Peter Bayley collected his MBE from Buckingham Palace yesterday. FEMKE VAN IPEREN finds out about the life of a cinema projectionist.

When Peter Bayley put himself forward to project a film in a geography lesson, he cannot have known what he was letting himself in for.

Today, at 65, he has almost 50 years experience as a film projectionist and the icing on the cake came yesterday at Buckingham Palace when he became the first ever member of his profession to pick up an MBE.

Peter worked his way up from tea boy to chief projectionist at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley. He volunteered to project a film after class when his geography teacher at the (now closed) Alder School, Long Lane, East Finchley, asked whether "anyone was feeling bright today". He used to watch films twice a week using pocket money from his job at car-repair shop Warren and Tailors in High Barnet to fund the trips. So when he saw an advertisement for a projectionist boy at the North Finchley Theatre in 1953, he jumped at the chance to watch films for free.

Within eight years he worked himself up from trainee to senior second projectionist and in 1960 he moved to The Phoenix, then called Rex, becoming chief projectionist in 1964.

He says: "It is a joy to work in a real cinema. Multiplexes are diabolical, sitting inside a square concrete box. Single screen cinemas with a nice decor have much more atmosphere."

As well as watching films, Mr Bayley has met celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise when a scene for Interview with the Vampire was shot in the cinema. He has increasingly had moments of fame himself often being filmed by Thames and London News.

The Phoenix also put him in the limelight during a special show celebrating his 40th year at the cinema, which claims to be the oldest purpose built continuously working cinema in London. He was presented with a cake in the shape of a projectionist spool. The cinema also showed The Smallest Show on Earth featuring Peter Sellers as a projectionist. "I projected it several times before but for once I sat with quite a large audience to watch it myself," he recalls proudly.

One of Mr Bayley's favourite films is Gone With The Wind, which he projected in the first Odeon release in 1954. He adores the Italian movie Cinema Paradiso and admires actresses such as Juliet Binoche and actor Gerard Depardieu. "I can't understand French," Mr Bayley admits. "But the way he projects his voice is absolutely first class."

But his firm favourite will be a surprise to many movie buffs. "I fell in love with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and I have tried to collect everything she has done since. She was born to play that part of Eva Perron."

Of course things can go wrong sometimes. Mr Bayley says one of the worst days in his life was when the shut down warning system suddenly stopped a film in the middle. It turned out the system's lamp had blown. "You could hear it throughout the whole cinema," he laughs.

But Mr Bayley, who has just turned 65, said the closing credits were some way off for him. "I am not planning on retiring yet," he says. "I will work until I get beyond it and have to stop. But that is going to be an extra hard thing to do."

February 26, 2002 14:30