Avenue Pavilion

In the late 1920s, the Avenue Pavilion at 101 Shaftesbury Avenue (previously the Shaftesbury Pavilion) became one of the first and most influential ‘art’ cinemas in London. In 1927, it was sold by Israel Davis to the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, along with other cinemas in the Davis family circuit. Stuart Davis, one of Israel’s sons, stayed on to work for Gaumont-British, with Leslie Ogilvie as the general manager.1

In August 1927, the cinema took a break from its usual programme of Hollywood films to show the German film Kaddish. Then, in May 1928, after a successful run of G.W. Pabst’s film The Love of Jeanne Ney (distributed in Britain as Lusts of the Flesh), Gaumont-British announced a trial period of showing popular film revivals.2 G.A. Atkinson, the film critic for the Daily Express, hoped that ‘the Avenue might become the home of the unusual film, or the “try-out” theatre for films which booking-managers are afraid to book’.3 The cinema’s new identity as a repertory cinema was confirmed in July.4 Later, both Stuart Davis and Leslie Ogilvie would take credit for the change in exhibition policy. Davis claimed to have been inspired by a visit to America, where the ‘little theatre’, or repertory cinema, movement had been underway since 1925.5 Ogilvie claimed to be influenced by critics (like Atkinson) in the British national press.6 There were also precedents for the scheme in London, including the short-lived Embassy Theatre and the activities of the Film Society, as well as examples in Paris, which had an active network of ‘ciné-clubs’ and specialist art cinemas.7

The repertory policy at the Pavilion lasted until mid-1930. In that time, the cinema branched out from a programme of mainly German films to include a film from China and a season of French films. In its programmes, the cinema advertised itself variously as ‘The Home of International Film Art’ and, as sound films became more common elsewhere in London, ‘The House of Silent Shadow’.8 The cinema’s new repertory policy was successful enough that Gaumont-British decided to extend the idea to other cities, beginning with the Century Theatre in Liverpool and later the Savoy Cinema in Leeds.9 Davis, who took over as general manager when Ogilvie left in June 1929, thought that the reason the policy worked so well was that it tapped into a previously neglected market of intellectuals and people seeking to stand out from the crowd. The audience at the Pavilion, he said, consisted of three main groups: ‘The intelligentsia, the intellectual amateur who likes to follow new art movements, and the ordinary average middle-class business man who doesn’t go to the cinema as a rule because he does not like the fare provided for “the masses”.’10

The cinema closed in March 1930 for conversion to sound, and when it reopened it abandoned its ‘art’ film policy. In August, Gaumont-British announced that it would become the first cinema in London to specialise exclusively in newsreels, and it was relaunched again as the British Movietone News Theatre.11 The audience for ‘unusual’ films hadn’t disappeared, though. The nearby Palais de Luxe had already switched to a temporary ‘art’ film policy. Meanwhile, an organisation calling itself the Film Group, headed by the film critic Paul Rotha, started a campaign for a permanent London repertory cinema.12 Using a mailing list given to Rotha by Davis, the group polled 2,500 people in London, 80 per cent of whom said that they would patronise a new art film venue.13 Their campaign was answered in 1931, with a new programme of art films and silent film revivals at the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street (on the site of the former Hale’s Tours venue). The news theatre at 101 Shaftesbury Avenue was destroyed by bomb damage during World War II. It has since been replaced by the Curzon Soho.

Further reading:

  • Stuart Davis, ‘Making Repertory Pay’, The Bioscope, 27 February 1929, p. 25.
  • Allen Eyles with Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas, third edition (Swindon: English Heritage, 2014).
  • Henry K. Miller, ‘Primal Screen: The World of Silent Cinema’, Sight & Sound, 22:10 (October 2012), 61.
  • Paul Rotha, ‘The “Unusual” Film Movement’, Documentary News Letter, June 1940, p. 13.
  • Paul Rotha, ‘Repertory Film Movement’ (1931), in Duncan Petrie and Robert Kruger (eds), A Paul Rotha Reader (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999), pp. 187-90.
  1. Allen Eyles with Keith Skone, London’s West End Cinemas, third edition (Swindon: English Heritage, 2014), p. 49.
  2. ‘The Film World’, The Times, 30 May 1928, p. 12
  3. G.A. Atkinson, ‘Film-Booking Managers and the Public’, Daily Express, 14 May 1928, p. 13.
  4. ‘The Film World’, The Times, 18 July 1928, p. 12.
  5. Stuart Davis, ‘Making Repertory Pay’, The Bioscope, 27 February 1929, p. 25. For repertory cinemas in New York, see Tony Guzman, ‘The Little Theatre Movement: The Institutionalization of the European Art Film in America’, Film History, 17:2-3 (2005), 261-84.
  6. Huntley Carter, The New Spirit in the Cinema (London: Shaylor, 1930), p. 392.
  7. Jen Samson, ‘The Film Society, 1925-1939’, in Charles Barr (ed.), All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1986), pp. 306-13; Christophe Gauthier, La Passion du Cinema: Cinéphiles, ciné-clubs et salles specialisées à Paris de 1920 à 1929 (Paris: Association Française de Recherche sur L’Histoire du Cinéma, 1999).
  8. Programmes for the Pavilion Cinema, weeks beginning 6 May 1929 and 14 October 1929, Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, EXEBD 19692 and EXEBD 19691.
  9. ‘The Film World’, The Times, 19 December 1928, p. 10.
  10. Davis, ‘Making Repertory Pay’.
  11. ‘News Film Programme’, The Times, 19 August 1930, p. 8.
  12. ‘The Film World’, The Times, 12 November 1930, p. 12.
  13. Paul Rotha, ‘The “Unusual” Film Movement’, Documentary News Letter, June 1940, p. 13.
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