Tag Archives: 1920s London

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.


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.


After spending a while in the West End, I thought it was time that London Filmland ventured east. Following a tip-off from the erstwhile Bioscope, this post stops off at 100 Whitechapel Road, the former site of two film-related venues: the Rivoli and, before that, Wonderland. As a stalwart of the East End entertainment scene, there’s been a fair amount written about the place already, so this is an attempt to pull together information on some of the venue’s different encounters with film over the years.

Wonderland first opened its doors as a music hall in 1896, which was also when the site’s life as a film venue began. But it had been associated with entertainment since the 1830s, first as the Earl of Effingham Saloon, then as the Effingham Theatre, and later still as the East London Theatre (which burned down in 1879). Like the Pavilion Theatre down the road, the venue seems to have depended mainly on local working-class and immigrant (especially German and East European) audiences, being too far away from the city centre to attract the West End’s more well-heeled, floating clientele.


A Whitechapel street scene / Yoshio Markino, from The Charm of London, 1912

The proprietor of Wonderland was Jonas Woolf, who spent £5,000 fixing up the building to comply with London County Council regulations, and who went all out to compete with the other local music halls. When Wonderland opened, Woolf traded heavily on the eclecticism and exoticism of his acts, putting together what the Era called a ‘curious exhibition of freaks’ for the hall’s first programme.

wonderland times advert

Call for acts for Wonderland / The Times, 1896

Woolf also tried to drum up local support through a series of competitions, some of them designed to appeal to particular professions or social groups. So, there were contests for basket carrying (for market traders), carving up sheep (for butchers), shaving (for barbers), pram racing (for mothers), as well as others for singing, washing clothes, crawling, standing upside down, and more inventive tests of skill involving kicking a football through a hoop, and eating treacle from a swinging bread roll.

Moving pictures were first shown at Wonderland in April 1896 in the form of R.W. Paul’s ‘Theatrograph’. Sadly, the show wasn’t a success, and managed to land Woolf in Clerkenwell County Court. As the Era reported in July that year, Paul was suing Wonderland, Limited, for failing to pay the sum of £22, 10 shillings – equivalent to three weeks’ rent of electrical accumulators to power the ‘Theatrograph’ kit. Woolf’s defence was that the moving pictures had come out ‘blurred and indistinct’. It was said that the audience at Wonderland ‘used to hiss the performance, and many people had demanded and received back their money’.

wonderland patrons

Patrons of Wonderland / Photographer unknown, from H. Chance Newton, ‘Music-Hall London’, 1902

In court, Woolf went on to state that the ‘Theatrograph’ was booked as the star attraction on Wonderland’s bill, and so its poor performance had done significant damage to the venue’s earnings and reputation. This line of argument resulted in the following bizarre exchange between Woolf and Paul’s barrister, Mr. Gill, which also gives a sense of the variety acts that the ‘Theatrograph’ would have appeared alongside at the Wonderland:

Mr Gill (to Mr Woolf) – You say the “Theatrograph” was your star attraction, and that the losses of your music hall were due to its failure? Witness – The rest of the programme was mere padding.

Mr Gill (reading from a poster) – Do you call the Bear Lady padding – “A native of Africa, full grown, whose arms and legs are formed in exactly the same manner as the animal after which she is named?” – Witness – Yes, the Bear Lady was padding.

Mr Gill – And the Fire Queens, “who have appeared before the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Italy, and King of Portugal, who pour molten lead into their mouths, lick red-hot pokers, and remain several minutes enveloped in flames and fire?”

Witness – Yes, the Fire Queens also were padding.

Mr Gill – I am not surprised that these monstrous exaggerations damaged your business. It was not the theatrograph.

After all this, the judge decided that Woolf was at fault for failing to provide sufficiently powerful lighting, and ordered him to settle his debt to Paul.

wonderland poster

Poster for Wonderland, November 1896 / Peter Jackson Collection (lookandlearn.com)

Undeterred, Wonderland carried on showing films on and off into the 1910s. But, as the venue continued to diversify the entertainments on offer, it became best known as one of the East End’s premier boxing halls. Robert Machray gives a virtual tour of a Saturday night boxing match in Wonderland in a guide to The Night Side of London from 1902.

