Biograph Cinema

47-48 Wilton Road,
London, SW1V

Unfavorite 3 people favorited this theater

Additional Info

Previously operated by: Biograph Theatres Ltd., Hyams & Gale

Architects: George Coles

Previous Names: Electric Theatre

Nearby Theaters

Biograph Cinema

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 Kinema 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 men’s 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.

Contributed by KenRoe

Recent comments (view all 7 comments)

JohnHolloway on July 23, 2009 at 7:38 am

Young and innocent(?) How i wish I had the balls to visit this cinema when living in London during the 1970’s. Would love to know what theatrical/architecural piece of history was lost to London when demolition took place.

andygarner on February 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm

When I was a lad in the late 1960s I visited the Biograph, not knowing anything of its seedy reputation, after paying for my ticket and a Frys 5 centre chocolate bar at the paybox, I took my seat to see a double bill of “The Dresser” with Albert Finney and the Hitchcock classic “Physco” I was struck immediatley by the amount of movement from seat to seat, the constant banging of the Gents toilet door, and the general air of furtiveness about the place with lots of patrons having stategically placed newspapers over their laps…..boy did I grow up quickly that afternoon!
As per previous posts the lights never grew really dim, and every so often the commisionaire (with the biggest torch I have ever seen)shone the light along the rows of patrons where all the types of activity would suddenly cease. I don`t remember much about “The Dresser”, but I do remember being really drawn in to “Physco” despite it being in black & white. The Biograph was still showing a newsreel at the time as well, when the majority of cinemas had stopped showing them by then.
A trip to the nearby New Victoria cinema, or the Cartoon Cinema in Victoria station( where I subsequently saw “Inchabod & Mr Toad”) were very tame experiences when compared with what was going on in the Biograph !!!

Robbie25646 on August 24, 2012 at 6:34 am

Not only the “Commissionaire” patrolled the cineman when I worked there even the manageress used to do a walk-round and was known to pass comments to those patrons being naughty.

ChrisN11 on July 30, 2015 at 4:24 pm

I saw ‘Jungle Burger’ there shortly before it closed, on Monday 30th May 1983 to be precise (I was 19 at the time) and was baffled by the procession of men going to the toilet, not knowing at the time that it was a gay haunt. It was rather annoying but I did not think to ask for a refund.

SpurredoninDublin on September 16, 2015 at 6:15 am

I saw the mention of a bouncer. Among the last managers of this cinema, was George Cooper, identical twin brother of boxer Henry Cooper who fought Muhammud Ali for the world heavyweight championship. George had also been a pro boxer.

I heard several stories of him carrying out “evictions” with the errant customer trying to demand their money back. Once they got into the light of the foyer and saw “Henry Cooper” confronting them, must dropped their claim for a refund.

Regarding the sudden closure, I heard that the owners were concerned that Westminster City Council might place a preservation order on the building because of it’s “ancient” history, so they acted quickly to make sure there was nothing to preserve.

cinevariety on June 12, 2016 at 3:31 am

This is my favourite flea pit cinema of all time closely followed by the Tolmer. For some reason, Victoria was a very popular haunt for Gays. Maybe as it was on a main line station. The News Theatre on the station was also notorious as was the back circle of the New Victoria, now Apollo Theatre next door and the Classic Cinema which I helped manage in the 60s. Somehow the swish Metropole Cinema remained straight ! The downfall of the Biogragh as a gay haunt was the arrival of Henry Cooper’s look a like brother as the manager. He had all the lighting turned up so much that the picture on the screen was faded. torches everywhere and many people chucked out.There was no warning of closure, the reason was to do with money offered for the land the building was on. Much missed.

Buffer on June 11, 2019 at 8:14 am

Artist and CTA Patron Geoffrey Fletcher drew an audience watching “The fiend from Outer Space” which appeared in his book “The London Nobody knows” in 1962. I tried to load the drawing but no response, not unusual in my experience!

You must login before making a comment.

New Comment

Subscribe Want to be emailed when a new comment is posted about this theater?
Just login to your account and subscribe to this theater.