It may be a Wednesday afternoon at London’s Regent Street Cinema, but the auditorium is packed to the rafters. As the lights dim and the curtains open, the chatter of the patrons is replaced by the familiar whirr and click of a film projector. No sooner has the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion made its presence known, than the audience settles down to enjoy a matinee screening of 1952 musical Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye as the singing Danish storyteller.
Reopened to the public in 2015, following a multi-million pound restoration, the historic repertory cinema is owned by the University of Westminster and housed adjacent to its headquarters at 309 Regent Street. Indeed, exit through the wrong door and suddenly you are transported from the hushed green and gold hues of the cinema into a brightly lit university foyer, filled with students hurriedly making their way to their next lecture.
Unlike the modern multiplexes in nearby Leicester Square, the cinema is a peaceful, popcorn-free haven. Architecturally, there’s a noticeable connection with the past, too. From a seat in front of the projection booth, at the top of a steep rake, visitors are close enough to the ceiling to admire the neoclassical motifs present within the art deco plasterwork, added when the venue was converted from a theatre into a commercial cinema in 1927.
The most famous event in the venue’s history came more than 30 years earlier, however, before the modern concept of cinema was even conceived. It was inside this same auditorium that, on 21 February 1896, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière organised a demonstration of their newly patented Cinématographe to 54 fee-paying members of the public. Once the guests were seated, the small box-like contraption projected a series of black and white ‘living images’ on to a screen at the front of the room. Despite lasting a matter of minutes, it was the first-ever public film screening to a British audience.
Ghouls and demons
It is no accident that the venue – then known as the Regent Street Polytechnic – was chosen as the first location on British soil to showcase the Lumières’ creation, which had been first demonstrated in Paris the previous December. Opened in 1838, the educational establishment had become famous for its eclectic mix of public lectures and scientific demonstrations, but particularly its magic lantern shows – an early form of optical entertainment that involved the projection of images onto a screen using illuminated glass slides.
“The German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher wrote extensively about the art of optical projection in the mid-17th century,” explains Dr Frank Gray, an expert in early British cinema at the University of Brighton. “Through a series of engravings and descriptions, he demonstrated how it was possible to project an image through a set of lenses onto a wall.”
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the technology started to become widely employed for the purposes of entertainment with the use of candle-lit projectors and hand-painted slides. Often these performances fell into the category of ‘phantasmagoria’ – shows with distinctly supernatural themes, in which ghouls and demons were projected into the room. By the end of the 19th century, it is estimated that there were approximately 3,500 travelling lanternists performing shows up and down Britain. You could find them virtually everywhere, including pier theatres, music halls and churches.
The magic lantern shows at the polytechnic took place inside the same purpose-built theatre in which the Regent Street Cinema is now housed. Remodelled on several occasions and later known as the Marlborough Hall, the theatre boasted the latest developments in lantern technology, including a state-of-the-art projection booth tucked underneath the upper tier.
As a result, the venue was able to execute special effects well beyond the capabilities of the typical travelling lanternist, including illusions such as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, named after scientist John Henry Pepper. First demonstrated during a performance of Charles Dickens’s The Haunted Man on Christmas Eve 1862, the trick is still widely used today, using lamps and glass panels to conjure spectral figures on to the stage.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that the idea of showcasing ‘motion pictures’ became truly widespread. The concept arguably found mass appeal following the invention of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, a free-standing wooden cabinet that allowed individual spectators to view films via a peephole. But the Lumière brothers – then working for their father’s photography business in Lyon – wanted to utilise the technology in a radically different way.
“Unlike their peers, the Lumières saw the future not in how a film could be viewed by one person at a time, but how an entire audience could watch it – just like a lantern slide,” says Gray. “The duo patented their Cinématographe on 13 February 1895, just three months after witnessing a demonstration of Edison’s Kinetoscope. A private screening of their first film aired in Paris just over a month later, on 22 March.”
By the time the brothers presented their device to the first paying audience in the French capital on 28 December 1895, they had used the Cinématographe to both capture and print a selection of films, showcasing scenes of everyday life. It was these 50-second clips – bearing innocuous titles such as ‘Baby’s Breakfast’ and ‘Arrival of a Train at a Country Station’ – that were shown at the Regent Street Polytechnic the following February. The event was a resounding success.
“Pictures are thrown on the screen through the medium of the Cinématographe with a realism that baffles description,” wrote journalist Anna de Brémont of the Regent Street show. “People move about, enter and disappear, gesticulate, laugh, smoke, eat, drink and perform the most ordinary actions with a fidelity to life that leads one to doubt the evidence of one’s senses.”