You pass into the building – at the door stands a solitary policeman. You pay, perhaps, the highest price, three shillings, which entitles you to a seat on the stage. You have come a quarter of an hour before the time announced for the beginning of the first match, but the vast building is already packed, except on the stage, where there is still room. And what a dense mass of human beings there is!

Machray estimated that there were upwards of 2,000 people crammed into the auditorium. To add to the activity, there were also vendors selling refreshments. During the match, patrons could purchase oranges, cigarettes, soft drinks, plus ‘the greatest of East End delicacies, the stewed eel’.

boxing at wonderland

‘Boxing at the “Wonderland”, Whitechapel’ / Tom Browne, from Robert Machray, The Night Side of London, 1902

The venue burned down (for the second time) in August 1911, sparking rumours that Woolf had been the victim of an arson attack from a former business partner. The more likely culprit, though (according to The Times), was none other than a film projector, which was being tested in the afternoon for an evening show, and had apparently been set alight by some faulty wiring. (Woolf later told the press that the fire had started in a side gallery, and not the projection booth.)

Wonderland seems to have been up and running again by the mid-1910s, and it’s listed as a film venue in the trade directories on and off until 1917. But in 1921 it was reinvented once more – this time as the Rivoli Cinema.

The Rivoli was one of the East End’s first ‘super cinemas’, a new breed of large-capacity film venue, and one of the earliest of its kind to be built anywhere in the UK. The remodelled outside of the Rivoli promised grandeur, with neo-classical columns and arches:

rivoli whitechapel 1923

Inside, there was an upper circle over the stalls, providing seating for over 2,000 people, and a large stage for variety acts:

rivoli whitechapel 1921 interior

There was also a tastefully appointed café:

rivoli 1928 cafe

Stanley Collins provided a lengthy, first-hand account of his time working at the Rivoli in the 1920s in a series of articles for the in-house magazine Gaumont-British News in 1932 (handily reproduced in a 2001 issue of the journal Picture House). Collins had been working as secretary to the US film producer and theatre manager Walter Wanger during his stint at the Covent Garden Opera House. When Wanger announced that he was taking over the Whitechapel Rivoli, Collins followed him, and was duly appointed Assistant Manager, with Hal Lewis as General Manager.

As Collins remembered it, the Rivoli under Wanger and Lewis’s management became well-known for high-quality film programmes and variety acts. ‘The cream of the variety world, at some time or other,’ he wrote, ‘trod the boards of the Rivoli’s fine stage’. Collins was less effusive about the Rivoli’s audiences (‘not exactly genteel’), claiming that fights inside and outside the cinema were frequent. Collins had fonder memories of working with Ernest Trimmingham, known as ‘Trim’, a Bermudan playwright and stage actor then living in the East End, who (as Stephen Bourne shows) was probably also the first black actor to appear in British films. During Collins’s time as Assistant Manager, ‘Trim’ was acting as ‘a sort of “barker”‘ for the Rivoli, advertising the cinema around the neighbourhood. He also did a turn on the variety stage there to an enthusiastic house.

Around 1924, Hal Lewis was replaced as manager by Billy Stewart, who set about revamping the place. Here’s Collins again:

He [Stewart] put the staff into smart new uniforms, and engaged five little blondes to open the main swing-doors to the theatre. Their smart blue pageboy tunics, short skirts, patent-leather leggings, white gauntlets and jaunty peak caps gave quite a “ritzy” touch to the front of the house. Even the four pageboys were supplied with white spats and gloves! Personally, I felt that Billy was overdoing it for Whitechapel, but I was wrong. Before long, people came from the West End to the Rivoli, so smart had the house become. The difference was so marked, in fact, that the ‘locals’ ceased their habit of dropping peanut shells under the seats, and the house at the end of a performance no longer resembled Brighton beach!

There’s a tension in Collins’s description between ‘West End’ and ‘East End’ values. I wonder how the ‘locals’ he talks about took to these changes in décor and decorum? Did they welcome the presence of a more ‘ritzy’ venue on their doorstep, or were they nudged out by the new house policy?

