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)
Will you go with me to HALE’S TOURS at 165, Oxford Street, W.? We can visit the Colonies or any part of the world (without luggage!) and return within fifteen minutes. Trains leave frequently from eleven to eleven. It is not only educational but intensely interesting.
So read the message on the back of the postcard pictured above. It advertises one of two (possibly three) Hale’s Tours venues that opened on Oxford Street from 1906. Another was located in the building at number 532 Oxford Street near Marble Arch, and, according to Christian Hayes, there might have been a third on the corner with Argyll Street. By 1908, London had two more Hale’s Tours sites operating at Hammersmith Broadway and Kensington High Street.
The wonder of the 15-minute round trip to Britain’s furthest-flung colonies and beyond was available to about 50-60 people at a time for the uniform price of sixpence. But how was it achieved? The attraction, first introduced at the 1904 St Louis Exposition by the entrepreneur George C. Hale, worked like a modern theme park simulator ride. The venue was made up of one or two carriages, decorated like the inside of a train, except for the fact that there were no windows. Instead, at one end facing the audience was a screen showing moving pictures of passing scenery.
Some of these moving pictures were repurposed or specially commissioned ‘phantom rides’. But there are also records of Hale’s Tours venues showing story films like Edison’s The Great Train Robbery. The effect wasn’t just visual. Although they never left the premises, Hale’s Tours carriages were designed to rock, tilt and vibrate to mimic the feel of a train journey. The ‘passengers’ at some venues were also treated to uniformed attendants, fans blowing a breeze overhead, and the sound of wheels, bells and whistles to add to the illusion.
Raymond Fielding has called Hale’s Tours an early example of cinematic ‘ultrarealism’. The columnist ‘Stroller’ writing for the Kine Weekly in 1908 thought so too:
In the journey through Rome, one could readily believe we were on a tram car; the rumbling of the wheels, the clanging of the bell to clear the traffic, the motion of the vehicle when rounding corners and the other effects were well-timed, free from exaggeration and as natural as one could desire.
But realism wasn’t the only thing on offer. Lauren Rabinovitz suggests that the effect of Hale’s Tours wasn’t just to transport viewers vicariously to distant places, but also to capture the sensations associated with modern technology – the same kind of miniature thrill offered by the rollercoasters on turn-of-the-century amusement parks.
If Hale’s Tours brought ‘the Colonies’ and a patch of the fairground within reach of shoppers along Oxford Street, there’s also an argument to say that the attraction opened up the West End to the idea of places exclusively showing moving pictures. By the time Hale’s Tours in Britain went bankrupt in 1908, there were at least two full-time cinemas in the district. One of these, the Theatre de Luxe on the Strand, had previously been trading as the Tivoli Tourist Station – a rival attraction to Hale’s. A little later, the former Hale’s Tours venue at 532 Oxford Street also became a cinema. While they lasted, though, Hale’s Tours weren’t just about the films. They sold themselves on a full, immersive experience.
Christian Hayes, ‘Phantom Carriages: Reconstructing Hale’s Tours and the Virtual Travel Experience’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 7:2 (2009), 185-198.
Raymond Fielding, ‘Hale’s Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture’, in John L. Fell (ed.), Film Before Griffith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 116-130.
Stroller, ‘Picture Shows As I See Them’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly (1 October 1908), 481.
Lauren Rabinovitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
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’).
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.
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.
The pamphlet I first read Rocker’s essay in is An Insight into Civilian Internment in Britain duringWWI (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).
I’ve been exploring some of London’s local archives lately and one of the finest and friendliest I’ve come across so far is definitely the Islington Local History Centre.
Islington has an incredibly rich film history. The now-demolished house at 3 Albion Place, off Liverpool Road, was the birthplace of film pioneer R.W. Paul, who later established his workshop nearby in Hatton Garden. A few decades later, in 1919, Poole Street was chosen as the British base for the US production company Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), who converted an old power plant into the country’s most state-of-the-art film studio.
Famous Players didn’t stay long, but they did give a kickstart to the career of the young Alfred Hitchcock (who got a job with the company designing title cards), and provided a future home for Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures. Another studio facility over in Highbury was set up in the thirties, later becoming the home of J. Arthur Rank’s Company of Youth, better known as the Rank ‘Charm School’, set up to train prospective British movie stars.
Islington was also a busy patch for early film exhibition. Chris Draper calculates that, in the peak year of 1914, there were 29 different venues in the district, a figure that levelled out to the high teens during the 1920s-1950s. These venues included the Empress Electric Theatre (opened in 1910, revamped in the 1970s, and still open today as the Screen on the Green, pictured at the top of this post) and the massive, 3,000-seat Astoria on Seven Sisters Road, an ‘atmospheric’ cinema decorated inside in a combination of Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern styles (later re-purposed as a rock venue, the Rainbow, and now in use as a church). Sam Nightingale’s beautifully illustrated website, Islington’s Lost Cinemas, records the traces of some of the other film venues in the area.
I mention all this because, from May 10, the Islington Museum (nextdoor to the Local History Centre), is hosting an exhibition – ‘From Hollywood to Highbury’ – about Islington’s cinematic past. There’s also a display in the Local History Centre about the Astoria Cinema and its later incarnation as the Rainbow Theatre, with a talk from a former stage manager on May 17.
I’ll try to report back on the exhibition once it’s underway, but for now here’s a sample of some of the material I’ve come across about the history of film in Islington and its neighbouring parts of London (mainly books and articles, some of them open access).
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”, 1906-1914’, Film History, 16.2 (2004), 172-197.
Chris Draper, Islington’s Cinemas & Film Studios (Islington Libraries, 1989): available to purchase from Islington Local History Centre.
Pierluigi Ercole, ‘Migrant People, Moving Images: Italian Immigration, London’s Little Italy and the Role of Cinema in the Early Twentieth Century’, in Laboratorio Di Nuova Ricerca: Investigating Gender, Translation and Culture in Italian Studies, ed. Monica Boria and Linda Risso (Troubador, 2007), pp. 21-31: on the early exhibition and reception of films in Clerkenwell.