47-48 Wilton Road,
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Located in the Victoria district of central London. Opened as the Electric Theatre on 24th May 1909.
A plaque on the foyer wall for many years incorrectly stated: “Biograph 1905 – England’s First Cinema. Originally called Bioscope, the first name for cinema”. A press release in 1965 stated (again incorrectly) that it “opened in March 1905 and was the first cinema to be granted a licence under the Cinematograph Act”.
It was built for Biograph Theatres Ltd, the first of a small chain operated by an American named George Washington Grant who had taken over five existing cinemas in London. The seating capacity was for 560 on one level.
After a few years it was re-named Biograph Cinema and in 1927 it was closed for reconstruction to the plans of architect George Coles. The auditorium was widened to seat 630 (with standing room for 124) and a stage, dressing rooms and a new proscenium was added. It was operated by the Hyams Brothers who at that period of time were building many ‘Super Cinemas’ around London and owned the nearby Metropole Cinema in Victoria. The Biograph Cinema re-opened on 15th September 1927 screening “Michael Strogoff” with a live orchestra. The first talkie shown here was “Show Boat” on 30th September 1929. It was closed for a short period during the war due to bomb damage and the staff rooms and offices were lost. The Hyam’s Brothers sold off all their major cinemas to the Gaumont and Odeon chains, leaving them with just the Biograph which they owned until it closed and another minor London suburban cinema, the Canterbury Music Hall which closed just after the war.
The Biograph Cinema quickly re-opened and even featured live Variety acts as part of the programme which continued for a while even after the war. The Biograph became one of central London’s best repertory cinemas screening three changes a week programmes of double bills which gave film buffs the opportunity to catch up on movies they had missed on first release. Admission prices were kept low, compared to other central London cinemas.
By the 1960’s the cinema was still doing great business, helped by the fact that it had become a gay mens meeting place. The Sunday tabloid newspaper News of the World had banner headlines one week ‘Close Down this Cinema of Vice’ with a descriptive article by their intrepid reporter of the scandalous events happening in the Biograph Cinema, Victoria where there was constant moving from seat to seat by the audience and frequent visits to the gent’s toilet (located on the right hand side, next to the screen). Despite this expose and what could be considered adverse publicity, nothing much changed, apart from the appointment of a bouncer and films being played with the house-lights raised slightly. The great programmes of double bills continued, the men continued to cruise around and the occasional ‘tourist’ would be lured in by the programme on offer, see what was going on and complain to have their money refunded (which is what happened). The Biograph eventually became the only operating cinema in the Victoria area (the Metropole, New Victoria, Cameo and Victoria Station News Theatre had all closed).
People began to wonder why the Biograph Cinema was not listed, being it claimed to be the oldest cinema in England, but the truth was that it really dated from the re-build of 1927 and the frontage had been modernised in the 1960’s, so there was no hope for listing it. However the owners must have thought something was going to happen along those lines and suddenly closed it down on Thursday 4th August 1983 after the first day’s screening of what should have been a three day run of “Handgun” and “The Buddy Holly Story”. Two days later the cinema was being stripped out and demolition was commencing. It happened so fast that the London Evening Standard newspaper were advertising the next programme: “Bronx Warriors” and “Wrong Way” the following week as the bulldozers were already wrecking the building. Within a couple of weeks there was just an empty plot of land and it remained like this for almost 20 years until a small hotel was built on the site.
When talking to people about former cinemas (something I do a lot!), the Biograph Cinema often comes up in conversation as a much missed part of the London scene. Ok, no great architectural merit, but it was well liked and greatly missed.
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