The Rivoli was taken over by the United Picture Theatres circuit in 1928 and by British Gaumont in 1930. But, despite all this, like the venues on the site before it, the cinema continued to have some social connection to Whitechapel residents. Research by Gil Toffell has shown how it was especially important for the East End’s Jewish audiences. In the 1930s, it was one of the few places in London where Yiddish sound films were shown – films like The Voice of Israel (1930) and Uncle Moses (screened there in 1938). The auditorium was also known to host Rosh Hashanah services when the local synagogue proved too small to accommodate the number of worshippers.

The Rivoli stayed open until 1940, when it was destroyed in an air raid. The bombed-out building was finally demolished in the 1960s. The site at 100 Whitechapel Road is now a Citroen car dealership, next door to the East London Mosque.

100 whitechapel road

100 Whitechapel Road / Google Street View

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The following sources contain information about Whitechapel, Wonderland, the Rivoli, and people associated with the venues. Feel free to add more in the comments section, if you know of any.

Institute of Hygiene

Lately, I’ve been combing through a lot of film trade directories looking for information about old London cinemas. As anyone who has done research into British film history can vouch, titles like the Kinematograph Year Book are the yellowing, slightly dog-eared Wikipedias of the inner workings of the British film industry – full of interesting facts and figures, although sadly without the hyperlinks. (If you want a taster, the BFI have made the 1914 edition of the Kinematograph Year Book available online as a pdf.)

I was looking through the long list of London cinemas in the Kinematograph Year Book for 1919, when this entry caught my eye:

Institute of Hygiene, 33-4, Devonshire Street, Harley Street, W. 1. Prop[rietor]s, Institute of Hygiene. Res[ident] Sec[retary], Mr. A. Seymour Harding. Educational and Scientific Displays only, and by invitation chiefly. Largely used to illustrate lectures. No fixed programme or hours. First cinema installed in England for education work.

The entry seemed so incongruous (it’s sandwiched between the Imperial Theatre, Edgware Road, and the Abbey Picture Palace in Merton) that I thought it warranted further investigation. What films were the Institute of Hygiene showing, and why were they showing them in the first place? And was it really England’s first educational cinema? Here’s what I pieced together.

The Institute of Hygiene was founded in 1903, mainly to organize exhibitions about public health and preventative medicine. It also taught courses in hygiene for non-medical workers. The building at 33-34 Devonshire Street (a street that runs between Marylebone High Street and Great Portland Street) opened in the autumn of 1904.

devonshire street

33-34 Devonshire Street, London (Google Street View)

An issue of the British Journal of Nursing from the time explained that the central attraction at the Institute was ‘a permanent exhibition of hygienic products and appliances, and of articles of importance connected with personal and domestic hygiene’. Judging from the items mentioned in the BJN report, it seems that the Institute wasn’t averse to supporting its educational mission with a bit of product placement. Exhibits displayed ‘in the well-filled cases lining the walls’ included products from Nestlé, Cadbury’s, and other makers of ‘health’ foods and medical aids.

I can’t be sure that the Institute of Hygiene really did house the ‘first cinema installed in England for education work’, as the Kine Year Book suggests, but it seems like a reasonable claim. Films were shown there in the summer of 1912, with the intention of making them a permanent part of the exhibition. The trade magazine The Cinema reported on the first screenings in July 1912. The programme sounds like it wasn’t for the squeamish:

The Cinema and Hygiene

The use of the cinematograph as a means of education was illustrated at the Institute of Hygiene, when numerous pictures were exhibited, some in particular showing how disease is spread by flies. The ways in which flies carry disease by crawling on stagnant fish, afterwards feeding on the sugar in the house, and, alighting on the mouthpiece of a child’s feeding-bottle were shown by films. Other pictures, taken by a London doctor, indicated the most practical methods of rendering first aid in case of accident, while a series of industrial films afforded insight into the manufacture of “nut margarine,” meat extract, and other foods. Sir William Bennett, the President of the Institute of Hygiene, in inaugurating the educational cinematograph, said that while in America the cinematograph had been used for the demonstration of the details of surgical operations, and pictures of germ life had been shown in London, the instruction by this means had in the main been merely sporadic or accidental, and secondary to amusement.

