First Public Film Show In London


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The first public film show put on by the Lumière brothers, took place on 20 February 1896 at Regent Street Polytechnic, now part of the University of Westminster. Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere demonstrated their cinematograph, the first successful machine that could show moving photographs to an audience, which they had invented the previous year. 

As the world centre for lantern slide technology, the Polytechnic was the natural choice for the première of moving pictures to a paying British public by the Lumière Brothers in 1896.

Henry Langdon Childe joined the staff of The Royal Polytechnic Institution in 1838. He pioneered the illumination of lanterns by limelight rather than oil, so films were projected onto a screen rather than from behind it.  He also developed the "dissolving view", where one slide faded away as the next gradually appeared. This was just one of the many special effects which established the Polytechnic's reputation for unique and spectacular magic lantern shows.

A theatre built in 1848 could seat 1,000 people and usually held two shows each day, including scientific lectures, travel shows and news reels. Most popular of all were the increasingly extravagant performances of popular entertainments combining dissolving views, optical illusions, live performance and all manner of special effects.

It was this reputation which led to the choice by their manager Félicien Trewey of The Polytechnic as the venue for the first presentation in Britain of the cinématograph by the Lumière Brothers on 20 February 1896. When the show moved to Leicester Square 16 days later, the Polytechnic electrician, Matt Raymond, went with them and the movies were born.

The première had an immediate impact within Hogg's Polytechnic. A projector was purchased and displays of "animated photographs" and "living pictures" were regularly advertised in the Polytechnic Magazine. The large hall on the site of the great magic lantern theatre continued as the Cameo Poly cinema until the early 1960s.

Louis Lumière revisited The Polytechnic in 1936 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his first screening. His original programme of 11 films was recreated in the refurbished hall to mark the centenary and open the Cinema 100 celebrations in February 1996. It was part of a festival which included a visit by Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima, the publication of Cinema: the Beginnings and the Future, screenings of experimental contemporary films and - of course - a grand magic lantern show.
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