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The Regent Street Cinema, the birthplace of film culture in London makes a grand return

The first public cinema in Britain, the historic Regent Street Cinema reopened last night (the 6th of May) following a three year refurbishment process.

London’s first public film screening was held at the site on the 21st of February 1896 when the Lumière Brothers brought their Cinématographe show across the Channel from Paris. By accounts cinema in a capital got off to a rather slow start with only 54 customers in attendance, but the popularity of this new form of entertainment soon grew as it become incorporated into music hall programmes. The cinema was closed to the public and converted into a lecture theatre some 35 years ago by its owners the University of Westminster, now it is resurrected as a repertory cinema showcasing a carefully curated programme of contemporary independent, foreign language, and classic cinema. 

Ticket price inflation in central London has been spiralling out of control recently, with the art-house sector in particular seeing individual peak prices hitting a wallet-busting figures. For example, the upcoming Picturehouse Central (which is taking up residence in the former World of Cine at the Trocadero) will be charging £18 for all screenings after 5pm. London’s other major art-house exhibitor (and distributor) Curzon has discontinued off-peak tickets at weekends and is also ramping up prices at key central London sites. Currently at the Curzon Bloomsbury you can see A Pigeon sitting on a branch contemplating how the hell it can afford £19 to see the evening show!

Faced with competition from multiplexes, many art house exhibitors appear to have decided to concentrate on an upper income bracket audience niche. This is no more obvious than from the assault of high end consumer product advertising you will be bombarded with before the feature. Sadly the irony of paying nearly twenty pounds (or actually twenty pounds if you include the telephone booking fees) to sit in the dark sipping a nice pino and eating artisan snacks whilst watching the latest Dardenne Brothers film about the struggles of the French working classes seems lost on many exhibitors.

Whilst the ICA and the BFI Southbank continue to provide a more reasonably priced alternative, both venues carry the sometimes stultifying air of the self-conscious urban art connoisseur that as noted by critic Mark Cousins (in this excellent article) can be rather off-putting. The Regent Street Cinema promises to plug a gap in central London’s cinema scene, bringing back some picture palace style and panache and doing it at a more forgiving price point. Single adult tickets are £11, and a double bill £15. Concessions are available.

The programme (curated by cinema director Shira Macleod) is superb, mixing recent features and documentaries, a kids’ screenings (Studio Ghibli classics on the big screen), and wittily juxtaposed double bills (an upcoming pairing of Jacques Tourneur’s chilling Cat People, and the recent Hungarian canine uprising film White Dog is simply inspired).

Last night’s inaugural red-carpet screening was of entertaining rock doc Lambert & Stamp. The film’s subjects are Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp the unlikely management duo that shaped The Who, an unlikely pairing who straddled English class boundaries (Lambert English aristocracy, Stamp of East End working class stock) in a way that cinema itself should do. The screening was followed by an entertaining Q&A from one of the picture’s interview subjects, the actor Terrence Stamp (and brother of Chris Stamp). Linking again back to London’s cinematic and cultural past, Stamp was one of the icons of the ‘swinging sixties’ era and the actor revealed that this screen had been his local cinema back in the day.

Stamp in green. Okay, iPhone, no flash, it was the best I could do ;)

Stamp in green. Okay, iPhone, no flash, it was the best I could do 😉

From the cinema’s elegant but understated upper Regent Street entrance (just north of Oxford Circus) new patrons will enter a carefully reconstructed auditorium presenting the original muted colour scheme with restored art deco features. It is far from the forbidding brutalist art venue sterility decried by Cousins. The venue even hides working organ dating back to screenings from the thirties that once provided the soundtrack for silent films (and hopefully may do so again once the venue has built its audience. While there is a 4k digital projector, the cinema can also screen 35mm and 16mm prints, and the screen is pristine, fresh, waiting to reflect the hopes, fears, laughter and tears of its new public. The room has a pleasingly vertiginous rake so severe that the gentleman in front of me was able to wear a trilby for the whole screening without obscuring the view. The superb acoustics meant Stamp was able to conduct his question and answer session without aid of microphones (his choice).

The ongoing and venal gentrification of cinema in the capital increasingly creates binary oppositions: independent vs multiplex; high art vs low; moneyed vs skint. This isn’t good for film culture, it pushes audiences apart and divides when culture should unite. Cinema is supposed to be the peoples’ art form after all. The Regent Street Cinema could (and should) fill a gaping hole in the provision of Zone 1 cinema. While the Prince Charles serves an audience hungry for Generation X nostalgia and cultish genre thrills, The Regent Street Cinema provides a complimentary alternative and I suspect many people will be snaking across Soho between the two

For full details of the Regent Street Cinema’s current programme, ticket prices, and to book head to http://www.regentstreetcinema.com/

Hope to see you there (I’d say the third row is optimal).

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