Saw War Horse the other evening - at the Odeon. Second time lucky. The first had ended in a photo finish. Or rather a non-photo start.
Cinema goers had been left looking at a blank, and then grey, screen for the better part of an hour. It was interspersed with a voice-over from someone who sounded like Ian Holm saying “leave reality behind.” And we had - as many drily observed. You get a better class of cinematic banter at the cultural live link-ups - even if they don’t always get the audiences they deserve locally. Lear’s coming soon; unmissable.
We were geed up by occasional inaudible announcements via a walkie talkie - I’m so old I still talk about the talkies - but it was a bit like waiting in an airport departure lounge for news of yet another cancellation forced by that Icelandic volcano with the slightly rude sounding name.
And where barbed wire, tanks, mortars, lugging guns and leaving his frankly drippy best friend behind had failed, technical problems finally got the better of Joey the War Horse so off we trotted on the hoof for refunds.
I think a huff is probably the best way of describing a collective of disgruntled would-be film viewers waiting yet again- this time for their money back.
More technical problems with those who had paid by card. Some had well and truly left reality behind by then and had taken to waving their War Horse programmes around in the manner of a tic tac racing pundit in a tizzy.
But we not only got a refund but a couple of free tickets for any film of our choice – and most of us snapped up the chance to revisit the Odeon on Monday and this time see the National Theatre Live-ish.
First timers must have been pleasantly surprised by most of the audience greeting each other like long lost friends. How are you? Nice to see you.
“It’s not like this at the Vue,” mused one woman alongside me. “Is there a film club in?”
Many of us were of an age that remembered the old ABC Minors Club when film reels would come unstuck or even snap at strategic moments leading to a chorus of boos and a slow handclap as the usher brought the ice creams in early.
That probably went out with the Fall of House of Usher, the Hammer House of Horror film I sneaked in to watch while well under age - daubed with lippy and rouge and blue eye shadow and looking more grotesque than Vincent Price at his hammiest.
And while the cinema could have improved on communications on the first night it came up trumps for customer service and, short of selling Mivvies, rather than that overpriced Ben and Jerry’s baking dough nonsense, it couldn’t have done more to oblige.
The first time I saw War Horse was at the Lowry, Salford Quays, last year having dismissed the film as sentimental schmaltz. Spielberg’s the definitive cinematic heart string puller but paradoxically I felt less manipulated by the puppeteers who bring Joey the war horse to life.
It even beats the book - as the author is the first to admit. I’m seeing it again at the Lowry in July (pictured).
It always reminds me of the First World War veterans I had the great privilege of escorting to Flanders, for a commemorative visit, where they took part in Menin Gate ceremonials and visited Tyne Cot. They told me what war was really like, all mud, blood, shelling, slain friends and foes, frightened horses drowning in the quagmire that clogged rifles and immobilised tanks.
They returned to a land far from fit for heroes, and got on with life, work, and raising families for all that part of them was left behind, irreparably damaged at Passchendaele.
One chap refused to get off the coach at sight of the rows of white crosses on graves.
Another stripped the medals off his blazer before placing one, like a blessing, on the headstone of a fallen comrade.
And when we visited the memorial museum they provided a running commentary that had visitors hanging on every word and left the official guides speechless.
“It was nobbut mud and blood, nowt like this. You died where you fell.
“Beasts and men. And there were days I became more beast than man.”
And every single one of them paused to pat the lifesized model of a horse there.
It’s timely with the Great War centenary upon us that Michael Morpurgo’s now world famous creation War Horse is taking Berlin by storm too. There it’s called Gefahrten, roughly translating as Comrades, and has been dubbed the play to end all wars and the first notable play to broach the subject – the war to end all wars - with German theatre audiences.
I find that astonishing if true. Years ago I visited the Rhineland on the basis of Heimat, the epic TV chronicle of a small German village which began in the aftermath of the First World War, charted them through the second, up to the 1980s.
I loved Das Boot, the mini series adapted from another German novel, depicting the life and times of a German U boat crew.
And one of Germany’s greatest working class heroes, novelist Erich Maria Remarque, whose works were later banned and burned by Nazi propagandist Goebbels, wrote one of the definitive books on the First World War, All Quiet on the Western Front, although he spent most of it in an army hospital repatriated with shrapnel wounds incurred just weeks in.
It was turned into one of the greatest films of all time - ironically enough by Americans who resisted the usual impulse to rewrite military history.
What such books, films, TV, theatre and indeed music have in common is the ability to unite readers, viewers, listeners – no matter what side we may have been on, or the divisions in the world today, or residual resentment and ancient enmities.
You forget it all in a shared experience of the best and worst of humanity. It may not bring peace but it’s a truce of sorts in an everyman’s auditorium rather than the no-man’s land outside.