I’m back there with the Golden Curls girls, in foggy London town.

From surfer duderina, to silent movie blonde. What a fabulous way to spend an evening.

Only in Liverpool.


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14 Responses to Surfin’ downtown for an organ and some blondes

  1. Christa Mee says:

    Another wonderful piece! I couldn’t begin to describe an evening out in Liverpool like that!


  2. John Kemp says:

    Like, you said – Wow! Super! Saturday morning matinées – Happy days are here again! Boys carrying armloads of American comics (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman…) for exchange. What a marvellous experience, And your telling of it really swings along. Skodas are good cars, my wife’s is 15 years old.
    I tried getting Dark Side of the Moon on U-Tube but was told prohibited in “my” country (France) for copyright reasons.


    • Thanks John – glad you liked it! I just couldn’t stop thinking about it last night so had to write it up today – such a good evening. What a nuisance about Dark Side of the Moon – I’ll see what I can do….


  3. Audrey Chin says:

    Ah, I enjoyed your evening Husk. All that evocative prose has just made me hot and bothered and feeling just kinda itchy to go watch one of those films. All we have is Turner Classics on cable though, unfortunately, with all the films “colored”. Envy.


    • Hi Audrey. Glad I managed to convey the enjoyment – and sorry it has you itching in frustration! It really was fantastic. I’ve been here 9 years now and it’s the first time I’ve been there for a film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a silent movie on a big screen and it was a very different experience from watching one on the box – I will be going again. The man on the organ was a star.


  4. Owls says:

    Thank you for this marvelous post.

    We have a wonderful old theater here in Richmond, Virginia that still has it’s Wurlitzer organ. It’s called the Byrd.

    As children in the 1960s and 1970s we would go for Saturday matinees, and they would use the organ for cartoons…occasionally. The organ also controlled a harp and a piano in balconies on either side of the theater, so they would play themselves, accompanying the organist who was up there bobbing away. Very spooky and exciting. Then in the early 70s the Byrd put on a special showing of the silent film “Wings” and the organist played along, live. It was spectacular. He even did the sing-alongs before the main event.

    Now, after decades of almost going under, the Byrd theater has found a niche again and the organ has become very popular on Saturday evenings. It is wonderful fun on Christmas Eve and Christmas Night to go sing carols and then watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”


    • Too-whit too-whoo Owls! So you’re in Richmond VA how exciting. Lovely Wurlitzer YouTube, thanks – the joy of seeing it rise up – wow! We have an art deco community cinema down the road (Plaza cinema Waterloo) but sadly it has been a bit carved up to make small multi-screens and has no organ – but there is some art deco still intact and a balcony in the main screen. I never went to Saturday cinema as a child but there’s a comment from John Kemp here who did and he mentions comics – ah comics! Free gifts, so exciting – and such innocuous small things that pleased us. A cheap plastic bracelet, a cardboard and paper contraption that made a loud bang.
      I tried to find a YouTube of Dave Nicholas at the Phil but found this first – not at the Phil –

      which gives you an idea of how the man comes across. He’s played all over the place. The organ is a Rushworth and Dreaper not a Wurlitzer. I can see I could become very nerdy about this as I happened upon a firm of organ pipe specialists here in Liverpool who maintain all sorts of organs – that’s the problem with Google – too many roads leading too many places tempting magpie minds. Don’t get me started on barrel makers and church fittings…
      But I ought to get back to work – so bye for now and thanks for reading.


  5. I,m am very pleased you enjoyed the film It was a wonderful evening Thank you your very comments Best Wishes Dave Nicholas


    • Ah Dave – I’m thrilled you read this as I loved it – you were fantastic! I only wish I’d discovered this wonderful side to the Phil earlier. We saw you in the foyer on the way out and I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it but you were busy with lots of people. Thank you again, for a really, really memorable evening, your new fan, Mary


  6. mud4fun says:

    What a wonderful post. I almost felt as though I was there too 🙂


  7. So this is why you’re not doing any ‘work’! Get thee to a pooter immediately and stop all this frivolity, you star!
    I’ve had several VWs, [Veedubs to the cognoscenti], including the iconic split windscreen we took to the Isle of Wight Pop Festival, been there, done that, never did surf though.


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