Click on a venue to start exploring London’s early West End cinemas, or read more about the exhibition themes below.
‘A thickly populated and overcrowded neighbourhood’: early cinemas in Soho
Soho at the start of the twentieth century was one of the few working-class neighbourhoods left in the West End. Situated between the larger thoroughfares of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Charing Cross Road, it was also home to many of the area’s ‘Cosmopolitan’, or immigrant, populations. Two of the West End’s earliest cinemas – the Electric Cinema Theatre and the National Bioscope – offered the neighbourhood’s residents a cheap form of entertainment. But other venues, like the proposed cinema at 5-6 Marshall Street, never saw the light of day. By the 1910s, the maze-like streets of Soho were quickly becoming a major centre for the British film business. The history of the private showrooms in the Pathé Building on Wardour Street provides a glimpse of life in London’s early ‘filmland’. Anyone wanting to get away from it all could take a short walk out of Soho to Oxford Street, and see the world for sixpence at the early cinema venue Hale’s Tours.
Don’t panic! West End cinemas in World War I
During World War I (1914-1918), the West End entertainment district continued to offer Londoners and visitors to the city an escape from harsher realities. But cinemas were also caught up in the war effort and in the various political and moral panics that swept the capital. The management at the West End Cinema Theatre came under attack shortly after war was declared for apparently aiding Britain’s enemies. By 1916, audiences at the Piccadilly Circus Cinematograph Theatre and other venues were being kept under a close eye, as the authorities worried about what audiences were getting up to in the darkness of the auditorium. Meanwhile, upmarket venues like the New Gallery Kinema played host to respectable and eminently patriotic political events, as exhibitors demonstrated their willingness to do their bit for King and country.
Bright lights: West End cinema-going in the ‘jazz age’
In the 1920s, newer and bigger cinemas sprung up in the West End. These combined the latest big-budget films with lavish architecture, cafés, orchestras and other live entertainment. The Stoll Picture Theatre, opened in a former opera house, showed London’s exhibitors what could be done. But the West End would have to wait until the construction of the Tivoli on the Strand, which took the place of a famous music hall, for its first purpose-built ‘super cinema’. In Leicester Square, another historic variety theatre made way for the new Empire Theatre. Over on Charing Cross Road, the Astoria Theatre expanded the West End entertainment district northwards, offering its patrons an evening of films, music and dancing.
‘Little theatres’ and ‘unusual’ films: specialist cinemas in the West End
The 1920s also saw the emergence of several smaller venues, which specialised in showing educational, artistic or otherwise ‘unusual’ films. While these had links to older traditions of film showmanship in concert halls and lecture halls, they also coincided with new initiatives like the Film Society (founded in 1925) driven by the interest of middle- and upper-class intellectuals in the possibilities of cinema as a medium. The Polytechnic Theatre, once the site of the first public film show in London, transformed itself into a home for travel films. The Embassy Theatre in Holborn experimented with scientific films and ‘high-class’ films imported from Continental Europe. At the end of the decade, the efforts to establish repertory cinemas at the Avenue Pavilion and the Palais de Luxe extended the life of the fading medium of silent film in the West End, and arguably paved the way for the modern art house.
Image: London’s West End from Bacon’s Pocket Atlas of London (1928).