The Return Of Piccadilly’s Cinemas
A boxy screen and sticky steps, shuffling punters and fag smoke…the old cinemas of Piccadilly Circus were drenched in melancholy, a place where loners passed time waiting for homegoing trains, most of which were one an hour. The shows were each an hour in length and showed cartoons and newsreels. The cinemas also attracted lonely males looking for companionship, either with each other or with ‘Piccadilly Commandos’ – girls on the game. They eventually became sex cinemas (nothing hardcore, just vaguely saucy comedies) and didn’t die out until well into the 1980s. The one on the Shaftesbury Avenue side is where a scene from ‘An American Werewolf In London’ was filmed.
After decades of neglect, repurposng and outright demolition, the cinemas of Piccadilly are returning in a very different form.
In 1896 Marlborough Hall was the site of the first demonstration in Britain of the new Lumiere photography. It operated as a hall, a theatre and a cinema within the Royal Polytechnic Institution on Regent Street. It was the first photographic studio in Europe and at the forefront of the development of photography, regularly hosting magic-lantern shows. Now it’s back as a regular cinema.
Meanwhile, the rear of the Trocadero at the side of Piccadlly Circus now houses the elegant Picturehouse Central, with a rolling repertoire of independent films and mainstream releases, while just behind the Dilly over in Ham Yard, a jazzy private cinema with proper balcony seating has opened for screenings (I’m not sure about the lairy orange leather seats though).
The cinemas are reinventing the idea of picture-going (with commensurate prices) to offer luxurious surroundings that allow for legroom and comfort, as well as improved food and space for holding talks, PAs and Q&As.
We’ve probably lost the Dilly’s dodgy sex-cinema Jacey-Tatler chain for good, which is no bad thing, although they now respectively house a pizza bar and a nightclub, and that leaves one more building – the jewel in Piccadilly Circus’s crown.
The London Pavilion, a vast ballroom of a cinema, began life as a music hall formed from roofing the yard of the Black Horse Inn, and was built in 1859. A gallery was constructed for the hall but it couldn’t use the full width because one part of the premises was used by ‘Dr Kahn’s Delectable Museum of Anatomy’.
In 1934 the building was rebuilt inside and was converted into a cinema. It was the venue for the première of many films including Hammer’s ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ in 1957, for which the foyer was revamped to look like Frankenstein’s laboratory, complete with the Monster in a tank.
As a child I was scared of going to the loos there, which involved a trek in the dark through the deserted underground lower mezzanine. Sadly this magnificent – if by now faded – hall closed in 1983. Now it houses the American quasi-historical freakshow ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!’, which I’ll visit this autumn, mainly because I walk past it most days and I’m curious (unless somebody here tells me otherwise).
The London Pavilion could not be refitted as a cinema again, but would still make a wonderful theatre and a grand entrance to Shaftesbury Avenue’s theatreland. Meanwhile, it’s good that this odd little area, so important to London’s image, is being improved. For too long it has been a place no self-respecting Londoner would be caught dead in.