The Monico – A Cinema

The Monico – A Cinema

I remember.

Dark Fridays in November, when night would begin before day had a chance to properly end. When the air was cold and damp and light mist drifted along Pantbach Road, caressing the rooftops of the parked cars, swirling in arcs of light from the streetlamps. Friday nights when the queue would wind its way around the front of the large looming, yellow rendered picture house, disappearing into the darkness of the car park on Ty-Wern Road. Family treats – adults and children, husbands and wives, boyfriend, girlfriend, nervous young lovers in the first throes of awkward adolescent romance. Sombrely attired pensioners, silently judging the younger crowd.

Familiar faces. The woman with the earrings in the claustrophobic ticket booth, her bottom half forever hidden beneath the counter. The woman in the tuck-shop, her back always half turned, reaching for sweets or drinks. Mr Monico himself, standing at the back of the foyer, a bespectacled observer, immaculate in navy blazer and grey trousers, matching the neatly trimmed beard and receding hairline; his shadow crawling up the blue-grey wall, sandwiched between glass framed posters for ET and Rocky III. A man of severity, intolerant of those whose mischief threatened the wider audience’s pleasure .

We huddled, slowly moving, shifting patiently towards the small kiosk at the entrance to the foyer. Handing over money without thought for an evening’s entertainment – a ticket for the film and a box of something sweet. A drink – 7-Up or Coke or maybe a tub of orange cordial with the bendy straw that would spew juice as it pierced the plastic lid. Inching through the small and crowded foyer, adults holding children’s hands in the growing crowd of limbs and overcoats. A general murmur of clipped conversations as all headed towards the stairs; darkly lit and winding away from the hubbub below.That was the Monico.

Two screens, two theatres. Proudly boasting its use of Dolby Stereo. Cinema 1 – the original auditorium, bigger than its newer, more intimate counterpart. Soft lighting and an aura of red. The heavy velvet curtain at the front, draped from ceiling to stage. The piano to the left that harked back to an older, more silent age. Two tiers of deep red, soft cushioned seats, faded and worn by generations of backsides. Dust and nicotine tinged smoke drifting up into the spotlights as the theatre would slowly fill and settle. Underfoot the carpet, hidden in the darkness, detected only by its sticky grip from fallen popcorn and pastilles.

No matter the film, the feeling always the same. Anticipation and excitement that grew with the bobbing heads and swaying shoulders, with the elbows that rubbed on reluctantly shared arm rests; while the curtain slowly raised, the huge screen tantalisingly revealed. It was the knowing. The knowing of what would follow. The same old comforting rituals of commencement. A shaft of dusty light overhead firing from the small window at the back of the theatre, the screen before us turning blue, a black splodge within. The music starting and faint white writing appearing, moving closer in a wonderful, ludicrous, 20 second fanfare of our childhood.

Pearl & Dean, purveyors of cheap local advertising. Poorly scripted, badly filmed, jumping and skipping grainy images to entice us to the local Indian restaurant, travel agent, tyre repair specialists. To remind us of the treats in the foyer, Westlers Hot Dogs, cowboys and Indians informing us all of bite after bite after bite of processed pleasure; or Butterkist popcorn with its cheerleading chant:“Butterkist, Butterkist, rah, rah, rah.”

And then the trailers. The teasers of films to come – as exciting as the main event itself. A glimpse into the future. A source of conjecture and anticipation.

“I’ve got to see that.”

I remember these nights and the many films. The screen fading, the theatre dimming to black, the hushed silence or the whoops of over-stimulated teens. The whirr of the projector, the BBFC classification page, wobbly on the screen and then…

Star Wars, Grease, ET or Indiana Jones. Sci-fi or comedy, action, romance. James Bond or Crocodile Dundee.

That was the Monico. Rainy school holidays watching Disney’s latest fairytale. Visits with mum, with dad, with friends, with cousins. Later, with girls. That was Saturday morning cinema club. An onslaught of local kids, dropped off on wet weekend mornings; minors hopped up on e-numbered treats, entrusted to the care of Mr Monico and the cheery patience of Uncle Ian, the good-natured moustachioed host with the thankless task of containing and entertaining armed only with scratched copies of old Flash Gordon episodes and the delights of the Children’s Film Council – Calamity Cow or Anoop the Elephant. Being called onto the stage to a chorus of cheers and jeers if it was your birthday. Little kids standing somewhere between proud and shell-shocked with their 10 Today badges pinned to their jumpers while Uncle Ian tried to lead a tone-deaf rendition of Happy Birthday that could make or break your big day.

The lights of the projector dimmed for the final time in 2003; another independent cinema wilting and ultimately dying from the might of the multiplex. Ten and twelve theatre behemoths sucking the life from the smaller sites.  In its place a block of inoffensive but largely uninspired apartments – we used to call them flats.

I’m as guilty for its demise as anyone else. As numbers dwindled and the breeze became more pronounced through the fire exits; as the yellow stuffing forced its way through the stitching of the worn red seats, I, like most other regular cinema goers, finally succumbed to the comfort and variety of the large cinemas down at Cardiff Bay and Nantgarw. The Monico’s time had past. And yet its passing left a void. Bulldozers rolled sadly in and the walls finally crumbled, leaving in its wake a poignant void as another monument to my youth disappeared, fading into a foggy past.

