The birthplace of British cinema - reborn!

Posted on May 16, 2015 by Shira MacLeod

Categories: General

A single screen auditorium, with beautiful art-deco decoration, showing a Howard Hawks film. No I’m not talking about a screening held in 1939, but last week at the gorgeously restored, newly reopened Regent Street Cinema. We spoke to the cinemas programmer Shira MacLeod who took us inside this beautiful new space.

Regent Street Cinema
The interior of the original Regent Street Cinema.

Having played host to the Lumiere Brothers first demonstration of film projection on UK soil, the Regent Street Cinema has a unique and prestigious place in cinema history. Previously it screened cinematic precursors such as the infamous Peppers Ghost illusion (in a wonderfully-named horror show, the Dircksian Phantasmagoria)and magic lanterns shows, and the cinema became known as the place to see cutting-edge film. Into the 1960’s, it rode the line between sex and art, having shown the first X-rated film in the UK (the French documentary film, Life Begins Tomorrow). But after closing as a cinema in the 1980’s, it played a different role as a lecture theatre for Westminster University. Now a £6 million restoration project has brought the cinema into glorious peak condition, making it perhaps the most elegant place to catch a film in London.

Regent Street Cinema
The new, beautifully refurbished auditorium.

Despite its ornate innards Shira is keen that the cinema is seen as a welcoming, inclusive space, and the programming will reflect this. “My favourite cinema is the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles. Its one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world, but its run by really down-to-earth, unpretentious people. Their programme is repertory screenings, their audience comes from all walks of life and people really discover films there. In the UK, you had the Scala, which was a completely different type of space, but brought people together to see films in the same unpretentious way, and I want to create the same feeling here.”

The last few years has seen a number of significant cinema closures in the capital, including Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios where Shira’s previously worked.Competition for audiences is also increasing in central London, playing host to a number of new arthouse sites, including a refurbished Curzon Bloomsbury (the former Renoir), Picturehouse Central (the forthcoming seven screen arthouse from the Cineworld-owned chain) and the now-confirmed three-screen site in Kings Cross. “There’s lots of new screens, but the pressure to make money from first run means they show the same thing, says Shira. I understand that completely, but it wouldn’t make sense for us. We want to differentiate ourselves by showing second run material and double bills. We don’t feel we’re in competition with the other cinemas – we’re really happy to support them (and lots of my friends work in them!).”

Regent Street Cinema exterior
The cinema’s entrance on Regent Street

Besides, the Regent Street Cinema has plenty of assets that set it apart as a place towatch film. The theatricality of the space lends itself well to performance and the Compton Organ, restored to its former glory, will soon play a major role in screenings. Although one of Shiras more ambitious opening projects didn’t come to fruition – a new organ score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis –  she is excited about some of the unique experiences that this space makes possible. “When every other cinema is taking out its film projection, we put in a 16mm projector. This is an educational space and we wanted to be able to show the whole of film history, not just look forward with digital technologies.”

The cinemas relationship with Westminster University, who own the venue and spearheaded the restoration, is also likely to bear fruit in coming programmes; as Shira will be calling on experts across all academic disciplines at Westminster to set film in a fuller context. Guy Osborn, Professor of Law, will be presenting a season of films about debates and the psychology department will be exploring the history of cinemas evolving view of psychology via key films through the decades. “These are people who know their subject obsessively and can present ideas in a completely different way to a film expert so the audience gets a richer picture. We also want to host a film noir season, but with input from our criminology department.”

Regent Street Cinema

Of course, Westminster has a thriving film education department with an impressive list of alumni. Directors Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, The Trip), Asif Kapadia (Senna and the upcoming Amy Winehouse documentary Amy) and screenwriters Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Neal Purvis (Skyfall, Casino Royale) all attended the university and besides hosting screenings of their film students degree shows, Shira is keen to encourage young British talent by offering frequent Q&As with British filmmakers. In the opening programme, Still by first-time director Simon Blake and Bypass by George MacKay have both received support from the cinema.

Shira’s vision is ultimately for a wide range of people to have a place where they can take pleasure in the group experience of cinema. “On opening night we had a sell out, and after all the stress of getting this project started, I sat on the stairs behind the auditorium and heard a lot of people laughing. That’s what its about for me. This is a special environment. I want people to comeback to the cinema and enjoy themselves. Its very easy-going even though it’s in the West End. It really suits old films and I want people to come here to see that.”

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