The cinema began life in 1848 when a new theatre was added on to the south side of what was then the Royal Polytechnic Institution. The theatre was purpose built for the ‘optical exhibitions’ for which the institution had become famous. Early shows included demonstrations of the latest scientific and technological innovations, lantern slides as a backdrop to live music and drama, and full theatrical performances. On Christmas Eve 1862 a production of Charles Dickens’ ghost story The Haunted Man included the first demonstration of Pepper’s Ghost and there were many subsequent plays incorporating this unfailingly popular illusion.
On 20 February 1896, the Polytechnic’s theatre became the birthplace of cinema in the UK, when the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe machine was demonstrated to the press and these earliest of moving images given their first presentation to a paying audience the following day. The Lumière brothers’ show had first been seen by the public in Paris on 28 December 1895 and after London continued its tour to New York, Bombay and Buenos Aires.
Following the Lumières’ screening, the theatre went on to be used for a variety of entertainment and presentation firsts. From 1899, Alfred West’s Our Navy and Our Army films ran continuously for fourteen years, and set a precedent for the theatres conversion into a permanent cinema in the 1920’s.
As a landmark destination in the West End the cinema achieved another first with its screening of La Vie Commence Demain in January 1951 – the first film to be awarded an X certificate in the UK. After a short period as a venue for musicals in the 1970s, the Cinema closed to the public in 1980 and became a lecture theatre.
After a three year fundraising campaign the Regent Street Cinema was restored and re-opened by the University of Westminster in May 2015, reinstating one of the most historic cinemas in Britain to its former grandeur. Echoing its history, the cinema will continue to be a catalyst for innovative education and research, and a showcase for the University’s internationally acclaimed work in film, media and visual culture.
To celebrate the renovation and re-opening of the Regent Street Cinema, its long and fascinating history has been told for the first time in a book ‘The Magic Screen – History of Regent Street Cinema’. The book is available to purchase at the Box Office or by contacting [email protected].