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London’s Silent Cinemas

I’m very excited to say that a new website, London’s Silent Cinemas, is now up and running. I have been working on it for a while now. It includes a lot of the research into London’s early film culture and exhibition venues that I’ve been sharing on this blog over the last few years. The main feature is an interactive map of around 700 cinemas that were in operation in London and its surrounding areas at various points during the period 1906-1930. There are also short essays on a number of old (and in some cases long-forgotten) cinemas in Soho and the West End. The web design is the work of the brilliant Sam Nightingale.

Thanks to everyone who has helped out with the website, or who has listened patiently while I talked about the wonders of Ordnance Survey maps, Google Earth, cinema programmes and old street directories! I will still post here from time to time, but I hope you enjoy the new website too.

Soho and the ‘worst’ cinema in the West End

I’ve been revisiting some research I did into the cinema history of Soho recently as part of a study of cinema in London’s West End. Soho is a small patch of the West End – a maze of narrow streets, once home to notorious ‘rookeries’ or slums in the nineteenth century, now famous for media companies, gay pubs and clubs (it was the final stop on last weekend’s Pride celebrations), sex shops, and late-night coffee bars.

There’s a long history of immigration into this particular part of London reaching back to the arrival of the French Huguenots, and early-twentieth-century Soho has been discussed, most recently by Judith Walkowitz in her book Nights Out, as an experiment in multiculturalism.[1] By the 1900s, it had a reputation for being ‘cosmopolitan’, as in home to immigrant or ethnic minority communities, especially French, but also Italian and Eastern European Jewish. Mainly because of these cosmopolitan associations, it attracted Bohemians and was, according to Thomas Burke, where ‘respectable’ Londoners went ‘to feel devilish’. Although the rookeries were gone, it was still a cramped neighbourhood, where visitors were surprised to find lodging houses accommodating multiple families on the same floor.

Cosmopolitan London
Screenshot from the film Cosmopolitan London (1924), introducing viewers to the variety of people and cuisines in Soho.

I’ve mentioned Soho before – and particularly Wardour Street – as one of the centres of the early film industry in London, especially for production and distribution companies. By the end of the 1910s, Soho was where lots of film businesses had their offices and private screening rooms. But Soho was also home to early cinemas. There were upmarket picture theatres like the Palais de Luxe (later the Windmill), on the edge of Soho, just off Shaftesbury Aveue. But there were also less prestigious venues deeper into the maze of streets, catering to Soho’s working-class population. It’s harder to find out about these places, not least because they didn’t last long, but also because they were in parts of the West End that most middle-class commentators would have thought twice about walking down (unless they wanted to feel ‘devilish’, of course). Luckily, historians of London’s cinemas have found out a bit about them,[2] and there are more clues in the archives. Here’s what I’ve found out so far about Soho’s earliest – and apparently the West End’s ‘worst’ – cinema, the Electric Cinema Theatre, 6 Ingestre Place.

The Electric Cinema Theatre, also known as the Jardin de Paris, seems to have been the earliest cinema to open in Soho, operating at least as early as October 1908. It’s half-remembered in Leslie Wood’s Romance of the Movies (he doesn’t mention its name) as a film venue opened in a converted stables, with horse stalls and cobble stones still visible from its former use. Wood may have been right about this. According to local council inspectors, the front part of the cinema was converted from a ground-floor dwelling, one of a row of terraced buildings on Ingestre Place. But the rear part was adapted from a stable yard, roughly roofed in and boarded over. The old stable had been part of a cluster of similar buildings called William and Mary Yard. The dancer and film star Jessie Matthews grew up there, and remembered that the stables housed cart horses for local market traders. Another woman who grew up nearby on Silver Place also remembered the stables being used to house performing animals – including elephants! – from the nearby Hengler’s Circus (a venue that occupied the site where the London Palladium was later built).

Map showing Ingestre Place
Detail from an Ordnance Survey map of the West End, edition of 1916, showing Ingestre Place. ‘Cin’ marks the site of the Electric Cinema Theatre.

