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The Birth of British Cinema: Lumière's Cinematograph

21 February 2012

116 years ago today, British cinema was born.

Louis Lumière famously said: "The cinema is an invention without a future."

Over a century later, film plays a part in our lives beyond anything he could have imagined. But despite the technological leaps achieved since Lumière’s days, the resurgence of silent films such as The Artist demonstrates the public’s appetite and affection for our cinematic roots.

On 21 February 1896, 54 people gathered in the Marlborough Hall at Polytechnic Institute. Each had paid a shilling, or a sixpence if they were members of the Poly. They had come to witness a spectacular. The Lumière brothers living photographic images were to be projected onto a large screen. The performance lasted less than an hour, but it paved the way for over a century of cinematographic development and innovation.

It is hard to imagine today how the films looked to Victorian eyes. Reporters described the films as extraordinaryimpossible to describe. Details that we might take for granted provoked excitement and wonder - the steam from the funnel of a train, cigarette smoke curling around a card player's hand, the spray of the sea crashing on rocks. "You expect every moment to see the water tumbling into the hall', said one reporter, and audience members were said to have stepped back in alarm as a train appeared to hurtle towards them.

It was not the first time the Polytechnic played host to invention and wonder; the institution has a celebrated history for innovation in the field of photography and the moving image. The first photographic studio in Europe was built on the roof of the poly in 1841, which was an instant hit with the Londoners eager to have their daguerrotype portrait taken - even the young Charles Dickens was a customer. It later became famous for its pioneering Magic Lantern shows, and for Pepper’s Ghost, a popular optical illusion premiered at the Polytechnic Theatre by John Pepper and Henry Dircks on Christmas Eve 1862.

The 1896 screening began a revolution in moving image. By the 40th anniversary of the screening in 1936, there was a cinema in almost every town in the UK, and film was part of every day life. The cinema on Regent Street had shown war time newsreels, Hollywood blockbusters, and had adapted its equipment for the talkies.

The Polytechnic celebrated with a reconstruction of the original screening. Guest of honour was Louis Lumière himself, joined by the French ambassador and key figures from the British film industry. Pioneering British director Cecil Hepworth compered the event at the beautiful little picture theatre: "No one," he said, aside from his own father, had had a greater influence on his life and career than the Lumière brothers: "We prayed for light, and God gave us... Lumière."

Film continues to hold a special place here at the University. Our film school has a reputation for producing outstanding alumni, and exceptional work. Student films regularly sweep up at award ceremonies, and graduates include producer Paul Tribijts, director Michael Winterbottom, and recent BAFTA award winning director Asif Kapadia. A new chapter in the institution's history is about to begin, with the restoration of the original theatre.

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