Five Big Firsts For West End Cinemas

By Nigel Smith Last edited 8 months ago

Last Updated 09 November 2023

Five Big Firsts For West End Cinemas

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Tour guide Nigel Smith specialises in walking tours of cinema history, including the most famous and lesser-known cinemas around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. The area has always been synonymous with cinema-going in the capital but it's still surprising to see how many 'firsts' happened here.

1. First British talkie (1929)

The Capitol, 48 Haymarket

The former Capitol cinema in London
Image Chloe Rosser

It’s hard to imagine how spectacular the 1,500 seat Capitol Theatre once was, when you walk past the site of the former cinema today. By the time Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail premiered here in 1929 the cinema had already shown a number of Hollywood talking pictures. But when a home-grown, British talkie arrived, critics went overboard.

The Daily News declared, "Blackmail has the best of America’s talkies beaten to a frazzle”, while the Sunday Dispatch reviewer crowed: “I defy anyone to produce to me one American talkie now in this country which is in any way the equal of Alfred Hitchcock's.”

Blackmail advert

London-born Hitchcock had already made 10 silent movies before Blackmail. His biggest challenge for his first talkie was the strong Czech accent of leading lady Anny Ondra. Hitchcock’s solution? He hired the RADA-trained Joan Barry to stand off camera and voice the lines in sync with Ondra’s miming. Hitchcock’s sound test with Ondra for Blackmail is an early example of his on-set hi-jinks.

2. First arthouse cinema (1931)

Academy, 165 Oxford Street

Foreign films have always found an audience in London. The Lumiere Brothers’ pioneering shorts were shown at The Regent Street Cinema in 1886, a few months after their public debut in Paris. During the 1920s, the likes of HG Wells and young Alfred Hitchcock watched Russian silent and German expressionist masterpieces at Film Society screenings at various West End cinemas. But London didn’t have dedicated arthouse cinemas until the early 1930s when The Academy on Oxford Street re-branded as the ‘Home of Real French Talkies’.

Classics like Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion were hits here. After the war, it was the place to see Buster Keaton seasons alongside Kurosawa and Bergman. Perhaps most distinctive about the Academy were the linocut posters artist Peter Strausfield designed from 1947 until his death in 1980. Even when a distributor had designed their own distinctive posters, Strausfield’s were always used instead.   

3. First Royal Film Performance (1946)

Empire, Leicester Square

A modern-day image of the Empire Leicester Square
Image Chloe Rosser

One of the more recent Royal Film Performances happened in April 2022 at the Odeon, Leicester Square, when Tom Cruise shared the red carpet with Prince William and Kate for Top Gun: Maverick. The Odeon and Empire have alternated hosting the fundraising event in Leicester Square most years since 1946, when Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death screened before King George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.

In addition to the film’s leads David Niven and Kim Hunter, there were so many stars that one newspaper reckoned, “you couldn’t have tossed a biscuit without smiting some famous person on the nose.” These meetings between Hollywood royalty and actual royalty are always fascinating. My personal favourite is Elizabeth II’s rendezvous with Marilyn Monroe at a lesser Powell and Pressburger screening, The Battle of the River Plate, in 1956, an encounter I discuss in more detail on the tour.

4. First circular cinema (1963)

Circlorama, Piccadilly Circus

Circlorama, as advertised in the Evening Standard

After the second world war, the area in Piccadilly Circus where there’s now an enormous Boots was a partially derelict bomb site. In 1963 a novelty cinema was built here where up to 500 people could stand, completely surrounded by 11 screens, for an immersive experience — decades before 4DX. Invented at the Moscow Cinema Research Institute, Circlorama’s first film was a 25-minute cavalcade of horseback Cossacks, Moscow May Day marchers and St Petersburg beauty spots. This panoramic spectacle packed people in for a year until Londoners could enjoy “the first British film ever made in the round”.

Ciclorama Cavalcade promised “one of the most exciting adventures of your life” (and a free badge to anyone under 14). In addition to a nocturnal tour through the West End’s bright lights, the film put viewers inside a racing car speeding at 120mph, a lifeboat out in choppy seas and, of course, the staple of funfair cinema, a rollercoaster ride. In 1965, Circlorama transferred to a temporary site at the end of Blackpool Pier and a more conventional cinema, the Classic, replaced it in Piccadilly Circus.

5. First four-screen cinema in Europe (1969)

Cinecenta, 11/18 Panton Street

Cinecenta panton street
Image Chloe Rosser

What’s now the Odeon Luxe, Haymarket (previously known as the Odeon, Panton Street) started life in January 1969 as the Cinecenta, the first opening in an influential but now largely forgotten chain that helped pave the way for today’s ‘boutique’ cinemas.

In 1969 the average cinema in Britain had 1,200 seats and the years of subdividing single-screen auditoriums were still ahead. The Cinecenta was different. It was the first four-screen cinema in Europe with seating of 130-150 in each. Witty adverts before the opening declared, “the old idea of cinema will die this month”, and “take a holiday from your usual cinema.”

The programme mixed film festival hits, British and American indie films and European arthouse fare that more often than not contained liberal amounts of nudity. Staff dressed in uniforms by iconic 60s designer Ossie Clark only enhanced the image of Cinecenta being a sophisticated place to watch a movie.

To discover further ‘firsts’ and more about cinemas past and present in Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus join one of my regular West End Cinemas walking tours.

Nigel Smith is a qualified London tour guide, co-runs Tufnell Park Film Club and is editorial consultant on the Radio 4 show Screenshot. Find tickets for his West End Cinemas guided walk as well as tours about cinemas in Islington and Acton on his website.