The cinema was operated by Mons. Felix Haté, a French-born chemist turned cinema entrepreneur, who lived outside Soho in Earls Court, and who developed a way of ‘cleaning’ scrap film stock to extend its life span.[3] This suggests that the type of films shown at the cinema wouldn’t have been new releases, but titles that had been doing the rounds on the open market for some time, possibly years, and which had become scratched and grainy from over-use. We know from 1909 police records and a 1912 company prospectus that Haté was admitting people at a penny for children and twopence for adults for something like an hour-long show, running from around 6pm to 11pm. One local resident remembered a system of red, yellow and green lights outside the cinema to tell patrons what film was playing. From a report of a fire at the cinema in 1908, we know that – at least in its earliest years – music was provided by an automatic piano.

The cinema went through various face-lifts over its relatively brief lifetime, but in the beginning it accommodated about 180 people on wooden benches, plus standing room for 40 more, with a wood-and-metal projection box over the front entrance on Ingestre Place. The floor above was used as a workshop for Haté’s film cleaning outfit. According to the 1911 census, one of the other floors was home to the Kearey family – Amy, her four sons, and her husband Henry, who listed his job as a cinematograph show ‘porter’, or custodian. Thanks to a talk from Phyll Smith (@theautist) at the fantastic What Is Cinema History? conference in Glasgow, I now know that it was fairly common to have live-in cinema custodians in this period. Perhaps Amy and her children also helped out in the running of the cinema.

When the Metropolitan Police were asked to name the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ cinemas in their districts in November 1909, the local police branch named the Electric Cinema Theatre as the ‘worst’. There hadn’t been any complaints about crime or disruption at the cinema, although a few later mentions in council minutes suggest that local residents were sometimes irritated by children from the cinema playing outside in the street, and one neighbour at 7 Ingestre Place complained in the summer of 1912 that the cinema was staying open as late as 1am on weekdays. But it’s probably safe to assume that, for an outsider, a converted stables in Soho didn’t compare favourably to cinemas elsewhere in more affluent parts of the West End. The police inspector in 1909 described the location as ‘a very thickly populated and overcrowded neighbourhood, amongst poor tenement dwellings’. (There was also a brewery at one end of the street and a council school at the other.) Whereas the policeman saw middle-class shoppers at a nearby cinema on Oxford Street (the Cinema de Paris), the Electric Cinema Theatre was ‘Frequented by poor class Jewish, French and English youths, girls and some adults’.[4] In her history of Soho, Judith Summers writes that, in general, different ethnic populations in the area co-existed, but didn’t necessarily interact with each other. But ‘children of all nationalities and religions mixed together freely at school and in the streets’ – and, as the police report suggests, also in the cinema.[5]

We can guess from company records (Haté launched his businesses as a joint-stock venture in 1912) that the cinema carried on trying to appeal to local residents in what the company prospectus called the ‘Cosmopolitan quarter’ of Soho. Haté kept his prices low (still one or two pence in 1912) in order ‘to meet the needs of the immediate neighbourhood’.[6] Some of his investors were very local, too. William Worster, the licensee at the Fountain Inn pub (also known as the Lion Tap) at the north end of Ingestre Place was one of the company directors. But there were also investors from Paris, presumably where Haté had connections, and Kensington, where he lived. By the start of 1912, he had also acquired another cinema – the Munster Electric Theatre in Fulham – making the Ingestre Place venue part of a (very small) cinema chain. In the summer of 1910, the Electric Cinema Theatre was also doubling as the London Cinematograph College and Situations Bureau, a training school and employment agency for cinema projectionists, according to a surviving advert.[7]

Fountain Inn, Ingestre Place
The Fountain Inn, Ingestre Place, whose licensee was one of the directors of the Haté Cinema & Film Cleaning Co., Ltd. From pubhistory.com.

