London's Regent Street Cinema reopens

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Media captionIt is almost 120 years since the UK's first public screening of a moving picture

A 119-year-old cinema in central London is reopening to the public after more than 30 years behind closed doors.

Regent Street Cinema was the first place to show a film in the UK, the Lumiere brothers' Cinematographe, which toured the world in 1896.

Their moving picture included boats going into a harbour, workers coming out of a factory and a train coming into a station, similar to the modern slow TV movement.

Image copyright University of Westminster
Image caption The Lumiere brothers created the first film shown in the UK

It was also where the first X-rated film, La Vie Commence Demain, or Life Begins Tomorrow, featuring Picasso, atomic bombs and a rabbit dissection, was shown in Britain in 1951.

And before the days of ubiquitous TV sets, international broadcasting and Twitter, newsreels were shown during World War Two to Londoners whose loved ones were away fighting.

Now, the cinema has been rebuilt in an art-deco style by architect Tim Ronalds after it was closed to be used for lectures by its owner, the University of Westminster, in 1980.

The £6.1m restoration project opening to the public features a new programme aiming to include independent British cinema, young directors and film-makers from London.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Picasso featured in the first film shown at Regent Street Cinema

It largely features art-house films, many in double bills linked by themes such as gritty British realism, dry Swedish comedies, women and alienation, and American independents.

"It needs to be an energetic cutting-edge programme," says the cinema's director, Shira MacLeod.

"I don't want it to be pretentious in any way. I want it to be the kind of place you can come on your own and sit through two films."

When the cinema was first up and running, the films were silent. It had a backstage area where people would play instruments and an organ to provide music and sound effects.

Image copyright University of Westminster
Image caption The cinema has been redesigned by architects of the Hackney Empire building in east London
Image copyright Tim Ronalds Architects handout photo
Image caption The Lumiere brothers showed their first moving picture show in the cinema on 21 February 1896

The original organ remains in the cinema, behind the screen, and has keys with sound effects such as a steam trains, and lay bells.

"I would love to show Metropolis with a live soundtrack - it's very city-focused - or Piccadilly, a silent film about London," Ms MacLeod adds.

Image copyright University of Westminster
Image caption The cinema had an important role during World War Two when it showed newsreels from the front

After the Lumiere brothers, the venue featured another filmmaker Alfred West, who made films about the Navy and the Army, with sound effects.

It then became a place to showcase films about travel abroad around the turn of last century, says the university's archivist Claire Brunnen.

Such films, in some cases wildly fictitious, were presented as semi-documentaries and often had sound effects recorded at London zoo.

Many have been rediscovered and heralded for their meditative, transcendental qualities, with rock band British Sea Power recording a soundtrack for the Man of Aran, says assistant archivist at the University of Westminster Anna McNally.

Image copyright University of Westminster
Image caption The cinema became well-known for showing movies on the boundary between art and sex

The cinema also became well-known for showing premieres, such as Lawrence Olivier's Three Sisters. It even featured in a book, Margaret Drabble's The Millstone, says Ms McNally.

She adds: "There was nowhere like it. This really was the first place to show films."

A spell in the middle of last century after the notorious screening of La Vie Commence Demain saw one critic call the cinema the place to see "films on the edge of the art and sex boundary".

Its breaking of the X-rating criteria was followed by many rather blue movies, dressed up as art, says Ms McNally.

This reached dizzying heights in the 1970s, when the space became used for musical theatre, such as the play 'Let My People Come', where the whole cast was naked.

The play ran for five years, such was its success.

Can we expect more nudity this time around?

"We could certainly have a season of films about sex in the cinema," says Ms MacLeod.

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