This certainly seems like a pioneering use of moving pictures, even if William Bennett was selling his competition a bit short. There’s surely more than ‘accidental’ instruction at work in films like Charles Urban and F. Martin-Duncan’s series of ‘Unseen World’ pictures (the image at the top of this post comes from a 1903 ‘Unseen World’ instalment, Cheese Mites). But the point that early scientifically minded film shows tended to combine a large dose of amusement with their instruction is well taken: witness the famous Acrobatic Fly filmed by Percy Smith in 1910. Bennett was obviously trying to stress the seriousness of the Institute’s film screenings, and The Cinema went on to list some of the other ways that he intended to apply the new medium in the name of hygiene, like using microscopic images of germ life to teach food safety, or using film scenes to illustrate talks on domestic science and child-care.

I don’t know how long the Institute of Hygiene kept up their educational screenings. The organisation moved to new premises at 28, Portland Place in 1925, and merged with the Royal Institute of Public Health in the 1930s, by which time documentary science films had become more established as a genre. (Something discussed in Tim Boon’s book, Films of Fact.)

But, finding out about the Institute of Hygiene’s film work was a good reminder that, even when there was no shortage of dedicated cinemas around in London, films were still shown in a wide range of contexts, and for plenty of reasons other than commercial entertainment. In their recent edited collection of essays, Useful Cinema, Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson make a strong case for paying more attention to the history of what they call the ‘other cinema’: one that has always existed alongside the more familiar world of film-as-entertainment, but which instead set out to ‘transform spaces, convey ideas, [and] convince individuals’. Even if it wasn’t the direction that the mainstream film business ultimately took, the idea of cinema as a force for education did a lot to convince people in the early days, especially, that there was a future for moving pictures – and a useful future, at that.

Since coming across the Institute of Hygiene’s entry in the Kine Year Book, I’ve found references to a few more non-theatrical venues in London (besides churches and local halls) that seem to have shown films on a regular basis. Situated at 223, Tottenham Court Road, was the London office of the National Cash Register Company. This was licensed to show films in its ground-floor hall ‘for trade purposes only’ as early as 1914. From what I can gather, it looks like this was the company’s national sales headquarters, so it’s possible that films were used to train employees in sales techniques.

ncr tottenham court road

National Cash Register Company office, Tottenham Court Road (c. 1904/Photographer unknown)

There’s a bit more information about the films shown in the second, equally unlikely film venue: the instruction depot of the London General Omnibus Company. This was located on Milman Street in Chelsea – here it is being used to instruct women omnibus drivers during the First World War:

milman street lgoc depot

(London Transport Museum Collection/Photographer unknown)

According to an article in The Times in May 1913, trainee drivers in the Milman Street depot were shown something like modern road safety films. ‘Cinematograph demonstrations were used in instructing the staff for showing how common forms of accident might be avoided’, with vehicles in the films ‘arranged to make close resemblance to actual accidents’ for extra authenticity.

These examples probably just scratch the surface. We’ve become accustomed to seeing moving images everywhere in cities now, but I wonder what other early film shows were going on in unexpected corners of London.

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The collection of essays edited by Charles Acland and Haidee Wasson is Useful Cinema (2012). Simon Popple and Joe Kember mention the idea of using film to train London omnibus drivers in their introduction to Early Cinema (2004), which also includes a discussion of some of the other potential applications for the cinematograph.

The Path of a Star

Lady Tulle Rosemayne, a leader of society, beautiful, fascinating and accomplished, is the heroine of this romance. As the result of a wager with the irresponsible set to which she belongs, she compels the attention of John Sterne, film producer, reputed to be indifferent to women, who induces her to become a film actress. The setting of the story includes scenes in night clubs in London, in the Casino at Etretat, and wanderings in Paris…

I’ve been looking back over my notes on this book by Arthur Applin – one of a string of novels he wrote about London’s filmland in the 1920s (the others are listed in Ken Wlaschin and Stephen Bottomore’s fantastic bibliography of moving picture fiction, available online if you have access to the journal of Film History).

Applin is an interesting figure. His obituary in The Times says that he was born in Devon, trained as a lawyer, then gave up a legal career for the London stage, acting under a series of West End actor-managers. But he was best known as a novelist and dramatist. ‘He wrote frankly sensational stories’, said The Times, and he wrote lots of them – by my count, his back catalogue of plays and novels numbers well over 100.

Arthur Applin

Arthur Applin photographed in the 1920s, from the National Portrait Gallery website.