Haté was forced to make changes to the venue when the Cinematograph Act (1909) came into force and the local council began to regulate cinema exhibition more forcefully. He submitted various plans for altering the cinema to suit the council’s requirements, and he was also keen to expand it. Among the plans for refurbishment was a very ambitious proposal to buy up a chunk of Lexington Street behind the cinema and construct a large entertainment complex, with space for a cinema, as well as boxing, wrestling and sideshows, and which would also incorporate a restaurant with a licence for drinks (to be inherited from a pub at 24 Lexington Street, which would be demolished in the scheme). Altogether the proposed venue was to accommodate 3,100 people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plans were rejected by the council on various grounds, including the fact that ‘the streets generally in the neighbourhood are unusually narrow’.[8] In the end, the council approved a much more modest rebuilding project, involving reversing the layout of the auditorium (so that the audience now faced out onto Ingestre Place) and demolishing an adjacent stable block to make room for a second exit. The revamped cinema, newly licensed as the Jardin de Paris, was open for business in January 1913.

Despite the revamp, the proximity of the chemical works over the cinema was an ongoing problem for the council, and in November 1913 they threatened Haté with legal action unless he shut it down. The company prospectus from the previous year suggests that the chemical side of his business wasn’t actually making that much profit. But, if Haté continued to fill his programme with old, second-hand films, then it must have been handy to have the ‘cleaning’ facilities on-site. One local resident later claimed that Haté showed the films he was in the process of ‘cleaning’ in the cinema, which suggests that he may have been getting at least some of his films for free. Whether or not this arrangement carried on into the 1910s, I’m not sure.

The cinema itself lasted a few more years into the start of World War I. But, in May 1915, Haté’s company wound up its operations. When a member of the London Women’s Patrol Committee visited Ingestre Place in June 1916 (as part of another survey of London’s cinemas), she found the cinema closed and was told that the business was ‘broke’ by someone who thought she wanted to buy the empty premises.[9] Haté seems to have left England by this point. Two more businessmen – David Long and Robert Van Steenbergen, living outside Soho, and giving their nationalities as Italian and Belgian – planned to re-open the space as the Cinema de Paris in September 1916, but withdrew their application to the council because the plan was proving too expensive. A Jewish resident of Soho later recalled his father using the venue as a Yiddish theatre, the first of its kind in London outside the East End.[10] This might have been true. In 1917, Samuel Wenter, a ‘naturalised British subject of Russian origin’ according to his paperwork, applied to use the old cinema for concerts in aid of a Jewish benevolent society and for Talmud Torah classes, but he may have also used it for dramatic performances. When council inspectors visited in February 1917, they found theatrical scenery in the venue, and promptly declared it unsuitable for entertainments. By this point, there were obviously cinemas and theatres all over the West End. But this episode suggests that there was still a demand for entertainment in Soho itself that the rest of the West End couldn’t meet – either for something affordable, or for something that more closely reflected the cultures of the people who lived in the neighbourhood.

The building at 6 Ingestre Place seems to have remained empty after that. In the 1920s, part of it was demolished (along with William and Mary Yard) to make way for the multi-storey Lex Garage, now the Brewer Street Car Park. Oddly, there was a resurgence of entertainment on this spot in World War II, when the Lex Garage was used as an air-raid shelter. According to an unnamed resident quoted by Summers, the garage became a kind of social club for Soho-ites:

We children ran wild in Lex Garage, because it was so big. We had a lovely time. But we didn’t sleep very much. We played cards, and put on shows to say hallo to the soldiers and sailors. For us it was fun.[11]

So, some 30 years later, under very different circumstances, Haté’s dreams of a multi-purpose entertainment venue in this crowded part of Soho were partly realised.

Brewer Street Car Park
The front entrance of the Brewer Street Car Park, formerly the Lex Garage. From britishlistedbuildings.co.uk.

 

Ingestre Place Google Streetview
The site of the Electric Cinema Theatre, Ingestre Place, now part of the Brewer Street Car Park. The faded sign for the Lex Garage is still visible. From Google Streetview.

 

Featured image: Soho street scene from Count Armfelt, ‘Cosmopolitan London’, in George R. Sims (ed.) Living London, Vol. 1 (1901): p. 244.

 

References:

[1] Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

[2] See especially Jon Burrows, ‘Penny Pleasures: Film Exhibition in London during the Nickelodeon Era, 1906-1914’, Film History, 16:1 (2004), 60-91, and ‘Penny Pleasures II: Indecency, Anarchy and Junk Film in London’s “Nickelodeons”’, Film History, 16:2 (2004), 172-97; and Allen Eyles with Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas, third edition (Swindon: English Heritage, 2014).

