Projectionist retires after 50-year shift at historic Phoenix cinema

Peter Bayley says the job has been a reel pleasure

AFTER half a century of having the best seat at the Phoenix, the much-loved cinema’s longest-serving projectionist is hanging up his film reels.

Peter Bayley MBE began working at the East Finchley cinema on December 1 1960 and has remained there through name changes, technology upgrades, refurbishments and “countless” films.

This December, Mr Bayley, 73, will leave the projection room he has inhabited for half as long as the cinema has existed to spend time “getting under my wife’s feet”.

He says he first caught the projectionist bug – an ever-dying art in modern cinemas – as a schoolboy when a geography teacher asked him to stand by the projector and purposely set the focus and sound settings wrong for him to correct. He said: “I said to myself, ‘I wonder what it’s like to do this in a real cinema?’”

After leaving school at 15 and briefly working as a tea boy, he learned his trade at the North Finchley Odeon – but only after gaining permission from his parents to work “unsociable hours”.

Eight years on, he joined the Rex cinema – later to become the Phoenix – and over the years became chief projectionist.

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Mr Bayley has worked with countless different machines but still loves occasionally using film as opposed to the digital projector he uses most of the time. “There’s nothing more joyful than to place the film on the projector and put it on the screen – it’s absolutely magical,” he said.

The Phoenix is now in a minority in having a projectionist on site. Many managers now just press buttons from distant rooms in the multiplex.

“What the future holds is in the lap of the gods – it could end up that they produce a robot to just come in and press the buttons,” said Mr Bayley. “The magic of the job is what the films are about – comedy and drama and things where you look out and join in with the jokes and sometimes start laughing before the jokes come because you know what’s coming.”

Mr Bayley has experienced many magical moments but also low points at the cinema.

After the failure of his first marriage, Mr Bayley says he came close to alcoholism but was saved by the then new manageress, who offered him a choice.

“She said I had to choose the job or the pub – so I chose the job and went cold turkey,” says Mr Bayley.

“To keep me out of the pubs, the manageress decided to take me to the bingo. A love affair started and it took me four years to persuade her to marry me. That was 33 years ago in 1977 and Dorothy and I are still married today.”

Mr Bayley still says his greatest moment at the Phoenix is meeting his wife. Other highlights include everything from bolting the door to Brad Pitt fans while they filmed Interview With The Vampire inside, to receiving a kiss from Abi Titmuss after she finished a Loaded photo shoot.

He says the job also had its playful moments, for instance unwittingly switching round the order of the film reels on a Woody Allen film with an already unusual narrative structure.

“As I came down two old ladies were talking and saying, ‘Well isn’t it marvellous the way he backtracks on his story’,” he laughed.

His projectionist room remains much the same as the day he began his job 50 years ago.

“Up here is the finest seat in the house,” he said.

The Phoenix will be holding an open day on Sunday October 31. For more information or to book, visit www.phoenixcinema.co.uk.

PETER’S SHOW REEL:

FAVOURITE FILM ONE

Gone with the Wind: “I remember showing it on it’s first Odeon release in North Finchley and then six months later on its first independent release at the Rex –and since I’ve been here I’ve shown it again at least three separate times.”

FAVOURITE FILM TWO

The Glenn Miller Story: “It was one of the early films I was actually allowed to show on my own.”

FAVOURITE FILM THREE

Desperately Seeking Susan: “Twenty-five years ago I thought Madonna was just a screechy cow, until I saw the film Desperately Seeking Susan and I just fell in love with her and from then on got all her tapes and records and videos – I’m still a big fan.”

MOST BORING FILM

Stalker: “There was just no story or no go in it.”

MOST HORRIFYING FILM

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original version): “That played on my mind for many years after showing it, but I had to watch it. For a very long time afterwards I felt that hook going in my back.”

FAVOURITE FILM STAR

Burt Lancaster: “He is the double of my eldest brother and that’s why I’ve always liked him.”

FIRST FILM HE PROJECTED AT THE PHOENIX

The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor: “It’s a film I have a chequered history with.” After showing it at his former job and mixing up the reels on his first day of being in command at the then-Rex, the machine broke in the exact same place he had his former mishap and he was forced to jump into action, changing the reels.

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