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Historic cinemas in the UK

Celebrating cinemas, past and present

Here in the UK, we are lucky to have a cluster of fascinating, unique, quirky independent cinema treasures to remind us that going to the pictures should be an adventure, and our Regent Street Cinema is definitely on the list to visit with such an esteemed position in the history of film. It was here at in 1896 that the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe machine was first shown to a paying audience.

A must to visit on the south coast is the magnificent Grade II-listed Duke of York’s Picture House in Brighton, which celebrated its 111st birthday in September 2021. It is one of the oldest purpose-built historic cinemas in the UK, according to the Cinema Theatre Association. Embroiled in its saucy history are illegal punk rock concerts, and you’ll find a 20-foot pair of can-can dancer's legs on the roof.

Going to the cinema in the early 20th century was truly a special event and many of the film theatres were likened to palaces

The beginning of the 20th century saw grand refurbished theatres often include film screenings, and foresighted architects sometimes included a separate projection room in their plans. The films were silent but accompanied by organ music, and these theatres became known as ciné-varieties, because of their mixture of variety theatre and cinema.

The Leicester Square Theatre was one of these as it was originally built as a home for both live shows and film presentations, opening in December 1930. The opening production was a showing of the Warner Bros two-tone Technicolor film 'Viennese Nights' and a live dance show on stage. Leicester Square is of course famous for screening films during the London Film Festival, along with BFI Southbank and across the UK.

The Depression after World War I seriously affected theatre-going, and it was the emerging popularity of film that forged through meaning cinemas were springing up everywhere. Then cinema's popularity grew again as the demand for entertainment surged following WW2.

Many were designed in the new radical artistic style known as art deco, being 'Streamlined Moderne’, and this can still be seen today in many historic cinemas across the UK, featuring huge domes, amazing balconies, curved canopies and tall ‘fin’ towers.

In the north, the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle-upon-Tyne is a real gem to visit because it still has an original glass mosaic floor, art deco auditorium and stained-glass windows. It was founded in 1937 and is the UK’s only surviving newsreel theatre.

Exploring heritage archives of cinema architecture in the UK

English Heritage announced its Buildings at Risk Register in 2007, and luckily the Cinema Theatre Association took the opportunity to highlight the immense threat to historic cinemas across the UK.

The Cinema Theatre Association was founded in 1967 to draw attention to the magnificent "cinema theatre" palaces of the 20s and 30s that were beginning to disappear from our towns and cities.

The CTA maintain an extensive archive detailing the changing architectural, social and cultural history of cinemas of the United Kingdom from the 1880s onwards, right up to the latest cinema buildings.

Included in the archive are special collections donated by or acquired from leading architects, industry figures and companies as well as personal collections. With a focus on history, architecture, design and operation, making the archive is an essential resource for anyone interested in historic cinemas in the UK.

The collections include photographs, drawings, architectural plans, newspaper cuttings, magazine articles, programmes, books, industry periodicals, video and audio recordings, operational records and artefacts of every kind. Material has been collected for over 50 years and their collection continues to grow.

Independent cinema films include a mix of art house, blockbuster, foreign and British film, documentary and classic films

As well as wonderful history and unique décor, independent picture houses, also known as Art House cinemas, show a wider choice of films compared to multiplex types. Here at Regent Street Cinema, we are a commercial cinema with an indie heart; not only do we

screen the latest releases and big box office attractions, but we are also the place to go to see films that are produced by smaller films production companies.

So, come and visit us at the Regent Street Cinema, just two minutes north of Oxford Circus at 307 Regent Street, and see for yourself a cinema steeped in history.