Towards the northern end of Regent Street is the University of Westminster, and squirreled away inside that building lies a spot of significant cinematic history. For on the first floor is “the old cinema”, and it was here that the first ever motion picture was shown in the UK.

polytechnicThe space, which is still usable as a cinema could be about to be restored to its original glory, thanks to a million pound donation from a Saudi billionaire.

A bit of history – the building was originally the site of the Regent Street Polytechnic, which had a display of Victorian ephemera, and the Great Hall within actually had a flooded canal installed with an iron diving bell, model boats and scientific wheels.

The Great Hall, formally known as Marlborough Hall was later converted into a cinema, and it was here that the UK’s first ever demonstration of the moving picture was held, on 20th February 1896 by Felicien Trewey, a French music hall entertainer, engaged by the Lumiere brothers.

In 1910, the front of the building was reconstructed by George A Mitchell with a façe by Frank Verity. In 1927, the Marlborough Hall was redecorated, the circle extended and the proscenium created. It became a full-time cinema, except during the latter part of the war when it had live use. In 1974 it closed as a cinema to become a live theatre called the Regent, which lasted until 1979.

It was a slideshow on the BBC website this morning that made me aware of the restoration plans, and I have also found some powerpoint slides that expand on the aims of the restoration project.

I have been in the cinema, as a society that remembers the precursor of the motion picture, the Magic Lantern Society had held talks in the hall in the past, and will be returning for a series of talks this winter.

All the talks are on Thursday evenings and start at 7pm, with doors open from 6pm and are free of charge.

  • Phantasmagoria-mania (12th Nov, 2009)
    • An exploration through the playbills and other ephemera of the bizarre ghost-show entertainment known as the phantasmagoria as witnessed in London and the provinces at the turn of the 18th century.
  • Lavater – The Shadow of History (26th Nov, 2009)
    • The noted physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) returns for one night only to reclaim his place at the centre of European culture, armed with magic lantern, silhouette apparatus and a curious tale of photographic experimentation in his Zürich cellar.
  • Grappling with Ghosts: Staging ghost effects in the modern theatre (10th Dec 2009)
    • Hours in dark theatres, expensive quotes from Pilkington’s glass, ill tempered Opera singers in Hamburg and perhaps the world’s first ghost doves. This talk explores the fascinating tale of how the original impractical Dircksian Phantasmagoria of the 1850‘s came into its in the 1860‘s and how, even with huge advancement in stage engineering and lighting, is still spookily difficult to stage.
  • Visualising the Marvellous: G. A. Smith and his film ‘Santa Claus’ (1898) (28th Jan, 2010)
    • G. A. Smith (1864-1959) was one of the great early film pioneers. A stage mesmerist and an associate of the Society for Psychical Research, his six ‘spooky’ films of 1898 represent his fascination with the ‘other side’ and his close association with late Victorian paranormal culture.
  • Geared to the Stars – Victorian Astronomy through the Magic Lantern (11th Feb, 2010)
    • Lectures on astronomy were a common form of popular entertainment in the nineteenth century. With an original Victorian magic lantern projector and delicate, hand painted glass slides from the 1840’s, Mark Butterworth recreates one of these illustrated lectures. Using complex and intricate mechanical ‘rackwork’ slides to illustrate astronomical concepts, it gives an introduction to mid-19th century astronomy.
  • From Anorthoscope to Zoopraxiscope – an A-Z of Victorian animated cartoons (25th Feb, 2010)
    • Moving image 19th-century ‘toys’ – philosophical instruments for the drawing room, intended to promote intellectual discussion and provide amusement for adults as least as much as for children – come to life with this illustrated talk.
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