Imagine how terrified you would be to find yourself in the path of an oncoming train. The train is moving slowly but steadily towards you and there is nowhere to hide.
That sense of fear was what introduced the first ever British cinema goers to moving pictures. Those were the 54 Victorian pioneers who paid a shilling each to attended the Lumière brothers’ premier of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) and other short clips. That was 1896 – the year that a multimillion pound industry, and British cinema, was born. Legend has it that those cinema goers were so overwhelmed by what they saw that they ran for the back of the cinema to get away from the moving train.
Now a new generation of cinema fans can experience film in the very same place – the Regent Street Cinema in London. Thanks to a combination of lottery funding, grants and generous donations, the birthplace of British cinema has opened its doors once again following a multi-million pound restoration project. While visitors will never experience the wonder of seeing moving pictures for the first time, just having access to such an important part of our heritage is amazing in itself.
This was a cinema of firsts. The first ever moving picture was shown here – a compilation of short, flickering snippets of about 40 seconds each, all filmed by the Lumière brothers on 35mm film. L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was 50 seconds long. The first narrated film was shown here too. Pioneering naval photographer Alfred West’s ‘Our Navy’ was based at the cinema for fourteen years.
It was also the first ever place to show an X-rated movie in the UK. Granted, not the kind of X-rated we worry about today, but the French avant-gardist dystopian vision of futuristic IVF and post-apocalyptic misery kind of X-rated.
In 1980, the cinema closed down as financial pressures mounted; it had become little more than homage to the history of film. Used as a lecture hall for more than 35 years, the Regent Street Cinema forms part of the University of Westminster, formerly the Polytechnic Institution – a centre of academic excellence when it comes to film and TV. The University may have star-studded alumni but many of them will not have had the opportunity to enjoy their cinematographic roots.
The newly reopened cinema will remain at the artier end of the cinema spectrum, so you won’t see the latest blockbusters. It is, according to its director, one of just a handful of cinemas in the UK to show films on 16mm and 35mm film, as well as the latest in Super8 and 4k digital film, and the plan is to show the cutting edge in new film alongside the old classics on their original 35mm and 16mm reels. Unfortunately you won’t get to see them on Edison’s Kinetoscope or the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe, but you can share in the enjoyment and wonder of the first ever, shaky steps of cinema in authentic surroundings.