Last month, as part of this year’s UCL Festival of the Arts, I spent a couple of very enjoyable days leading cinema history walks around the West End. The idea was to share some of the research I’ve been doing into West End cinemas, but also to give a kind of potted history of early film exhibition in London told through a handful of representative sites. As it happened, I also learned a lot from the people who came on the walks – many of them incredibly knowledgable about cinema history and the history of London.
For anyone who is interested in where we went, the link below should take you to a map of the route we went on, plus a little information about the sites we stopped at…
As part of the Festival promotion, the UCL Communications team also put together a short video about this part of my research, which shows some of the places on the route. Thanks to Rob Eagle and Jack Dean for doing such a nice job!
The more I research early film exhibition in London, the less surprised I am to find films being shown in odd places. This programme card from the 1920s advertises a film screening as part of a cabaret performance at London’s Lido Club.
The Lido was located just north of Oxford Street, and it had its official opening on 1 November 1926. Before this, the building had housed a series of clubs going back to the Folies-Bergères in 1919, which was part-owned by the notorious nightclub owner Kate Meyrick. Like the Lido Club on the Champs Elysees in Paris, opened a few years later, the new name invoked the glamour of the Venice Lido, then a fashionable holiday resort – hence the mini-gondola floating at the top of the card. Try as it might, though, the Lido couldn’t shake its shady reputation or the attentions of Scotland Yard and the puritanical Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks. In July 1928, two undercover policemen witnessed (and partook in) after-hours drinking in the club’s basement till 4am, in defiance of the licensing laws of the time. A late-night raid by the Flying Squad later that month failed to find anything illegal going on, but managed to put the club out of business for good.
Film doesn’t seem to have been a staple on the Lido’s cabaret bill. Clearly, this instalment of the ‘cinemagazine’ Eve’s Film Review, showing scenes from ‘A Night at the Lido Club’, had special significance. Not only did it show the club in action (and in an extremely positive light), but it also gave patrons a chance to see themselves and their peers on screen. A copy of the film survives in the BFI National Archive, and it’s a fascinating record of a jazz-age night out in full swing. Sadly, there’s no version of it online. Instead, and in honour of the Lido’s ‘Breakfast Time’ act on 21 May 1928, here’s Leslie Hutchinson performing for guests at the Malmaison hotel, 1933, courtesy of the British Pathé archive…
For more on London’s nightclubs, see Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (2012). Jenny Hammerton’s book For Ladies Only? (2001) tells the full story of Eve’s Film Review.
I’ve picked up publicity postcards from cinemas before, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever posted one. Most often, they’ve ended up blue-tacked to a wall or buried at the bottom of a drawer.
This postcard of a scene from James Cruze’s 1923 western, The Covered Wagon, made things easier for filmgoers by including a handy message on the reverse, so that all the sender needed to do was fill in the blanks.
I have just seen “The Covered Wagon,” the Great Paramount Picture, and enjoyed it very much. If you come to London don’t miss it!
In the case of this particular postcard, the attempt to generate word-of-mouth advertising missed its mark, and the message remains blank. But it’s an interesting trace of the extensive marketing campaign for the film, and an illustration of the way that West End film venues were becoming tourist destinations.
The London Pavilion, which had an exclusive deal to show The Covered Wagon as part of a staggered road-show release across the country, was famous as a variety theatre. But, in the twenties, it also lent itself to lavish film presentations like this one, often involving novel ‘exploitation’ methods (as publicity gimmicks were called). Before the first screening, it was announced in the daily press that ’20 living North American Indians from U.S.A. now encamped in the Crystal Palace grounds will appear at each performance’. These were said to be people from the Arapaho tribe, descendants of the Native Americans whose conflicts with pioneers were depicted in the film.
The run at the London Pavilion ended in March 1924 after 350 shows. A trade writer for the Bioscope regretted the film’s passing and the loss of the accompanying side-show, remarking that ‘the regions round about Coventry Street and the Haymarket will no longer be brightened by the presence of the picturesque redskin, his squaws and papooses, with whom we have grown so familiar’ (‘Gossip and Opinions’, Bioscope, 13 March 1924).
Afterwards, the Pavilion played host to a new Paramount epic, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Covered Wagon moved on to other cities, takings its views of the Wild West with it.
In February 1896, this hall welcomed some of the first audiences in Britain to see projected moving pictures. If for no other reason, it’s an important place in London’s – not to mention Britain’s – cinema history. At the time, it was part of the Regent Street Polytechnic Institute; it’s now part of the University of Westminster. In a little while, the space is due to close for renovation work and, all going to plan, it will reopen in 2015 as the Regent Street Cinema.
Although it started out (and is currently used) as a lecture theatre, the hall has also been a commercial cinema for much of it’s history and it still bears some of the signs – like the Compton organ, installed in the 1930s. Over the course of the renovations, some of the layers of this history will be stripped back and new features added. It’s an interesting mix of urban conservation (the current phase of the project is being part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund) and new development. The project still needs money, though, so if you’re interested in contributing, you can make a donation via the website: www.birthplaceofcinema.com.
Thanks very much to James Williams, the development officer on the project, for showing me around. I’m looking forward to seeing what the finished place looks like, and to finding out what other remains of cinema history the builders uncover in the coming months.
There’s a detailed account of the first films shown at the Regent Street Polytechnic in Joost Hunningher’s essay, ‘Première on Regent Street’, in Christopher Williams, ed., Cinema: The Beginnings and the Future (London: University of Westminster Press, 1996). There’s more about the venue’s history as the ‘Poly’ cinema at the Cinema Treasures website.
Featured image: The north and east sides of Leicester Square from a postcard, ca 1903. The caption on the back reads: ‘Leicester Square. – Popular centres of refreshment and amusement abound in and around this charming green spot amidst the roaring streets. The Alhambra [pictured on the right], the home of brilliant ballet and variety entertainment, appears in the view, its Moorish grandeur looking strangely out of place amongst so much typical English architecture.’
I’m celebrating this blog’s first birthday with a trip ‘up West’ to one of the focal points of London’s filmland, Leicester Square. I also wanted to spend a bit of time here because I’ve been thinking about a question posed early in 1913 by a writer in one of the film trade papers: who was the audience for the first West End cinemas?
What the writer, Samuel Harris, actually wanted to know was whether there was a public demand for the expensive new picture palaces appearing on thoroughfares like Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. London theatregoers, he thought, had little choice but to travel to the West End if they wanted to watch the latest stage shows. But, seeing as there were ‘far more cinema theatres by hundreds outside the West-End than there are theatres and music-halls’, and given that these cinemas generally showed the same films as those in the West End, would cinemagoers from the suburbs or further out really go the extra mile to get something already available closer to home? Plus, if West End cinemas did manage to attract regular patrons, would these be the same people who went to West End theatres and music halls? In fact, he wondered, ‘Where do the West End regular theatre audience come from’ in the first place?
Harris was an estate agent whose firm brokered some of the big West End cinema projects, so he had a personal interest in asking these questions. I’m not able to answer them all yet. But a trip to Leicester Square might provide a bit of background on the West End as a destination for amusement-seekers.
Originally, Leicester Square was a residential spot. It was laid out and railed off from the surrounding Leicester Fields in the seventeenth century as a decorative accompaniment to the stately Leicester House. During the eighteenth century, it was hedged in by private houses – home to aristocrats and artists like William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds. There were a few shops by this point, but in the nineteenth century commerce more or less took over. Residences made way for a wave of hotels, shops, exhibition centres, institutes and museums. Compared to some of London’s other squares, this was quite a dramatic transformation. The architectural historian E. Beresford Chancellor wrote that, ‘from being as much a private square as those of St. James’s or Bloomsbury, Leicester Square has become as much a public “place” as Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde’.
This commercialisation points to something that was happening more widely in the West End at the time. Wealthy residents were moving out of the area to the suburbs, leaving the major theatres (including the old patent theatres at Covent Garden and Drury Lane) in need of a new audience. In their book on nineteenth century theatregoing, Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow suggest that the Great Exhibition of 1851, which attracted upwards of 6 million tourists to London in the space of five months, gave theatre managers a feel for how they might make up for the loss of their old, local clientele. The solution managers came up with (according to Davis and Emeljanow) was to turn the West End into a kind of theatrical ‘theme park’, unique enough to entice tourists into the area. In Leicester Square, an important model for capitalising on the emerging tourist trade was provided by James Wyld, whose Great Globe stood in Leicester Square gardens from 1851 and continued to pull in visitors for several years after the Exhibition closed.
The Great Globe vanished (replaced, until the 1870s, by what Beresford Chancellor described grimly as ‘a wilderness … and a last resting-place for dead cats’), but other attractions sprung up in its place. By the turn of the century, Leicester Square was dominated by two huge variety theatres – the Alhambra on the east side, the Empire on the north – plus Daly’s Theatre just off the square on Cranbourn Street. There was also the Queen’s Hotel, the Hôtel Cavour (the first of the square’s ‘foreign’ hotels), and a number of shops, clubs and restaurants.
The Alhambra and the Empire both showed films from 1896 as part of their variety programmes. But the first dedicated cinema, the Circle in the Square (also known as the Bioscopic Tea Rooms, and afterwards Cupid’s and the Palm Court), opened in 1909 next to the Alhambra. This was the only full-time film venue on the square until the Empire was rebuilt as a flagship cinema for MGM in 1928. The Alhambra was knocked down to make way for the Odeon in 1936. But there were other early cinemas nearby: the Cinema de Paris on Bear Street opened in 1910, and the much grander West End Cinema Theatre on Coventry Street opened – in the presence of royalty, no less – in 1913.
Who might have been in the audience at these early Leicester Square cinemas? We can guess that foreign and provincial tourists, who visited the Empire and the Alhambra, and who stayed in the area’s hotels, might have also visited the cinemas. So, too, might Londoners in search of some controlled naughtiness. Judith Walkowitz sums up the prevailing culture of Leicester Square around this time as a mixture of ‘foreigness’ and British chauvinism: ‘Sufficiently cosmopolitan to appeal to foreign tourists … as well as to Londoners desirous of a touch of the Continent’. The Cinema de Paris on Bear Street could have been named with exactly these potential customers in mind.
Early Leicester Square cinemas were also well placed to appeal to passing trade. When they opened, the Circle in the Square and the West End Cinema operated a policy of continuous performance, showing films Monday to Saturday from about midday to midnight (and Sundays from 6pm). Positioned next to the Alhambra and the Empire and near the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, they would have been in a good position to attract variety patrons waiting for the 8pm performance or playgoers on a night out. During the day, they might have been a stopping point for shoppers en route between the big department stores on Oxford Street and Regent Street and the railway stations at Charing Cross and Waterloo. If they wanted to, passersby were also able to come in just for something to eat: the Circle in the Square had tea rooms adjoining and underneath the auditorium and the West End Cinema had a ‘Balcony Tea Lounge’ that served drinks and snacks.
All this suggests that cinemas could have shared the audience for other West End amusements without necessarily competing with them directly, in the same way that earlier Leicester Square attractions were able to cash in on the tourist trade drummed up by the Great Exhibition. What I’d still like to know, though, is whether these early film venues brought any new visitors to Leicester Square – perhaps people who might not have been able to afford to go out there otherwise, or who might have been put off by the social niceties of West End theatregoing. Tickets at the West End Cinema were as pricey as those at the nearby theatres, but the Circle in the Square seems to have been a bit cheaper. There, customers could watch a film and enjoy a cup of tea for the same price as a seat in the pit at the Alhambra. Could the arrival of film have opened up the West End to new audiences – new ‘cinematic’ tourists?
There’s more digging to be done before I feel confident answering this question. But, as Leicester Square emerges from its recent multi-million-pound makeover, carried out (according to mayor Boris Johnson) to guarantee its status as a ‘beacon for world premieres and the stars of the silver screen’ and, consequently, as a ‘must-see destination’ for tourists, it’s interesting to think back on what impact film might have been having on the square and its visitors 100 years ago.
Samuel Harris, ‘Thoughts that Make Us Pause and Ponder – No. 2’, The Cinema (29 January 1913).
On the weekend of 21-22 September, the Cinema Museum, based in the old Lambeth Workhouse, is opening its doors for free between 10am and 5pm. The occasion is Open House London 2013. But the event will also showcase a new exhibition put together as part of the Picture Palace Project.