[3] See Burrows, ‘Penny Pleasures II’.

[4] Memo from the Superintendent of the Vine Street Police Station (‘C’ Division) to the Chief of the Metropolitan Police dated 2 November 1909, National Archives, MEPO 2/9172, File 590446/7, ‘Cinematograph Shows’.

[5] Judith Summers, Soho: A History of London’s Most Colourful Neighbourhood (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), p. 165.

[6] Company prospectus, July 1912, National Archives, BT 31/20750, ‘Haté’s Cinema and Film Cleaning Company, Limited’.

[7] Reprinted in Colin Harding and Simon Popple (eds), In the Kingdom of Shadows: A Companion to Early Cinema (London: Cygnus Arts, 1996), pp. 213-15.

[8] Letter from the London County Council (LCC) Theatres and Music Halls Committee to R.H. Kerr dated 4 November 1910, LCC Architect’s Department Correspondence File for 6 Ingestre Place, London Metropolitan Archives, GLC/AR/BR/07/659.

[9] Miss Gray, specimen report of the London Women’s Patrol Committee dated 21 June 1916, National Archives, MEPO 2/1691, File 976726, ‘Indecency in Cinemas’.

[10] Gerry Black, Living Up West: Jewish Life in London’s West End (London: London Museum of Jewish Life, 1994), p. 49.

[11] Summers, Soho, p. 184.

Wardour Street

‘Wardour-street is long and narrow, like a strip of film … Listen to the men walking away from one of the private cinemas hidden in the gaudy cliffs of offices, where they have seen a new drama on a six-foot screen: the life of the street swirls past them quite unnoticed. Listen to the people in cafes: nothing but celluloid.’[1]

Wardour Street
Wardour Street, with Film House on the left (from Google Streetview)

Wardour Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Soho, was at the heart of London’s early ‘filmland’. Known sometimes as ‘Film Row’ or the ‘High Street of Film’, it first became a centre for the film business during the 1910s.[2]

Before it was linked to film, Wardour Street had other associations. For much of the 1800s, it was known primarily for its secondhand furniture brokers. Many of these dealt in woodcarvings and other architectural salvage from the churches and aristocratic homes of Europe.[3] Not all of these objects were as old or expensive as they were made out to be, and ‘Wardour Street’ gradually became synonymous with the trade in ‘spurious antiquities’.[4] (This in turn gave rise to the phrase ‘Wardour Street English‘ to describe pretentiously archaic speech.)

The street was also known for its music businesses, housing a number of musical instrument shops, as well as the sheet-music publishers Novello and Company.[5] By the end of the nineteenth century, it had absorbed further associations from Soho’s immigrant communities (chiefly French, Italian and Eastern European Jewish). In the popular imagination, the street conjured up suggestions of Italian restaurants, ‘lurid postcards and questionable French literature’, and ‘the music of the ubiquitous piano-organ’.[6]

Pinoli's Restaurant, Wardour Street, advertising Parisian dinners
Pinoli’s Restaurant, 17 Wardour Street, advertising French cuisine

The first film company to set up business in Wardour Street was that of Charles Urban, who moved into the building at 89-91 on 25 March 1908, naming it Urbanora House.[7] In 1910, Urban took over the building on the other side of the street at 80-82, which he named Kinemacolor House, in honour of his pioneer colour-film company.[8] Other film companies soon followed, including foreign firms looking for a London headquarters and British businesses opening their first permanent offices or re-locating from smaller premises (for instance, in Cecil Court).

