LEADING ARTICLE: A hundred years of fantasy

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28 December 1895 was a cold day in Paris. Only a few people paused to take flyers from the man standing on the boulevard des Capucines. Fewer still - 33, to be exact - entered the Grand Cafe at number 14 and paid one franc to see the Lumieres Cinematograph. Together they constituted the first ever cinema audience, witnesses to the birth of probably the most important and influential medium of entertainment and cultural communication ever devised.

One of the reasons for the success of the cinema is, paradoxically, its simplicity. Most of the camera techniques and moves that grace modern film are essentially the same as those pioneered in the early silent days. But what the camera allows, which theatre cannot, is a closeness to its subjects and their emotions and a manipulation of images to achieve a desired result. The outcome is a shared intimacy. And when the story being told is a good one, audiences can share an immediate and powerful experience: they can laugh, cry and experience terror together.

Little wonder that cinema has been colonised by dictators and fought over by politicians. Russian Communists understood its potential in helping to shape the "new Soviet man" and the Nazis in mobilising anti-Semitic feeling. Even in the democracies, film has often been seen as too important to be left to the film-makers. Thus it was the "fellow-travelling" Hollywood of the early Fifties which became the prime target of Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. Today battle still rages about the extent to which film can carry messages that provoke antisocial behaviour.

Far more positive is the way that cinema has constructed a common experience for a world audience. Tales of its heroes and heroines have become a lingua franca and people from many countries can swap lists of their favourite stars; the impossibly handsome men and the ravishingly beautiful women. And it is a collective activity, usually involving sitting down with a couple of hundred complete strangers to see something for the first time.

The death of cinema has been predicted annually. It was said that television would kill it off - and indeed audiences plummeted, reaching a low in 1984. Then the home computer became the projected nemesis, followed by satellite television. Finally, Hollywood's cultural imperialism was set to deal the death blow. It hasn't happened. Film has enjoyed a renaissance, and in the past few months - with audiences roughly double what they were a decade ago - MGM and Warner Brothers have both announced extraordinary plans for major new cinema complexes in British city centres.

Why? Probably because, even in the most atomised of societies, we human beings feel the need to share our fantasies and our excitement.