The Picture Palace Project is a community heritage scheme organised by Abigail Tripp and Cinema Museum volunteers, with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund. I’ve been involved with the project through a tie-in scheme at UCL (you can see a piece I wrote about an earlier stage of the project for the UCL ‘Dig Where We Stand’ blog).
The project has been going for the best part of a year now. The initial idea was to explore the history of cinema around Kennington and Elephant and Castle – an area of London with a long tradition of popular entertainment, which has been home to dozens of cinemas over the years. Sadly, most of these are no longer around, so volunteers have been collecting memories from Lambeth residents, and trying to find out what going to the pictures meant to local audiences.
Visitors to the Cinema Museum on Saturday, 21 September will be able to see (and hear) some of the results of the Picture Palace Project for themselves, including extracts from oral history interviews, maps, archive material, and scrapbooks. There will also be a cinema history walking tour led by local historian Chris Everett, plus a screening of We Are All One, a new film about neighbouring Bermondsey made by members of the Downside Fisher Youth Club. On both Saturday and Sunday, there will also be a chance to get a free tour of the Cinema Museum’s huge collection of film equipment and memorabilia.
The Trocadero, known locally as the ‘Troc’, opened on the New Kent Road on 22 December 1930. It was a ‘super cinema’, providing seats for more than 3,000 patrons, a large stage for variety acts and space for what was then Europe’s largest Wurlitzer organ.
Named after the famous restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, the aim was to recreate West End luxury for South London audiences – a feat the venue’s original owners, Hyams and Gale, described as ‘Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle’.
The inside of the Trocadero, designed by the architect George Coles, was decorated in Renaissance style, with a vast balcony and curved ceiling. The mirrored waiting rooms were also a selling point, offering shelter from the traffic of what was one of London’s busiest junctions.
‘The Trocadero was famous, it was a beautiful palace. It was a dream palace. People worked hard and there wasn’t a lot of leisure, but you went to the cinema to see a western, gangster, musical comedy … the cinema was part of that magic. You went in and you were transported with chandeliers, gold staircases … looking back it was sheer escapism…’
Bobby Dow, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in Southwark News, 29 August 2013
The cinema became part of the Gaumont chain in 1935. It suffered some bomb damage and temporary closures during the war, but survived more or less intact, although there was much devastation to the surrounding area.
In the postwar years, the threat of destruction was more likely to came not from bombs but from audiences. By the end of the 1950s, the Trocadero had become a hang-out for Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls from the area, who were notoriously critical, and occasionally violent, towards visiting live acts (Cliff Richard was apparently pelted with coins when he visited).
Trocadero audiences made national news in September 1956, when screenings of the Bill Haley film Rock Around the Clock sparked riots in the auditorium. This followed a spate of similar incidents in cinemas around London and other parts of the country. On one of the worst nights of what the press dubbed the ‘rock’n’roll’ riots, audiences at the Trocadero slashed seats, while people outside the cinema threw fireworks and bottles at the police.
‘There was dancing in the aisle to Rock Around the Clock and trying to get out of your seats, and the usherette used to smack you on the head, “sit down”! Outside the older boys and us used to be rocking the cars, to try to tip them over. It really kicked off at the Elephant over that film!’
Bill Leigh, interviewed for the Picture Palace Project, quoted in the Southwark News, 29 August 2013
In 1963, the cinema was demolished, along with much of the Elephant and Castle, in a large-scale redevelopment of the area. It was replaced by a smaller Odeon cinema, designed by Erno Goldfinger, which stood until 1988. There is now a block of flats on the site. The spot’s cinema history is marked by a plaque (unveiled by Denis Norden, who worked in the Trocadero in the 1940s) produced by the Cinema Theatre Association.
If you are in London, you can listen to more memories of cinemagoing at the Trocadero and other South London cinemas at the Cinema Museum’s Picture Palace exhibition, 21-22 September 2013.
There’s also more information about the Trocadero in these sources:
Margaret O’Brien and Allen Eyles (eds), Enter the Dream-House: Memories of Cinema in South London from the Twenties to the Sixties (London: Museum of the Moving Image, 1993)
Allen Eyles, Gaumont British Cinemas (London: Cinema Theatre Association/BFI, 1996)