Cinema House projection hall
Inside the projection hall at Urbanora House, 89-91 Wardour Street (from thebioscope.net)

By 1914, Wardour Street was home to more than 20 film companies, including Pathé Frères, who opened offices next-door to Urban at 84 and at 103-109, and the production firm Cricks and Martin at 101.[9] Harry Rowson (the co-founder of the ‘Ideal’ Film Company) moved into the premises at 76-78 Wardour Street just before the First World War. In his memoirs, he recalled how the price of insurance in London for companies with stores of (extremely flammable!) celluloid film stock was especially high. This encouraged film dealers to look for buildings with low rents, away from the main business districts, and sometimes to share premises in order to save on costs. Rowson’s company paid £650 a year to lease the ground floor and basement of ‘a modern fire-proof building’ on the corner of Meard Street, formerly occupied by printers. ‘I thought it the most conspicuous film office in London at that time,’ wrote Rowson, ‘situated in the heart of theatreland’.[10]

The Pathé building
The Pathé building at 103-109 Wardour Street (from britishpathe.wordpress.com)

Wardour Street’s reputation as London’s ‘film centre’ was firmly established by the 1920s. There were around 40 film companies on the street in 1926, and many more nearby on Shaftesbury Avenue, Gerrard Street and Charing Cross Road. By 1929, the old Faraday electrical works at 146-150 had been rebuilt as the modern-style office building Film House.[11]

Film House
Film House, Wardour Street (from Wikipedia)

During this decade, the film industry on Wardour Street shared street space with other signs of ‘jazz age’ London. The Shim Sham Club at 37 attracted black Londoners and tourists, while the Tea Kettle became a popular destination for gay men and women.[12] Wardour Street was also associated with the Soho sex trade. At night, the street was ‘alive’ with prostitutes, according to the narrator of Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 novel The Midnight Bell.[13]

Cinema House
Cinema House, 93-95 Wardour Street (from sohomemories.org.uk)

Wardour Street’s associations with the film business continued well after the 1920s. More offices were opened in the 1930s by Warner Brothers (at 135-141) and Arthur J. Rank (127-133). In the late-1940s, there were around 100 film companies along Wardour Street, and it could still be described by film writers as ‘the heart of the business’ in the 1960s.[14] By the end of the twentieth century, film businesses on Wardour Street had been joined, and to some extent replaced, by other media firms, including television and video companies and advertising agencies.[15]

Today, you can still see traces of the street’s historic connections with the film industry in the signs that remain on the front of several office buildings, including the former Urbanora House, Film House and Cinema House.

Urbanora House
The signage on the former Urbanora House, Wardour Street (from leftoverlondon.wordpress.com)

***

The cartoon at the top of the post is by G. Mitchell, and shows the London branch of the Selig Company preparing to move to Wardour Street in 1915 (from the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 20 May 1915).

References

[1] James A. Jones, ‘Village Streets of London’, Evening News, 4 March 1932, p. 9.

[2] Ernest Betts, ‘When Films Came to Wardour Street’, The Times, 20 September 1967, p. 7; Nick Hasted, ‘London’s Little Hollywood’, Empire, no. 43 (January 1993), 40-41.

[3] John Harris, Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 37; J.H. Cardwell, et al, Two Centuries of Soho: Its Institutions, Firms, and Amusements (London: Truslove and Hanson, 1898), p. 188.

[4] P.H. Ditchfield, London’s West End (London: Cape, [1925]), p. 197.

[5] Leumas S. O’Neel, ‘W is for Wardour Street’, Eyepiece, 10:6 (September 1989), 15-16.

[6] Ditchfield, London’s West End, p. 197; Sophie Cole, Isobel in Wardour Street (London: Mills and Boon, [1910]), p. 80.

[7] Luke McKernan, Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2013), p. 72. See also Rachael Low, The History of the British Film, 1906-1914 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1949), p. 99.

[8] McKernan, Charles Urban, p. 91.

[9] The Post Office London Directory for 1914 (London: Kelly’s Directories, 1914).

[10] Harry Rowson, “Ideals” of Wardour Street (unpublished manuscript, British Film Institute Reuben Library), p. 55.

[11] O’Neel, ‘W is for Wardour Street’, 16; ‘Wardour Street’s New Film House’, The Bioscope (30 May 1928), 89.

[12] Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 235, 242; Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005), p. 69.

[13] Patrick Hamilton, The Midnight Bell (1929), quoted in Jerry White, London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People (London: Vintage, 2008), p. 314.

[14] O’Neel, ‘W is for Wardour Street’, 16; Betts, ‘When Films Came to Wardour Street’.

