How Helen Mirren and Jaws got my teenage heart racing – Aidan Smith

Some scenes in 1970s films felt genuinely heart-stopping, writes Aidan Smith, after researchers reveal a trip to the cinema can raise heart rates to levels experienced during light cardio exercise.

The under-age Aidan Smith would sneak in to the cinema to watch some of Helen Mirrens early performances (Picture: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
The under-age Aidan Smith would sneak in to the cinema to watch some of Helen Mirrens early performances (Picture: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Long before she was Dame Helen Mirren and impersonating the Queen and only starring in high-end movies, the actress used to pop up in some racy little entertainments and me and my pals loved them.

We were young – technically too young for the British Board of Film Classification’s rating of the saucy flicks – but these visits to our favourite flea-pit were fact-finding missions. Anatomy & physiology lessons at school had only told us so much. So we darkened our bum-fluff moustaches with boot polish and deepened our voices in the hope of persuading the box-office we were the appropriate age.

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What must our pulse rates have been like at the films’ most revealing moments? I can only imagine that our hearts were about to burst out of our Ben Sherman shirts and our College V jumpers, the gear we wore in middle-class apeing of the 1970s street-gangs.

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I mention this because new scientific research claims that a trip to the cinema is as healthy as working out at the gym. Boffins at the University College London detected a “noticeable increase” in the heart rates of guinea-pig cinemagoers who sat through a two-hour film and described it as “equivalent to a light form of cardio”.

What if Auntie Jean saw us?

They should have wired us up to electrocardiograms during another clandestine excursion to the Scala – not Milan’s world-renowned opera house, you understand, but the South Edinburgh-notorious movie pleasuredome. Susan George was the star on this occasion, another actress grimly hoping the work would get less exploitative the longer her career progressed, and the film was Mandingo, of the type which simply wouldn’t get made today. Midway through the afternoon matinee, fire broke out and we – that is, my chums and the dirty mac brigade in the back row – had to evacuate the cinema.

We were in a state of high anxiety. The Scala was on a busy street with a bus stop at the entrance and we were denied the usual cloak of darkness to make good our escape as it was still light outside. What if one of our teachers spotted us? What if my Auntie Jean spotted us? What if they’d been at the film, too (the teacher, obviously, not Auntie Jean)?

You’ve got to wonder about some of these studies and just how scientific they are. It seems self-evident, if not downright bleedin’ obvious, to conclude, as this one does, that the beneficial effects of a nicely jaunty heart rate from movie-watching are greater in the cinema than at home. At home you can have many distractions, not all of them outwith your control, as you might keep your phone handy to follow the football score, message yourself a reminder to buy Toilet Duck or check Tinder. In the cinema, you’re supposed to turn off all devices and submit to the communal experience, to allow the Dolby to prang and judder your emotions with over-amped blarts.

Special training for ambulance crew

But if we compare movie-going then and now, there’s no contest. It was much more thrilling when I was 15 pretending to be 18. More special, more visceral, more immersive, more hazardous, more interactive, more trip-into-the-unknown – and therefore much more likely to induce palpitations, even before the Sensurround had been cranked up.

Sensurround was the “enhanced audio experience” which was supposed to make it seem like tectonic plates were shifting under your platform-soled shoes as you watched the disaster movie Earthquake. I don’t think the device was working properly the day we saw it because not a drop of Kia-Ora was spilled. But imagine the anticipation and excitement beforehand. It didn’t really matter that the film was rubbish.

Jaws wasn’t rubbish and, besides being a terrific movie it was also a genuine cinematic experience, and especially for my pals and me stuck in the boondocks. The film’s release was staggered to increase the knicker-wetting. Everywhere was the sticks behind London. We heard about the movie, we read about it, we were told about mass fainting in the metropolis. The St Andrew’s Ambulance Association had undergone special training for the blockbuster hitting Scotland, if indeed that day was ever going to come. We became more and more desperate to be scared witless. We felt deprived, we felt downrated. Maybe this boosted the cause of devolution but that would be an argument for another day. We wanted to see the shark. Indeed, by the time we finally did, and similar to having a vampire fetish, some probably wanted to be eaten by it.

Dizzy from passive smoking

Heart-rate monitors, if they’d been available, would have shot off the scale. So the shark was a bit rubbery. So it looked like it was chewing a cigar with that explosive canister jammed in the side of its cakehole. No one cared. At the end we tipped onto the street delirious with excitement. We were also dizzy from all the passive smoking. Cinemas permitted puffing and smokers lit up more during Jaws in a futile attempt to calm jitters. So our life expectancy had been shortened, no matter. We’d seen the shark!

Maybe cinema-going still has the power to move like this although personally I haven’t seen a good film in ages. Trailers often give the game away. The publicity hamster-wheel – all of the actors promising to love their co-stars for ever – further dilutes the mystique. Social media means that everyone’s a critic these days and the internet has already shown audiences the most shocking thing they will ever see, as well as the most sexually explicit. I’ve no doubt that we who pretended to be 18 were naive chumps easily suckered by gimmicks. But some of what we witnessed in the cheap seats was genuinely heart-stopping. The colour drained from our faces – our moustaches, too.