Many of Applin’s stories concern London’s entertainment industries, including musical comedy (in The Chorus Girl and Footlights) and the legitimate stage (glanced at in his filmland novel London Love). Whilst he didn’t start writing about the film business until the 1920s, his involvement with the British cinema went back at least as far as 1907, when he took part in a film designed to advertise his Evening News serial The Sons of Martha – an early (and, as far as I can tell, lost) experiment in tie-in movie marketing.

The view of London’s film culture Applin presents in The Path of a Star is, of course, fictional. It relies heavily on cliches and character types drawn from all sorts of early-twentieth-century popular literary genres. It is a heady mix – part showbiz expose, following the career of a young would-be star; part ‘Bright Young Things’ novel (published a year before Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies); and a large part romance, with a plot that centres on the clash of wills between the glamorous Lady Rosemayne (pictured salaciously on the front cover above) and the hard-nosed film director, John Sterne (the purple-suited man hovering on the edge of the spotlight).

What’s intriguing about Applin’s novel, at least from the perspective of someone interested in film history, is how cinema fits into this imaginary world: that is, which aspects of London film culture are brought into focus, and what kind of context they appear in.

For a start, there’s a big emphasis in Applin’s story on the technology involved in putting a film together, and in the impact of modern technology more generally. Sterne, the director, rents offices in Piccadilly that are perched above a firm of motor car dealers. His studios, meanwhile, are situated in ‘a converted factory … tucked away on the left bank of the Thames’, and are themselves full of noisy camera equipment, lighting rigs and tangled wiring. What is the effect of all this newfangled technology? In Lady Rosemayne’s case, it leaves her feeling de-humanised – ‘an insignificant cog-wheel in that machine, one of the insignificant busy workers…’. It’s an image that recurs elsewhere in Applin’s literary London.

There are plenty of other fictional accounts of London’s film industry besides Applin’s. Here are a few more (hopefully easier-to-get-hold-of) stories dealing with London’s filmland:

  • Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Pictures’ (1918). Mansfield’s short story follows a would-be actress through wartime London in search of a job. The names of the studios she visits – the Backwash Film Co. and the Bitter Orange Company – give a sense of the satirical bite that Mansfield brings to the subject. It was published in the magazine Arts and Letters, and again as ‘Pictures’ in Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories (1920). An earlier version of the story appeared in 1917 as ‘The Common Round’ in The New Age – available online at The Modernist Journals Project.
  • Graham Greene, ‘A Little Place off the Edgware Road’ (1939). Greene spent a lot of time in cinemas during the 1930s as a film reviewer for the Spectator. Here, he uses an out-of-the-way picture theatre as the murky backdrop for a tale of death and madness. Published in the 1947 collection Nine Stories, and in various Greene anthologies since.
  • Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet (1945). Isherwood’s short, tightly sprung novel re-works his own experiences in the London film industry – working as a scriptwriter on British-Gaumont’s 1934 film Little Friend, directed by Berthold Viertel – as a reflection on studio politics and the rise of Nazism. The book is still in print.

I’d be interested to hear about other stories set in London’s cinema world, especially some more recent ones. Any recommendations?

Savoy Hill, 1923-1932

BBC Radio celebrated its ninetieth birthday last week. The BBC’s first public broadcast went out on 14 November 1922 from the company’s studio at Marconi House, on the corner of the Strand and Aldwych in central London. As the beginnings of the BBC overlap with the period of film history that I’m most interested in, I’ve been thinking a bit about the first impressions that radio might have made on London’s cinema world, and vice versa.

It’s often thought (and was sometimes said at the time) that the advent of radio posed a real threat to the livelihood of the film industry. Unlike cinema screenings, radio broadcasts could reach people in the comfort of their own living rooms – as long as the signal was strong enough – and were available daily for the price of a licence fee. Plus, in contrast to films, radio could bring events to people as they happened. In the 1920s, for instance, the BBC transmitted live relays of stage acts and musical performances from theatres and concert halls to wireless sets around the country. John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, summed up the company’s mission as bringing ‘the best of everything to the greatest number of homes’.

But, of course, radio didn’t kill off cinema. In fact, as historians like Jeffrey Richards have shown, the two industries found plenty of ways to work together, sharing stars and stories, and occasionally poking fun at each other’s peculiarities. And one of the first places that radio and cinema could be said to have met on friendly terms was in the studios of the BBC’s second home, Savoy Hill (pictured above).