[15] Hasted, ‘London’s Little Hollywood’, 41.

Your own private cinema

I’ve been doing some research into the history of trade showrooms lately – the places where film companies give screenings to potential customers – and thinking a bit about the difference between watching a film in a public space and watching it in private. So I was interested to read this news item on a Chinese website (the wonders of Twitter) about a new chain of on-demand private cinemas being rolled out across various cities in China.

As far as I can make out, the cinemas offer a choice of rooms (a children’s room, a ‘courtship’ room), waiter service, comfy chairs and a choice of films accessed through a large touchscreen TV. I’m reliably informed that, so far, places like this in China are associated with the young, the wealthy and with special occasions – although this new chain seems to be offering more modest prices.

'Private custom' theatre in China

I’m sure this isn’t a new idea. In fact, I know it isn’t, because something like this was already being dreamt up in 1919 in London. The ‘drawing room’ cinema (pictured at the top of the post) was an innovation of Granger’s Exclusives, who had offices at the Oxford Street end of Wardour Street in Soho. Granger’s was a rental firm founded by A.G. Granger towards the end of the First World War, with a pro-British mission to distribute homegrown films. In 1919, the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly announced the layout of the company’s new private screening space in their Wardour Street premises.

It is a drawing room with a screen within it. Even the operating box is hidden under an artistic camouflage which adds to the picturesqueness and the sense of refinement and repose which dominate the whole place. […] Its comfort and surroundings have given just that correct atmosphere which is essential if pictures are to be viewed properly.

Presumably, ‘proper’ viewing here means viewing without distractions, in a tasteful atmosphere, or whatever was most conducive to selling the film. But the article goes on to suggest ways that the spirit of the Granger Drawing Room Kinema might be extended to other commercial settings. Arthur Backner, the showroom’s designer, believed that the idea could be put into practice across London, or ‘in any centre of population where an elite clientele can be gathered together’.

A drawing-room cinema with some fifty or sixty people in it who were prepared to pay for the privileges of refinement and seclusion (and large numbers of people would do so, in his opinion), would be as distinct a novelty as it would be a success.

I’m not sure if Backner had ever reckoned with the local cinematograph licensing laws or with the economies of scale that shaped film exhibition elsewhere in London, and which would surely have put a dampener on his plans. But the idea, at least, was prescient – right down to the waiter service and the customised selection of films.

Afternoon tea could be served in the drawing room kinema, with pictures chosen specially for people who wanted that something in kinematography which was in exact keeping with their surroundings.

The public would have to wait a while for private cinemas along these lines. But the article does predict some developments which would actually happen within a few years, including the emergence of specialist, ‘high-class kinema clubs’.

Now that the cult of the kinema is becoming one of Society’s functions, there is no reason why clubs for the seeing of certain types of pictures should not be formed amongst enthusiasts – say the filming of novels, the viewing of social propaganda films, or any other subject of great public interest. Such pictures, which distinct sections of the community might wish to see under ideal conditions, could easily form the basis of picture clubs, whose rendezvous would most assuredly have to be in some such place as this Granger Drawing Room Kinema.

The article was half right. When the London Film Society was founded in 1925 as a private subscription club for the appreciation of film as art, it would meet in regular (though top-end) cinemas, rather than secluded ‘drawing room’ theatres like Granger’s. But the Film Society, and other groups like it, certainly pursued the aim of refinement in cinema-going, and kept alive the interest in finding the ‘ideal’ conditions for watching films that is evidently still being explored today.

Granger Drawing Room Kinema

References:

  • ‘Arthur Backner’s Ideal Theatre’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly (6 March 1919): 77.
  • Rachael Low, The History of the British Film, 1918-1929 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971), p. 72.

Flickering, Lost, Forgotten

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…

Cinema Walking Tour Map

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!

A Night at the Lido Club

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…

Leslie Hutchinson
Leslie Hutchinson performing in 1933 from 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.

The Covered Wagon at the Pavilion

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.

Dear

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!

(Signed)

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.

Picture Palace Project

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.

