Two months before the reopening of a theatre dubbed “the birthplace of British cinema”, archives have revealed the extraordinary history of a building used to screen the UK’s first moving image – and its first X-rated film.
The Regent Street Cinema in London was used as a lecture hall by the University of Westminster after screenings ended in 1980. It has been restored to its former glory, at a cost of £6m, thanks to a £1.5m Heritage Lottery Fund grant and money raised through a “name a seat” project.
Shira MacLeod, the cinema’s director, said it will be the only movie theatre in the UK to show moving image media “from 16mm and 35mm to Super 8 film, to the latest in 4K digital film”.
As a result, it will be able to showcase films that have been archived for many years.
In 1838, 309 Regent Street opened as the Polytechnic Institution, a place where members of the public could pay to see new scientific experiments. Attractions included demonstrations of underwater breathing apparatus and a magnified view of Thames water revealing “all the creepy crawlies inside it”, says cataloguing archivist Claire Brunnen, who opened up the archives to The Independent on Sunday.
The theatre, added on to the premises in 1848, was initially used for science lectures. It also played host to magic lantern shows and Pepper’s ghost, an illusion technique popularised by the British scientist John Henry Pepper. Audiences would apparently see a ghost drinking a glass of water on stage.
The venue was later bought by the philanthropist Quintin Hogg, who changed its name to the Regent Street Polytechnic and used it to educate young working people. By 1896, the reputation of the institution was such that the Lumière brothers chose it as the UK venue on a world tour designed to showcase their film projector, the cinematograph.
1/6 Sunset Cinema, US
Sunset Cinema, US
Set up in 1994, the Sunsets at Pier 60 Society is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to create free, family-focused events on Clearwater Beach in Florida. Part of its programme is an open-air cinema that shows year-round films every Friday and Saturday on Pier 60. Over the coming months, highlights include Eighties' classic The Goonies and recent hit, Dolphin Tale, much of which was filmed in Clearwater and the neighbouring city of St Pete. Rides, slides and a huge a playground offer diversions after the credits roll.
Sunset Cinema, Clearwater, Florida, US (001 727 449 1036; sunsetsatpier60.com). Dates: year round. Tickets: free.
2/6 Amante, Ibiza
Beach club Amante opened two years ago in a cliff-side location overlooking Ibiza's scenic Sol D'en Serra bay. This season it's adding to its offering of Tuesday-morning yoga and delicious seafood dishes with a programme of "Midnight Movies". With a backdrop of floodlit rocks, guests can curl up on bean bags under the stars with a cocktail while watching Penélope Cruz dazzle in Pedro Almodóvar's Volver and Cate Blanchett deliver an Oscar-winning performance in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine.
Amante, Sol D'en Serra, Ibiza (00 34 971 196176; amanteibiza.com). Dates: June-October. Tickets: €22.
3/6 Il Cinema Ritrovato, Italy
Il Cinema Ritrovato, Italy
From 28 June to 5 July, Il Cinema Ritrovato festival takes place in Bologna. Dedicated to the showing of rare films and restored classics, it includes a programme of 300 pictures shown in theatres around the city and in a large, open-air cinema in Piazza Maggiore by night, from 10pm. The inaugural alfresco film this year will be James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause, ending with a showing of the Beatles' comedy A Hard Day's Night, introduced by director Richard Lester.
Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, Italy (00 39 0512194820; cinetecadibologna.it). Dates: 28 June to 5 July. Tickets: free.
4/6 Sun Pictures, Australia
Sun Pictures, Australia
The world's oldest open-air cinema can be found in Western Australia's tourist town of Broome. Originally opened in Chinatown by the Yamsaki family in 1903, it was purchased a decade later by master pearler Ted Hunter, who converted the former clothing store – part of which housed the Noh playhouse – into a fully fledged "picture garden". Opened as Sun Pictures in 1916, the cinema that started during the Silent Era continues to show nightly movies, such as The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Sun Pictures, Broome, Australia (00 61 8 9192 1077; broomemovies.com.au). Dates: year round. Tickets: A$17 (£9.50).
5/6 Cine Manto, Mykonos
Cine Manto, Mykonos
On the romantic Greek Island of Mykonos, Cine Manto is set in a botanical garden. Home to Mediterranean plants, lily-covered pools and a resident pelican named Petros, it is due to show films such as Captain Phillips and Gravity over the coming months. Between 10am and 2am, a stylish restaurant serves up breakfasts, barbecues, brunch and more, beneath a canopy of trees. A must for anyone visiting Chora, the largest town on this scenic Cycladic island.
Cine Manto, Chora, Mykonos, Greece (00 30 22 8902 6165; cinemanto.gr). Dates: June-September. Tickets: €8.
6/6 Cinema d'Été, Monaco
Cinema d'Été, Monaco
During summer months, the wealthy, well-heeled principality of Monaco lays on a suitably swish outdoor cinema on the Rock of Monaco – a 140-metre monolith, lapped by the warm Mediterranean sea. Deck chairs and comfy padded seats are laid out in neat lines before a huge screen, which is set dramatically against the towering rockface and the Prince of Monaco's imposing 12th-century palace. This season, films range from big blockbuster hits, such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, to family flicks such as Malificent, starring Angelina Jolie as the misunderstood villain from the children's classic, Sleeping Beauty. Drinks and snacks are available from the cinema's small alfresco cafe.
Cinema d'Été, Les Pecheurs, Monaco (00 377 93 25 86 80; cinema2monaco.com). Dates: June-September. Tickets: €11.
An audience of 54 people paid a shilling (5p) each to watch the UK’s first moving film, staring in wonder and recoiling in alarm as a train hurtled towards them.
A less well-known aspect of the cinema’s story is its use as a training and rehabilitation centre for soldiers injured during the First World War. Many of the soldiers were amputees and were trained in disciplines such as tailoring, photography, electrical and motor repairs, commerce and architecture.
Travel films and documentaries were shown at the theatre during the 1920s, including titles made by the pioneering wildlife photographer Cherry Kearton, the first man to bring cinematograph pictures out of Africa. He used sound effects recorded at London Zoo to accompany his silent films of animals in their natural habitat.
The UK’s first X-rated film premiered at the cinema in 1951. The French production La Vie Commence Demain was a post-apocalyptic film showing graphic images of the effects of an atomic bomb. It attracted an X-rating due to a scene showing artificial insemination which would be “rather tame” for modern audiences, according to Ms Brunnen.
The restored cinema, which also houses the original organ used to accompany silent movies, will feature “cutting-edge British and world cinema, retrospectives and classic repertory titles, documentaries, experimental moving image and animation”, Ms MacLeod said.
The first film, to be shown on 7 May, when the cinema opens to the public, will be Only Angels Have Wings, the 1939 Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth.