When you become a silent movie blogger no one tells you that you will need a hard hat. Nor that you will occasionally be handed a free glass of fizz. But those of those things happened on Wednesday afternoon when I travelled “up west” to the University of Westminster to see the venue where the first public motion picture screening in the UK took place.
On 21 February, 1896, the Lumière Brothers demonstrated their cinematograph to a paying public (admission: one shilling) in the theatre of the Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street in London. The theatre had been used for lots of things before the Lumières arrived, including very popular magic lantern shows. Subsequently, it was made into a bona fide cinema, in use until 1980. And the Polytechnic changed too, eventually becoming the University of Westminster, but notably in 1970, as the Polytechnic of Central London, it was one of the first institutions to offer an undergraduate degree in Film Studies.
As for the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph, that is another story …
Now, the University of Westminster is restoring the theatre to some of its former glories: reinstating and repairing the 1926 art deco cinema fittings, and the organ, which was a later addition. There will also be a cafe-bar in the foyer, the capacity to project DCPs as well as film (should that be the other way around?) and all manner of schools programmes and tie-ins with neighbouring bodies.
Here are a few of my snaps from the site, and what I found out:
- I was lucky enough to meet David Clover at the event on Wednesday. His grandfather Alfred J West was an early film-maker who showed many of his works at the Regent Street Polytechnic. David has put together a very comprehensive website about his grandfather’s work.
- The Polytechnic did not just show the first movies in the UK, but hosted the first x-rated movie screening too: Life Begins Tomorrow (La Vie Commence Demain), in 1951.
- The site as I saw it was covered with scaffolding and a false ceiling – apparently the true volume of the cinema will be twice what I could see.
- The cinema will seat 200 people, and will show general release films as well as hosting special events such as lectures and screenings of work by University students.
- The Compton organ was installed in February 1936, and will take pride of place in the new cinema (yes, it will rise into position in front of the screen). It will be used for film screenings and recitals by musicians including the University’s own organ scholars.
- The organ pipes are housed above the screen and will remain hidden as they were always intended to be.
- I was told that they are adding toilets to the venue. I can begin to see why it closed in 1980, quite frankly.
- Restoring the cinema involved removing layers of dangerous asbestos-laced artex paint. We can most of us identify with that …
- If the project stays on track, the Regent Street Cinema will open in April 2015. We can start lobbying them to show silent films now.
- Read more about the history of the Regent Street Cinema here
- The University of Westminster is still raising funds towards the restoration of the Regent Street Cinema. You can make a donation, or name a seat in honour of yourself or someone you admire.