You can find out more about the Open House weekend on the Cinema Museum website. In honour of the exhibition, I’ve also written about a venue that evoked a lot of vivid memories for Picture Palace participants – the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle.

The Cinema Museum, Lambeth
The Cinema Museum, Lambeth

Image credit above: Picture Palace Project logo, designed by Andrew Roberts

Taking Piccadilly to the Elephant and Castle

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’.

Souvenir programme from the Trocadero's opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk
Souvenir programme from the Trocadero’s opening night, from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, item BD018926: bdcmuseum.org.uk

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

Trocadero-Interior
The interior of the Trocadero, from the Cinema Museum website

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.

Poster for Rock Around the Clock (1956), from Wikipedia

‘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

Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, 16 September 1956
Teddy Boys outside a cinema showing Rock Around the Clock, from the Observer Archive, ‘Teddy Boys Riot When the Clock Strikes One’, 16 September 1956

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.

Manor Central Heights in 2008, from the SE1 community website
Metro Central Heights in 2008, built on the site of the Trocadero, from the SE1 community website

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:

What the fairy-tale is to the child

On a trip to the Haringey Archives a little while ago, one of the archivists showed me a collection of material about Alexandra Palace. I was looking for information about an early film studio on the premises (more of which another time), but what caught my eye was a pamphlet about conditions in Alexandra Palace when it was being used as an internment camp for German civilians during the First World War.

Included in the pamphlet (produced by the Anglo-German Family History Society) was an essay on life in the camp written by Rudolf Rocker. Rocker had moved to London from Germany, by way of Paris, in the 1890s, since when he had become an important figure in the anarchist scene of the East End. He was also influential in international politics as the editor of the radical Yiddish newspaper Arbeter Fraint (‘Worker’s Friend’).

Rudolf Rocker
Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958) / Wikipedia

Soon after the outbreak of war, Rocker, along with 3,000 other German-born residents, was arrested and interned in Alexandra Palace as an ‘enemy alien’. Several years into his internment, he was asked by the camp’s commandant, Major Mott, to write a first-hand account of his experiences. Rocker was deported to Germany in 1918 before he could finish the essay, but his rough drafts and notes were preserved and edited together by ‘W. Stz’ and Rocker’s son, Rudolf Rocker, Junior.

Press clippings in the archives describe the camp as ‘A Palatial Prison’ (Evening News) or dub the inmates ‘Luxurious Huns’ (Daily Mail). But Rocker’s essay tells a very different story about daily life as an interned civilian, stressing the lack of privacy in the huge, open-plan dormitories – which the prisoners eventually tried to solve by constructing makeshift huts around their beds – and the shock of being uprooted from family, friends, and work.

Sleeping accommodation in the Small Hall at Alexandra Palace
Sleeping accommodation in the Small Hall at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64158)
German prisoners in the tailors workshop at Alexandra Palace
German prisoners in the tailors workshop at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64153)
The kitchen at Alexandra Palace internment camp
The kitchen at Alexandra Palace internment camp / © IWM (Q 64152)

What stopped me in my tracks, though, was Rocker’s description of the cultural life of the camp. This section describes a series of weekly lectures given by a well-known socialist author (presumably Rocker himself), the camp’s musical concerts and amateur dramatics, and ends with an account of the prisoners’ film shows. It’s an eloquent, funny, and revealing passage, that has a lot to say about the capacity of cinema (or ‘the Kino’) to transport its audiences, and about how personal tastes can be shaped and tested by extraordinary circumstances. Here it is, as it appears in the original version assembled by Rocker’s son, a copy of which is held in the British Library (who I hope don’t mind me quoting it at length):

…there exist a number of organisations and groups, which have grown from the initiative of the men themselves, and these – each in its own way – serve to keep up the general spirits. The oldest of these institutions is that of the Literary, and Cultural-History Lecture Series, which a well-known socialist author holds regularly each week in the Theatre since July 1915. They are patronised by a fairly numerous and interested audience.