The BBC relocated to Savoy Hill in April 1923. The building complex, which was also home to the Institute of Electrical Engineers (IEE), overlooked the Savoy Hotel and offered picturesque views of the Thames. Inside, the atmosphere was equally plush. The author Gale Pedrick later said:

Next to the House of Commons, Savoy Hill was quite the most pleasant Club in London. There were coal fires, and visitors were welcomed by a most distinguished looking gentleman who would conduct them to a cosy private room and offer whisky-and-soda.

The studios themselves were furnished with heavy drapes and thick carpets that sucked up the sound.

Studio 1 at Savoy Hill in 1928, from the BBC website

One of the regular visitors to Savoy Hill was the BBC’s first film critic, G. A. Atkinson. Atkinson, who also wrote film reviews for the Daily Express, was hired by the BBC in July 1923. Throughout the 1920s, he presented a fifteen-minute programme called Seen on the Screen, which went out once a fortnight at around 7pm on Friday evenings.

I haven’t come across any records of what Atkinson’s radio programme was like (although it would be great to find some), but his position as the BBC’s film critic was explained in a 1928 issue of the Radio Times:

More than ever in 1928, the movies are one of the symptoms of the way our civilization is going. No longer a crude device, interesting only for its novelty, or a ‘trick’ entertainment designed by the intelligent, the cinema as an art and as a cultural force has come to stay; and its importance as propaganda and as an industry is attracting the serious attention of legislators all over the world.
The films come pouring out of Hollywood in their thousands, and out of the English and Continental studios in their hundreds. No layman can see them all, but no one can afford to miss the significant ones. Hence the importance of listening to Mr. Atkinson’s expert and witty reviews of current productions in his fortnightly talks.

Atkinson’s Seen on the Screen was broadcast up to the end of the decade. At the same time, Savoy Hill also played host to the twenty-five-year-old film enthusiast, upcoming director, and son of a former Prime Minister, Anthony Asquith. Between 30 September and 4 December 1927, Asquith gave a series of five lectures on The Art of the Cinema. According to the accompanying programme notes published by the BBC, his first talk began by asking:

What is a film? Is it a genuine artistic medium? Or is it, like Broadcasting, just a way of bringing novels, plays or the latest news before a larger audience without changing their character – a sort of visual railway service for the art of literature and drama?

It seems that radio offered Asquith and his listeners another point of comparison (along with literature and drama) for understanding how cinema worked and what it could be. This comparison was surely going to be even more important with the transition to sound films that was then underway, and which would be more-or-less complete by the start of the 1930s.

There were other visitors from filmland, too. In his mammoth history of British broadcasting, Asa Briggs mentions that other ‘big names’ who featured in the BBC’s early output included the film-star cowboy Tom Mix, as well as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. If that’s right, the wires and microphones of Savoy Hill would have given these Hollywood performers a taste of things to come in the era of the ‘talkies’.

BBC technicians at work in the 1920s

The BBC left Savoy Hill in May 1932 to move to their new purpose-built premises at Broadcasting House. The building now belongs to the Institute of Engineering and Technology (the successors of the IEE).

Plaque commemorating the BBC’s time at Savoy Hill

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There’s more information about the BBC’s time at Savoy Hill in the first volume of Asa Briggs’ History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Jeffrey Richards’ book, Cinema and Radio in Britain and America, 1920-1960, gives a bigger picture of the new medium’s relationship with film. The image of Savoy Hill at the top of this post was drawn specially for the Radio Times by Henry Rushbury in 1927.

The Plaza Tiller Girls, 1928

These are the Plaza Tiller Girls, as painted by Walter Sickert in 1928. I came across this image whilst I was trying to find out more about the stage shows that used to accompany film screenings in some of the bigger London cinemas. The Tiller Girls got their name from the entrepreneur John Tiller, who started training dancers in Manchester in the 1890s, and later set up a school in London on Charing Cross Road. Once trained, a successful dancer might work in a touring group or a revue, or else join one of the Tiller troupes associated with a particular venue.

Postcard of the Plaza Theatre, from the Arthur Lloyd website.

