The golden screen
There was a touching moment in Upper Regent Street the other day when Lady Lucinda Lambton cut a cake marking the 50th birthday of the Cinema Theatre Association, of which she is patron. It was in the shape of the old Twickenham Gaumont, a pre-Odeon style miniature palace of a picture house that opened in the Richmond Road in 1928 but is now long gone – there’s a petrol station on the site now, a battle that was lost.
But the Regent Street Cinema was not, and it is hard to see how this place could have gone the way of so many other pictures houses. Because here, on a February afternoon in 1896, 54 passers-by were somehow persuaded to part with one shilling each to watch a 40-second silent Lumiere Brothers film of people getting on and off a train in Lyon, becoming the first ever British cinema audience. The venue belonged to what is now Middlesex University, but it became a high temple of movies when it was lavishly done up in 1927 – not in the art deco style everyone associates old cinemas with, but a kind of Victorian classical, a few years later a Compton organ (not quite a Wurlitzer just as mighty) was added. Then television was seen as the nemesis of the film screen and in 1974 the place reverted to educational use.
But around the centenary of the Lumieres’ premiere there was a campaign to restore it, supported by English Heritage and with lottery money. It triumphed, but the preservationists wanted it reverted to the way it looked in 1896: the CTA argued that its golden age was post 1927, and they prevailed so that 18 months ago the Regent Street Cinema reopened as it looked in 1927, with the organ added and in fully working order.
Not all the campaigns are so successful and the CTA has to compete with a general belief that these buildings are of at best secondary importance, a long way down the pecking order from churches and theatres. The assumption is that all cinemas of the 20th century are art deco which they are not – although the Odeon chain gave as a Moderne classification, “Odeon style”. But they are exuberant, lavishly decorated, can be wildly elaborate, and vulgar to the purists who sniffily see them as redolent of a rather common enthusiasm. Persuading the listing authorities to consider picture houses has been an uphill battle, still is with many local planning authorities.
Thousands have been lost – we had 4,800 in 1946, there are fewer than 800 now – but many have been saved and given different uses as churches, pubs, cut-price stores, gyms, community centres and, of course, bingo halls. The dying of bingo has put them in peril once again.
Yet these places are the great equalisers. In the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s they were where young people went, the only passive entertainment they could afford and which was available on practically every street corner. Even now an evening at the cinema is cheaper than a restaurant meal, a theatre performance or even a night at the pub. There is no dress code, and many now have cafés and bars. More and more surviving cinemas converted to multi-screen are being sensitively adapted so that as much of the glorious interior is retained as possible, and the revival of art house cinemas has meant that the number of screens available in the UK has risen from barely 3,500 in 2006 to over 4,000 ten years later, and whatever is happening at the Oscars is still front page news.
So happy birthday, CTA, and keep fighting for our picture houses. As one former chairman says, “The association was born because of boring films – you find your eyes straying from the screen to the surroundings, and wow!” Let’s continue to be wowed.