Soon, Britons were introduced to the spectacle courtesy of a nationwide tour, with the brothers also securing residencies at both the polytechnic and nearby Empire Theatre of Varieties. But during these formative years, the short performances were still viewed in much the same vein as the traditional magic lantern show, employing a ‘graphic describer’ (in this case, French entertainer Félicien Trewey) to introduce the films. In some respects this was a necessary diversion, filling in the awkward gaps as each new reel – approximately 17 metres in length – was loaded into the device.
“In 1896, although many people were seeing motion pictures for the first time, it was still in the context of a music hall show,” explains Gray. “A typical performance would last roughly three hours, with 10–15 different items, including music, comedy, dancing and animal acts. The Cinématographe Lumière, or perhaps Robert Paul’s rival Theatrograph device, would be one of many acts on the billing.
“The screenings were seen as scientific demonstrations as much as they were regarded as a form of entertainment,” Gray adds. “When we visit the cinema today, we’re not really connected in any way to the projector or the operator. But at Regent Street, the audience would have had a natural fascination with the presence of this funny little hand-cranked box situated in the middle of the room.”
Gun blasts and shouting
The creation of the modern-day cinema experience, Gray argues, also took place within the walls of the polytechnic, when it became home to Alfred John West’s two-hour spectacular, Our Navy, in 1899. Combining film, slides and music, these patriotic performances – held together by a single narrative – are said to have been intended to boost military recruitment during the Second Boer War (against the Afrikaners in South Africa from 1899–1902), but ended up remaining at Marlborough Hall for 14 years.
“Alfred John West’s programmes were remarkable,” says Gray. “When a gun was fired you would hear the blast, and when an officer gave a command, it would be shouted from behind the screen by an actor, in synchronisation with the action on screen.
“Crucially, viewers were presented with an experience that they couldn’t get anywhere else. The shows were a great hit and demonstrated, day by day, a new way of creating a wholly new moving image experience. Cinema no longer had to be a fairground attraction or a music hall act.”
Over the next 10 years, dozens of picture houses opened across Britain’s provincial cities and towns. But it wasn’t until 1927 that Regent Street’s Marlborough Hall was converted into a cinema in its own right, let out for commercial use by a series of different operators. The interior underwent yet another makeover, adding upholstered seating, elaborate plasterwork, and a newly decorated arch above the stage and screen.
Today, the modern Regent Street Cinema pays homage to its 1920s guise more than any other earlier incarnation. Yet there are still a few remnants that the likes of the Lumière brothers would have recognised. Cast your eyes upwards and you can admire the original glass skylight running the full length of the ceiling towards the screen. Peek behind the curtains and you can see a surviving section of the theatre’s Victorian gallery, removed from the main auditorium in 1927, but bizarrely left intact in the void beyond the stage.
Despite the cinema’s many transformations, it’s hard not to feel a sense of continuity with the past. Step from the box office into the hustle and bustle of Regent Street and you’ll see this is still an area of the capital showcasing the latest developments in ‘optical entertainment’ – from flagship technology stores to BBC broadcasting studios. You can’t help but wonder what the spellbound audiences of the Regent Street Polytechnic of 1896 would make of it all.
Cinema History: Three More Places to Explore
The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, Exeter
Where rare Lumière artefacts are held
Named after the late filmmaker and collector Bill Douglas (1934–91), this museum and research centre at the University of Exeter houses more than 75,000 items relating to the history of cinema and optical entertainment. There are 1,000 items on public display in the galleries, ranging from magic lantern slides to early film posters. The collection even includes an original 1896 Cinématographe Lumière and letters signed by the brothers themselves. bdcmuseum.org.uk
Cineworld, Leicester Square, London
Where the Cinématographe was presented as a music hall act
Located on the north side of Leicester Square, the Empire Cinema (below right) was originally a theatre and ballet venue, before reopening as a music hall known as the Empire Theatre of Varieties, in 1884. It was here, on 7 March 1896, that the Lumière brothers began showcasing their Cinématographe as a music hall act, less than a month after their first demonstration at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Rebuilt as a cinema in 1927, it is now a multiplex with nine screens. cineworld.co.uk
National Science & Media Museum, Bradford
Where you can view world-famous film collections
Located in the centre of Bradford, West Yorkshire (the first Unesco ‘City of Film’), this popular free museum features an array of interactive exhibits spread across eight floors. Although broadly focusing on the “science and culture of light and sound technologies”, it is home to world-famous film, photography and television collections, with more than 3 million items in total. The museum also boasts three cinema screens, including an IMAX theatre. scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk
Dr Frank Gray is director of Screen Archive South East at the University of Brighton and co-director of Cinecity, the Brighton film festival. Words: Jon Bauckham, freelance writer
Visit: Regent Street Cinema, 307 Regent Street, London, W1B 2HW • regentstreetcinema.com
This article was first published in the May 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine