Flickering shadows on a silver screen

On 22 February 1896 at the Regent’s Street Polytechnic (not the University of Westminster) an event took place that would change the way we look at the world for ever. The Times reported

“The spectator no longer gazes through a narrow aperture at the changing picture, but has it presented to him full-size on a large screen. The principle, however, is much the same, consisting simply of passing rapidly before the eyes a series of pictures representing the successive stages of the action or the changing scene that has to be reproduced… When these photographs are thrown on a screen by means of an electric light at the same rate and order an exact reproduction of the moving people is obtained. Another subject that lends itself very effectively to this treatment is a railway train entering and stopping at a station.”

Find out more about film on the Gateway to WebsitesThe event was, of course, the first demonstration in Britain of the Cinematograph by the French Lumiere brothers – you can see some of the films on Youtube (including the train arriving at the station which supposedly had audiences running for the exit at some showings).

As the 55th BFI London Film Festival opened last week, let’s have a look at Westminster’s cinema heritage and how we can research it using the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites.

If we look at the News & Magazines section of the Gateway, we can see some other notable events in the history of the Cinematograph in Westminster. While the first Royal Command Performance in 1896 (at the which the future Edward VII and 40 guests were entertained by such treats as film of the 1895 and 1896 Derby and a short film of a boxing kangaroo – watch them here) was ignored by The Times, they did report on the first feature film shown by Royal Command.  This was on 4 August 1916 and the ‘picture-play’ was the famous melodrama Comin’ Through the Rye. The state dining room of Marlborough House was fitted up as a temporary ‘cinematograph theatre’ for the enjoyment of Queen Alexandra and the Princess Royal, Princess Maud and Grand Duchess George of Russia.

Since 1946 the Royal Film Performance has been in a cinema. The first film shown was A Matter of Life and Death – if you go to the History section of the Gateway and look at the British Pathé site, you can find several clips of the great and the good arriving for the show.

More exciting were the events on the night of 28 March 1960 when, according to The Times,

“the royal party were trapped in a faulty lift at Buckingham Palace for 10 minutes on their way to the performance [of The Last Angry Man]. They were late in arriving at the cinema, where the Duke [of Edinburgh], explained to Lord Rank what had happened.”

Moving on to the subject of films actually made in Westminster, a great site to look at is the fantastic Internet Movie Database (in the Stage & Screen section of the Gateway). You’ve probably used it to check a performer’s credits or the cast of a film but if you clink on the drop-down menu beside the search box and choose Advanced Search, then choose Advanced Title Search you can look for films with a particular location.  Checking for titles with the location Westminster brings up 415 titles which you can arrange by year or alphabetically. The earliest one listed (though film historians know that there is always a new discovery to be found!) is On Westminster Bridge by the cinema pioneer RW Paul – you can watch it on Youtube (perhaps someone can work out the exact position of the camera operator).

Repeating the process to see what has been made in Marylebone (most recently seen in The King’s Speech with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush taking a stroll in Regents Park) we find a 1936 film called Midnight at Madam Tussaud’s with a young William Hartnell, many years before he found lasting fame as the first Doctor Who.

Moving to the Biography section of the Gateway, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a fantastic resource for Westminster Libraries members. If you click on the Themes tab at the top, then List all themes, you can find an article on ‘Oscar winners in the ODNB’, linking to articles on Alec Guinness (born in Paddington) and David Niven (Belgravia) among others. If you want to delve a little further and find which cinematic luminaries lived on your patch, click on the Search tab, then the People tab. You can then search by Field of Interest and Life events to get a list of film folk who spent time in Maida Vale (Terry Nation, inventor of the Daleks and the great character actress Irene Handl among others) or Regents Park (Sir Ralph Richardson).

And when you’ve finished browsing – why not take in a film, either by visiting one of Westminster’s many cinemas or checking out a DVD from your local library.

[Nicky]

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