The troupe in Sickert’s painting was attached to the Plaza Theatre on the corner of Lower Regent Street and Jermyn Street, facing out towards Piccadilly Circus. The Plaza was a plush, 1,896-seater venue, which opened in 1926 as the London home of Paramount Pictures. In common with other big cinemas built around this time, the Plaza was designed with a capacious stage as well as a screen, perfect for showcasing variety acts either before or in between films. To take one random example of the kinds of “cine-variety” programme this could result in, in May 1927 the theatre was advertising a run of the Gilda Grey film Cabaret, coupled with the Richard Dix and Betty Bronson film Paradise for Two, plus stage turns from the Tiller dancers and the musical act “Kel Keech and his Banjolele Banjos“.

There were resident Tiller troupes at other London cinemas, too, including the nearby Carlton and the Astoria. Each of them had their own colour scheme (the Plaza Girls rehearsed in blue-and-white check outfits) and their own distinctive line-up. The dancers at the Plaza were especially known for their high-kicking long legs. Like all Tiller Girls, the Plaza troupe prided themselves on the precise, synchronised timing of their dance routines. Describing the experience of watching them, one critic wrote (in a phrase that apparently became a publicity tagline), “They dance as one woman, and what a woman!”

The Tiller Girls also provoked more ambivalent responses. The German writer Siegfried Kracauer saw their carefully co-ordinated choreography as one of the clearest expressions of a new phenomenon he dubbed the “mass ornament”. This was the artistic equivalent of the modern industrial production methods pioneered in the United States by people like William Taylor and Henry Ford. “The hands in the factory,” Kracauer wrote, “correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls.” In other words, both the assembly line and the chorus line subordinated individual identity to the logic of the machine. (If it helps Kracauer’s argument, John Tiller did spend his early years supervising workers in the Lancashire cotton mills.)

I’m not sure whether Walter Sickert shared Kracauer’s understanding of the Tiller Girls. For a start, there’s not much machine-like about the movements on display in his painting. In fact, Sickert seems to have gone out of his way to make the show look raw and spontaneous. There’s a story that the Plaza dancers were disappointed by Sickert’s depiction of them because their legs and heads were all shown moving in different directions. And, despite the slightly chilly colour palette, the row of heads and musical instruments huddled around the stage give the scene a feeling of intimacy.

Whatever he thought of them, Sickert was obviously intrigued by the Plaza troupe. He painted another picture of them in 1928 (minus the silhouetted figures in the foreground), and again in 1938, in a much larger canvas exhibited as High Steppers.

Sickert’s second painting of the Plaza Tiller Girls in 1928, from the Bridgeman Art Library.

Sickert’s painting High Steppers, 1938, from the National Galleries of Scotland website.

It’s doubtful, though, that Sickert ever saw the Tiller Girls in action. According to the art historians Wendy Baron and Richard Shone, Sickert worked mainly from photographs during the later part of his life. The source for High Steppers was most likely a publicity still printed in the London Evening News in 1927, which advertised the Plaza troupe’s appearance in the film A Little Bit of Fluff (starring Betty Balfour and Syd Chaplin). His 1928 Tiller Girl paintings were probably also based on publicity photos, rather than first-hand observation. If we’re looking for something specifically modern about these paintings, perhaps we could find it not just in the subject matter, but also in Sickert’s multi-media working methods. There’s definitely something a bit dizzying in the flow of images from stage to screen to newspaper to art gallery.

There were Tiller Girls at the Plaza until at least 1931, when they were sharing the bill with the American musician Eddie Peabody (another banjo player) and the “jungle picture” Rango. The Plaza Theatre itself is now the site of the Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly Circus, and a Tesco supermarket.

The site of the Plaza Theatre photographed in 2007, from the Cinema Treasures website.

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There’s more about the Plaza Theatre and its afterlife in London’s West End Cinemas by Allen Eyles and Keith Skone. The book Tiller’s Girls by Doremy Vernon contains reminiscences from women who worked as Tiller dancers, as well as some great illustrations. I got most of my information about Sickert’s paintings from the 1992 exhibition catalogue produced by Wendy Baron and Richard Shone for the Royal Academy of Arts. The Tate website also has a detailed profile of Sickert, which talks about his career-long fascination with popular culture.