Birthplace of British cinema to undergo renovation

In 2013, history will relive at Regent Street.

After Britain’s first cinematic public screening on 21 February 1896, the Old Cinema is going to reopen for the public. This coincides with the Royal Polytechnic Institution’s 175th anniversary, now the University of Westminster, and home to the Old Cinema.

“It will be a landmark venue for the British Film Industry, and a new cultural space for the wider community,” says Sarah Carthew, the spokesperson of the Cinema Project.

In a £5 million renovation campaign called the Cinema Project, the university plans to transform the birthplace of British cinema into a multimedia facility and teaching space along with a working cinema hall.

Reviving the heritage

Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster and also a historian at BBC, refers to the Old Cinema as a “unique architectural monument” that shows the vision of the late 19th century philanthropists.

To retain the architectural prototype, the university has received funds from various charities including  £1 million each from MBI Al Jaber Foundation and the Quintin Hogg Trust. The Cinema Project is also the recipient of the Heritage Lottery Fund working toward sustaining and transforming UK’s heritage.

The restoration project headed by architect Tim Ronalds will retain the old aesthetic of the architecture fusing it with modern amenities. Ronalds’s credits, among others, include the restoration of the Hackney Empire, the theatre dating back to 1901.

The prominent changes at the Old Cinema will include the following: painting and glazing of the Victorian ornamentation in the hall, removing the 1920s balcony and replacing the current configuration with single raked seating, exposing the chambers of the 1936 Compton organ so it becomes more visible and people can see behind the scenes working, and removing the 1920s proscenium, theatre stage in front of the curtain, and restoring the hall to its 1880s form.

“The restoration will tell a fascinating story about our Victorian heritage from the original building of the theatre in 1848 through to the turn of the century,” Carthew, also the Director of Marketing, Communication and Development at University of Westminster, says.

Continuing legacy

On Saturday, 115 years after the first screening at the Old Cinema, University of Westminster’s MA directing students had an opportunity to showcase their work at the venue.

At this Victorian-style theatre that still maintains its grandeur architecture, 11 short movies were screened.

Will Stewart, one of the directors, says “it’s an honour for any director” to have their films screened at the Old Cinema.

“All I can say is that it’s not something that happens everyday— having your film screened in the oldest cinema in Britain,” says the Canadian director.

“It is an amazing feeling and I feel incredibly lucky knowing that my film was screened in the cinema where film essentially began in this country.”

The film screening’s history in the UK dates back to 1986 when Louis Lumière, creator of the cinematograph—film camera also serving as a projector—screened his moving images of a French street scene at the current Old Cinema.

Originally known as the Great Hall, as mentioned in “Cinema: the Beginnings and the Future,” a compilation of essays on the evolution of cinema, the Royal Polytechnic Institution was world-famous for its lantern slides and visual effect entertainments.

But apart from that, Professor Geoffrey Petts, Vice Chancellor and Rector at University of Westminster, says the cinematic experience was “a moment which connected cultures”. It was the first time that many people in Britain had an opportunity to know their French neighbours.

In a message in the university website, Petts says: “So it is fitting that in the same building we now teach social sciences, politics, and languages. Just as the Lumière brothers did more than a century ago, we are opening doors and connecting cultures.”

(Originally published in Westminster News Online)

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