“An invention without a future”? The re-opening of the Regent Street Cinema

07 May 2015

Cultural Studies | History

Regent Street Cinema, the venue for the first public screening of Louis and Auguste Lumière’s Cinématographe in Britain on the 21st February 1896, has re-opened this week after being restored to its former glory. The small, single-screen cinema, originally part of the Royal Polytechnic Institution at what is now the Regent Street campus of the University of Westminster, was closed to the public in 1980 and has since served as a lecture theatre for the university. The cinema is one of the only venues in Britain that can now show 16mm and 35mm film, as well as digital film, allowing some of the earliest archived films to be screened as well as showcasing modern developments in cinematography.

The Great Hall of the Royal Polytechnic Institution. Image © The National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

The Great Hall of the Royal Polytechnic Institution. Image © The National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

The fourth module of the Victorian Popular Culture portal, Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema, contains many objects and ephemera relating to the creation and screening of early cinema, as well as demonstrating the earlier inventions in optical effects and moving images that preceded the cinématographe.

Cinématographe. Image © The Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Cinématographe. Image © The Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

When the first films were shown, they joined a wide variety of projected and moving-picture entertainments, from the kinetoscope to the magic lantern, and were considered paradoxically to be both a novelty and just another option in an existing culture of optical entertainment. Audiences reacting to the ‘living pictures’ were, however, noticeably excited, intrigued and sometimes scared by the realistic images being screened. Famously, audiences of the Lumières' film, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, were supposed to have jumped out of their seats in fear of the train breaking out of the screen as it barrelled towards them. The silent films were accompanied by live music, from organs to orchestras, as well as narrators or lecturers and sometimes sound effects.

As the phenomenon became more established there was a wave of cinema-building and renovation of existing theatres into venues dedicated to the screening of films, particularly after the Cinematograph Act of 1909. This demanded that the projection booth be separated from the auditorium due to the high risk of fires caused by the use of nitrate celluloid for the film. Whilst the earliest filmmakers were restricted by their equipment to producing just thirty or forty seconds of film, by 1912 Vitagraph produced the forty-five minutes long Tale of Two Cities, and what we would now call a “feature-length” film was not far away. Around this time the Lumière brothers, who had originally intended their invention to remain a scientific and educational tool, declared that ‘the cinema is an invention without a future’. Luckily for avid cinema-goers today, they were in the minority to hold this opinion and the film industry flourished, constantly innovating its equipment, technique and narrative style. As we again enter the season of huge action blockbusters, it is interesting to look back at the rather low-key origins of what has been the most popular form of visual recreation for over a hundred years: cinema.

Postcard © The Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Postcard © The Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter. Further reproduction prohibited without permission

Early cinema ephemera, including postcards, programmes and fan magazines, as well as original film footage from as early as 1894, can be explored in the Victorian Popular Culture portal. Full access is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a license.

 

About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew. Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting projects, from the First World War to American History, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, and Race Relations in America - very different but fascinating projects! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I have really enjoyed putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our resources.