First British cinema, started by the Lumière brothers and later promoting UK military and merchant marine prowess, is to be restored to glory, By James Brewer
Big names in the British film industry have welcomed the go-ahead for the restoration of what was the first cinema in the UK.
Known as the Regent Street Cinema, the theatre is in the West End of London within the premises of the University of Westminster. It was chosen by pioneering filmmakers the Lumière brothers for the first moving picture show in the country on February 21 1896, because of the reputation of the then polytechnic institution for scientific experimentation and entertainment. In the lead-up World War I it was the platform with Royal and ministerial backing to show patriotic pictures made by cinematographer and maritime enthusiast Alfred West in the series Our Navy and Our Army, Our Mercantile Marine, Our Colonies, Our Pleasure Fleet and Our Homeland, the audience for which was said to total 2m.
It remained in use as a working cinema and theatre until 1980. Since then, it has been used by the university as a lecture theatre and exhibition venue.
Westminster City Council has given permission for the restoration project, which will preserve architectural features of the cinema from the 1920s, and be a fitting setting for its Compton organ, one of the few still in situ. Building work will begin in April 2014, with the opening expected in April 2015.
The aim is to create a landmark destination for British film and for University of Westminster students and visitors to learn about the heritage and evolution of film and cinema. Programming will combine experimental work with the best of UK, independent and world cinema, including documentaries, retrospectives and classic repertoire.
Leading names in the British film industry sit on the advisory board for the project. They include Tim Bevan, co-chair of Working Title Films (Rush, Les Misérables, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy); film directyor and Westminster University alumnus Asif Kapadia (Senna, The Warrior, Far North), producer Paul Trijbits (Saving Mr. Banks, Jane Eyre, Tamara Drewe), and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, Anna Karenina, We Need to Talk About Kevin).
Mr Kapadia said: “Over the years so many fantastic, iconic cinemas in the UK have closed down or been redeveloped, so this is a marvellous opportunity to restore a venue that played a vital role in the birth of cinema in the UK, and highlights the University’s history of innovation in education and learning.”
Broadcaster Sandi Toksvig is a keen supporter. She said: “This is the birthplace of cinema. How fantastic for young people to be able to showcase their work here, alongside great professionals. This is a significant building and it’s wonderful that so many who are passionate about cinema, the history of film or who have a connection with the heritage and future of the University want to be a part of it.”
One third of the £6m cost has still to be raised. Major donors have included the Heritage Lottery Fund, Quintin Hogg Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation and Odeon. The university previously received a £1m donation from the MBI Al Jaber Foundation which was used to renovate the Edwardian-style Grand Entrance Hall at the Grade II listed campus. Saudi entrepreneur Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber started the Foundation to give promising students from the Middle East and North Africa the chance to continue their education in the best universities in the world.
The university has secured other donations specifically to dedicate 200 of the seats in the new cinema.
In 2013, the institution celebrated its 175th anniversary. Its origins were in the Polytechnic Institution at 309 Regent Street, the first of its kind in the UK. In 1881 businessman and philanthropist Quintin Hogg bought the building and moved his Young Men’s Christian Institute there, with the purpose of providing basic education for poor children from Covent Garden.
The academy is said to have played a significant role in interesting the public in science. It had opened in 1841 the first public photographic portrait studio in Europe. It offered the first degree courses in photographic science, photography, and media studies and gained university status in 1992.
Today’s university has 22, 000 students, and includes Westminster Business School Westminster Law School, and faculties of science, media, humanities and architecture. Its overseas activity resulted in the award of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2000 and 2005.
The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, a Reader at the Media, Arts and Design faculty and produced by the university’s Prof Joram ten Brink, won an award at the 2014 BAFTA ceremony for best documentary. University alumnus Yousif Al-Khalifa was recognised with a BAFTA for co-directing the best British short animation film Sleeping with the Fishes.
The design for the restoration has been created by Tim Ronalds Architects, a practice which has worked on theatre commissions, such as the Hackney Empire redevelopment and plans for Wilton’s Music Hall.
More information is at www.birthplaceofcinema.com