That was the Monico

A cinema.

Revenge of the Jedi

Revenge of the Jedi

It’s thirty years ago this month that Return of the Jedi was released in the UK.

I first went to see it as an extraordinarily excited 9-year-old with my cousin and my younger brother. My cousin was ten years older than me and therefore, at least in the eyes of the law, an adult. He drove a Ford Escort with loose seat belts, wobbly mirrors and an unreliable petrol gauge that made any journey that was longer than ‘to the shops’ something of an adventure. In fact, there was a certain parity when heading out with him, to Luke & Leia joining Han on the Millennium Falcon.

We were going to see the film in town, at one of the big cinemas – The Odeon on Queen Street. I’m not sure if it was all that much bigger than the Monico but, it was in town and therefore officially classified as one of the big cinemas. Sandwiched among the department stores and clothes shops, near Alders and C&A and Dixons. Just up from the ABC Cinema, the other ‘Big Cinema’ on Queen Street. Going to see a film in town, especially at night, especially especially if my mum and dad weren’t with me, was a big deal. And tonight was the biggest deal of the lot – because we off to see a new Star Wars film.

And there questions to be answered.

Was Darth Vader really Luke’s dad?
Was Han Solo dead?
Would Boba Fett feature much?

Now, Boba Fett was an interesting character in the Star Wars films. He was, Han Solo apart, the most popular character from all the films among the kids in my school who knew about stuff like this, even though he’d only appeared in Empire Strikes Back for about three minutes and he basically didn’t do anything, apart from shoot a laser at Luke which missed, thereby putting him on the same level for awful marksmanship as your average Stormtrooper. Why?

Well, I think was mainly for two reasons – first, in Empire he seems to be unintimidated by Darth Vader, who speaks to him like a strict schoolmaster when in a bounty hunter line up.

DV: I want him alive, NO DISINTEGRATIONS!

BF (Shrugging shoulders): WHATEVERRRRR!! (Holds up thumbs and forefingers in the shape of a ‘W’.

The second and more important reason for his popularity was definitely the fact that, basically he looked really cool. And, added to this, the toy version of him looked awesome. He wore this grey-blue full body armour so you couldn’t see his face and was equipped with all manner of weaponry and gadgets, including lasers on his wrists and a jet pack. A flipping JET PACK. In the 80s, there was simply nothing more awesome than a jet pack. In fact, most of us assumed we’d all have one for getting around by 1990.

Everybody had the Boba Fett toy. After Empire had come out in 1980 he appeared on the list to Father Christmas of every boy in the Western world. There was a run on John Menzies in the week before Christmas.

And the rumours were rife about the new film and Boba Fett’s role in it. He was going to do something amazing – of that we were certain.

And this was the thing, the reason why there was such excitement over Return of the Jedi. The Star Wars films had meant a great deal – they’d been there, an ever present in our lives for as long as our memories would really allow. And there hadn’t been a new film for three years. Three years in which our young minds would imagine, create adventure and speculate. Empire had left us all on the edge of the precipice. It bordered on being mean – leaving us all with such large, dramatic unanswered questions for so long.

Some official word had come out about the film about a year before its release. The news had been delivered to us by one of my best friends. He had older siblings and they regularly offered him tantalising titbits from the grown up world.

Our smaller world was the yard, the playground of the junior school, gathered in one of the quads, the sun peaking over the red bricked old building, the smell of damp concrete, the smell of my school days. We gathered each break, each playtime, lunchtime. Small clusters of boys and girls, savouring the twenty minute escape from the classroom. Marbles and conkers, football and kingball, girls teasing boys teasing girls. We traded football stickers – Panini World Cup 82. Familiar players, strange players with exotic names – foreign names. Zico and Eder, Marco Tardelli and Diego Maradona. My favourite was Socrates, a Brazilian I’d never seen play but I loved him anyway, loved his name. The World Cup was looming and there was excitement among the boys. It was our first real taste of global football – the last one was four years earlier and none of us could really remember it. Stickers – everybody was crazy for the stickers. We turned up at school each day, great piles of swapsies ready to trade, the hope that a friend would have a prized asset you could attain. Foil badges and Kevin Keegan particularly sought after. Gathered and huddled, fierce negotiations and deal making in the shadow of the school hall, a familiar chant across the yard

“Got, got, got, got. NEED!”

Deals done, lunch eaten we’d settle into a game. Sometimes it was football, on this day it was Hit The Pipe. A simple game, simple rules. We’d stand on one of the yellow painted lines in the quad, taking turns to throw a tennis ball at the drain pipe on the side of the building. If you hit it, you stayed in the game. Miss and you were out.

“They’re making a new Star Wars film,” my friend said, as we waited our turn to throw the ball.

“I know,” I said. Everyone knew they were making a new Star Wars. How could they leave the story as it was after Empire?

“Yeah but I know what it’s called.”

“No way? What is it?”

He leant forward, a signal for those of us nearby to huddle around so he could share this golden nugget of information. He paused – for dramatic effect.

“Revenge of the Jedi.”

“Woah,” we said in collective awe.

Revenge of the Jedi – it sounded so right. We’d been left reeling after Empire, Han in carbonite, Luke losing a hand and having a new robotic one and of course the monumental news about Vader. Not to mention The Fett.

This was indeed the original name of the film, somebody somewhere is almost certainly sitting in an geeky Ali Baba cave surrounded by t-shirts and mugs bearing the films first name – before the change.

“When’s it coming out?”

“Next summer.”

“Next summer?” I said.

Nobody was playing Hit The Pipe anymore.

“Next Summer?” I said again. A year to wait. A year until we found out whether Luke would turn to the dark side (we all knew he wouldn’t), before we got to see what kind of awesomeness Boba Fett would perform and, more importantly, until we found out the true fate of Han Solo.

A year. That was, like, forever away.

In the months that followed the standard 2 rumour mill went into overdrive. Luke was Vader’s son, Luke wasn’t Vader’s son but Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. Han Solo was dead (a rumour which filled me with horror), Luke and Han were brothers, Luke turned to the dark side, Obi-Wan returned to kill Vader, Boba Fett kills Lando, Boba Fett joins the rebels, Luke and Leia were brother and sister, Chewbacca signs for Manchester Utd and Yoda is appointed General Secretary of the UN.

None of us, in truth, really knew. We’d just have to wait. And 9-year-old boys aren’t very good at that.

We parked by the Hayes and walked the lit up streets through the city centre. There was something eerily exciting about being in town at night; in the dark, all the shops closed. There were different people around town at night. Odd people, scary people, drunk people. Queen Street was lit by the artificial glow of street lamps and the bright yellow bulbs of the Odeon billboard; a pale yellow that seemed to hover above us, pressed down by the dark night sky. The queue was already forming but we had pre-booked tickets, on the insistence of my mum, and we were able to walk in. Looking up as I entered, letting my eyes settle on the Billboard, on the words that signified a lifetime of excitement:


I don’t really know why or indeed when they’d changed the name, but to be honest I really didn’t care.

The next two hours passed in a blur.

Old friends, new situations. I watched as C-3PO and R2-D2 returned to Tattooine, watched Han freed from the carbonite by Leia, felt strange at seeing her in that gold bikini. The rescue from Jabba’s Palace, Luke’s fight with the Rancor monster. Rejoiced at Han Solo – alive and better than ever.

I was stunned to find that Boba Fett was, in fact, all show and no substance. For all his cool exterior, his flashy gadgets and menacing armour, despite his ownership of a bloody jetpack, Boba Fett was frankly hopeless in a scrap. When the going got tough, Boba Fett got eaten, putting up only minimal defence as he plummeted into the mouth of the mighty Sarlaac, suffering the ignominy of causing the monster to belch.

Then there was Luke, a Jedi now, returning to Yoda, finding out the truth about Vader, finding out the truth about Leia. My brother was next to me, resting on his knees, fidgeting in excitement. I didn’t mind, didn’t really notice. I wasn’t really there – I was a million billion miles from the Odeon. I was on Dagobah, on the Death Star, on Endor. I was a rebel, working with the Ewoks, a spectator aghast at the Emperor’s twisted evil face. I was with Luke as he confronted Vader, called him father, noted the first signs of weakness, the glimmer of goodness in the baddest baddie I’d ever known.

The noise of the ships, the whoosh and hum of the lightsabers and lasers; and behind it all the music; themes and scores that last forever in my mind, from Darth Vader’s ominous, rumbling tune to the melancholic, loving score of Luke and Leia’s theme, the ratcheted up resounding thump of the space battle scenes at the end. As I watched Luke and Vader battle for the Emperor’s pleasure I longed to be back on Endor with Han and Chewie; when on Endor I craved to find out how Luke was getting on.

We cut between scenes, the fights in the forest, the frenetic war of the spaceships and Death Star, the father and son lightsabre duel.

Sensing the turning tide, the approaching climax – Han, Chewie and Leia blowing the reactor, Luke growing stronger, overcoming Vader, this invincible giant of my childhood. As he struck him down, lopped his hand off I cheered, shouted, jumped from my seat; goosebumps crawling up neck and head, down my spine. As the rebels spaceships overpower the Imperial ships I knew this was the end, the culmination of it all – as Admiral Ackbar settled back in his chair on the rebel’s flagship so I settled into my seat, exhausted in the Odeon.

Going in I’d wanted Han to live, at the end it was Vader I wanted to survive. Seeing him dethroned, unmasked – a sad, weak old man. The Wizard of Oz, hidden behind the curtain. The Ewok music cut in, the yub-nub tune long since edited out of the re-editions, Luke re-united with Han and Leia; Chewie and Lando compared war tales, the spectral images of Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin appeared, a smile from Luke before turning and walking away into the night and I was left alone with the familiar music of the saga, blue credits on the screen and a strange, bittersweet emotion, somewhere between happy and sad.

I was nine – almost a decade old and Star Wars, so focal to my early memories, was at an end.


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