Two months later the “Konzert Verein” was founded, in which most of the interned musicians participate. It developed with surprising speed, and stood under the direct protection of the last Commandant, who was himself a great lover of music. But it was not only this personal fondness which made the Commandant patronise the “Konzert Verein”; he was strongly convinced that music acts upon the “moods” of the prisoners in a highly beneficial manner. Since its foundation, this Society has given weekly concerts in the Theatre, which are for hundreds of the Prisoners a wonderful mental recuperation, which cannot be estimated too highly.

At this place also, must be noted the Amateur Theatrical Society, which seeks, through its productions to entertain the Camp. Unfortunately there is a lack of talent, and of a planfully conducted artistical management. Most of the productions were very commonplace, and left much to be wished for, regarded from a purely artistic standpoint. For several months this society has almost entirely ceased its activities.

Several other organisations which chiefly have a sporting aim, as the Turn Verein (Gymnastic Association), the Football Club, etc., formerly enjoyed a strong membership. To-day, however, these bodies are practically non-existent as the great restrictions placed upon the food of the Camp considerably cool the sporting fever.

A retrogression, it must be said, is taking place in all the different undertakings of the various organisations. This is chiefly to be explained by the long duration of the internment. Lectures and Concerts are to-day less frequented than two or even one year ago. The dull pressure of the internment brings with it that the men lose in time all interest in any undertaking whatsoever.

The only institution which makes an exception to this painful rule and retains up to the present day the lively sympathy of the prisoners, is the “Kino”. It exists since 1915, and was received by the whole Camp with great joy. For a lengthy period, only one performance was given weekly, and it was always very well attended. But even later when two weekly “Kino evenings” were instituted, the result as regards attendance remained the same. And I am convinced that even if they were given still more frequently, the number of the audience would still remain as high as ever. The reason for this characteristic fact is moreover, easily explained. It is not here the attraction which the “Kino” exercises for itself, but the consequence of a very natural psychological process. No other entertainment or occupation of whatever nature it may be, is able to make the Prisoner forget his surroundings entirely. Whether he is employed in the workshop or studies at the school, whether he follows some sport, or listens to the sounds of music, always there is a certain something which makes him ever conscious of the narrow confines of his captivity. The “Kino” also, is not always able to suppress this gnawing feeling entirely, but it frees him more than all else, from the oppressive ban of his daily surroundings. It is, so to speak, a link with the outer world, which, though likewise resting upon a delusion, enables him nevertheless to forget for a while the leaden monotony of his surroundings.

In his thoughts he lives himself in the landscapes which pass before his eyes; he mingles with the crowds at the railway stations, boards ships and trains, and takes personal part in the dramas that take place before him. What the fairy-tale is to the child, that is the “Kino” to the Prisoner.

I knew quite a number of well educated men including artists and men of aesthetic taste, who would formerly never have entered a “Picture Theatre”, nay, who are even now antagonists of this institution generally, regarding it as a danger to the real art of the stage, but who, during internment, have become regular “Kino-goers”. And although they pass the most condemning judgment at the conclusion of each performance, and state emphatically that this was the last one they patronised, they still come again at the next one. They are, in spite of all, subject to the same psychological laws as their fellow-comrades-in-adversity, and the purely human is yet stronger than any abstract conception of art.

German prisoners making models and toys whilst interned at Alexandra Palace
German prisoners making models and toys whilst interned at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64154)
Interned civilians with their model yachts at Alexandra Palace
Interned civilians with their model yachts at Alexandra Palace / © IWM (Q 64151)

The pamphlet I first read Rocker’s essay in is An Insight into Civilian Internment in Britain during WWI (Anglo-German Family History Society, reprinted in an illustrated edition in 1998). The passage above comes from the typescript assembled by Rudolf Rocker, Junior, catalogued in the British Library as Alexandra Palace Internment Camp in the First World War (1914-1918). Rocker (the Elder) wrote about his experiences in London before and during internment in The London Years, translated by Joseph Leftwich (A.K. Press, 2005).

The images of Alexandra Palace are from the Air Ministry Collection at the Imperial War Museums, who also hold some remarkable sketches and paintings by one of the Alexandra Palace internees. The image at the top of the post shows sleeping quarters in the Great Hall at Alexandra Palace, © IWM (Q 64157).