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EULOGY by MICHAEL ARMSTRONG as read at Les's funeral March 4th 2016
I feel privileged to have been asked by Les’s family to pay tribute to a major part of his life at Wymondham’s Regal Cinema which we could aptly call the ‘Kings Regal Reign’.
It was 50 years ago that I first met Les when he arrived at the Cinema to take up a job of maintaining strict discipline at the Sunday night performances which attracted large crowds.
Les performed this role admirably and despite ejecting any troublemakers he gained respect from the patrons which was maintained throughout his life.
During 1967 he became Manager of the Regal but did not relish some of the mundane administrative tasks involved such as working out the percentages for the film hire or the technology involved in operating the 1930’s projectors. Les asked if I would help him which I agreed to do.
During those early years the first James Bond films were very popular and Les made sure that he screened them as soon as possible. He likened himself to a 007 character and said that he should be called ‘Mr Bond’ and that he would be naming his second son ‘Sean’ after the actor Sean Connery.
Les successfully saw the addition of the popular café’ and disco at the side of the cinema. I am sure there are many here today who will remember the good times there listening to their favourite songs on the Juke Box. When the Scott McKenzie hit song ‘Let’s go to San Francisco’ was being played they would sing instead ‘let’s go to Les King’s disco’, although I do not think that Les wore any flowers in his hair. He was successful in attracting top groups too, including Slade and Procol Harum and the local press reported that the Regal Cinema and disco had become Norfolk’s leading entertainment centre. It was one of the first accolades that Les was to receive.
During the mid – seventies cinema attendances were declining and Les was instrumental in negotiating the successful sale of the whole of the cinema complex to the Wymondham and District Ex Servicemen’s club who wanted to use the former café’/disco as a new members bar for their Club. They agreed to purchase so long as Les leased the cinema which he readily agreed to do and continued to run it successfully until it eventually closed in 1993. He was Chairman of the Ex Services Club for seven years and was made a life member – having been a serviceman in Korea for three years for which he received a medal.
During his time at the Regal Les pursued many other activities. He started a Video Rental business which many thought was a trade competition to his cinema. He also sold meat from Wymondham Market and on another stall, carpet remnants.
He ran Olympic Freight and Removal Services with the help of his good friend Norwich City Footballer – Duncan Forbes. Consequently he was responsible for moving many City players. It was through this business that another side-line developed.
If you went to the cinema you would not be surprised to see in the foyer a second hand three piece suite or fridge for sale at a bargain price. At Easter or Christmas the foyer would be full of plants for sale. There was no end to Les’s business activities.
He also pursued his love of sport to include football, cricket and boxing. He formed the Regal Football Team and supported boxers John Thaxton and Herbie Hyde in their careers.
Les was in contact with many sporting personalities and after Norwich City won the Milk Cup in 1985 he arranged for Captain Dave Watson to bring the Cup to the Regal.
Les had the inspiration to create gimmicks to help keep the cinema open. These included stopping the matinee performance of a western so that he could lead a horse around the auditorium. On another occasion he arranged for the Flying Fortress aeroplane used in one of his favourite films ‘Memphis Belle – to fly over the cinema.
He had a ‘Dog Night’ when patrons could bring their dogs so long as they behaved themselves. There was also a ‘Pensioners Night’ when they would be given a free cup of tea from the café. He also had a ‘Courting Couples’ night when – if a man brought his girlfriend or wife (or even someone else’s wife) she would be handed a free ticket…and again I think…as long as they behaved themselves!
Les also arranged for the cinema to have another use as a wrestling ring. One of the most memorable charity fundraising bouts was between his friends – ‘Squasher’ Squires and ‘Crusher’ Caston which lasted precisely ten seconds.
During his reign at the Regal Les acquired many titles such as ‘His Majesty the Picture House Man’ – ‘King of the Silver Screen’ – ‘The Sam Goldwyn of South Norfolk’. He was referred to by one film-company as the most unorthodox Cinema Manager they had ever dealt with. On many visits to London he was able to negotiate very favourable film hiring terms because the Companies relented just to get rid of him!
I think we all know that Les loved a bit of publicity in the newspapers and would be very proud that he had a double page tribute to him in the EDP following his passing. He even made national headlines when he defied the British Board of Film Censors by showing the film ‘Gremlins’ which had been allocated a ‘15’ certificate to many children under that age. The result was him having to put on extra shows and successful box office returns.
Throughout Les’s life at The Regal he arranged many charity events which included a boxing tournament in the disco and a sponsored walk from Wymondham to London. He would also hold film shows to raise funds for both elderly and children’s homes and would allow handicapped or disabled patrons free admission.
His desire to help these people resulted in him being Chairman and Life President of the Kett’s Lodge Home for the elderly and receiving a nomination and certificate from Esther Rantzen’s ‘Heart of Gold’ award.
He became Chairman of ‘The Friends of Chapel road School’ in Attleborough – a school for children with special needs and received a certificate for thirty years’ service in that capacity. Les was later to become a keen supporter of the Wymondham based ‘Star Throwers’ Charity and was made their Patron after arranging many fund raising events.
During 1991 Les took on another role as an Author when he wrote, jointly with Philip Yaxley, the book – ‘The Wymondham Regal Story’ with a forward by top film Director Sir David Putnam. The book told the full story of The Regal with Les being its Manager for 29 years and his predecessor in title, Bert Caley for 25 years. The book became a best seller with Publishers George Reeve and when Prince Charles came to Wymondham to visit this Abbey, he noticed the book for sale in their window and went in to purchase a copy. Les was later to write more books about his sporting activities.
On the evening of 28 June 1993 the Regal Cinema was full to pay tribute to Les at the showing of its last film ‘The Bodyguard’ at what the Local Press reported was a sad, but regal farewell and I know that Les would be very pleased and proud to see that he has a ‘full house’ here again today to pay their last respects and another tribute to him…except on this occasion Myrtle will not be coming round with her ice cream tray.
I know that Les always appreciated the support given to him by his wife – Anita… sons Ian and Sean – all his staff and of course the patrons during his time at The Regal.
I will always appreciate Les’s concern for the problems I encountered when my disability set in and would smile when he used some incorrect words. I will value some medical advice he gave me when I came out of a five week spell in hospital two years ago. I happened to mention that I was not ready to go out far unless I knew that there would be toilet facilities close by. He told me that this should not create a problem saying ‘you don’t need to worry about that boy…you could always get one of those ‘cafeterias’!
Whilst we say goodbye to Les today – his life at The Regal is to live on in part of a feature length documentary film which tells the story of what it was like to go to cinemas in Norfolk years ago. It was two years ago that Les and I were asked to participate since The Regal, Wymondham is one of the last surviving purpose built town cinemas still standing – complete with its 1930s projection equipment and that is thanks to Les and the Ex Servicemen’s Club.
We both tell our stories and Les kept the directors amused with his various tales. It is to be called ‘The Final Reel’ and will be narrated by actor Sir John Hurt and premiered at Cinema City in May with a special screening at The Regal in June by the Regal Experience group of which Les was a life member. He would be pleased to know that we have already taken bookings.
Unfortunately time does not allow me to say any more about Les’s achievements other than….
Goodbye Les. You had a heart of gold and will be fondly remembered for all the good work, fundraising and support given to Wymondham, local sports, various charities and many other people. You lived up to your name as ‘King of Sport’ and ‘King of the Silver Screen’ and I know that as well as your family here today, your late Mum and Dad Ethel and George, would be very proud of what you achieved during your lifetime.
You have become a Wymondham legend