Stars in Leicester Square

Some new bronze statues were unveiled in Leicester Square this year to celebrate its connection with the cinema. The idea was to have temporary statues but perhaps because of covid 19, no-one has thought to move them. I hope they stay. They bring a smile to my face when I walk across the square. I especially like Laurel & Hardy in another fine mess trying stay on their feet. They look as if they are going to slide off the roof of the TKTS kiosk.

The Laurel & Hardy statue is taken from a 1929 film called Liberty in which they play two escaped prisoners trying to evade the police and ending up running along the steel girders of a skyscraper under construction.

My other favourite is Gene Kelly swinging on a lamppost nearby. It is so exuberant. The sculpture of Kelly in his 1952 role as Don Lockwood in Singing in the Rain was unveiled by his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly. Who has not sung this song in a rain shower, maybe even done a little dance???

The buildings along the west side of the square now have a row of relief sculptures of black crows flying above the shop fronts in an homage to London born Alfred Hitchcock. Leicester Square has long been connected with the film industry. Most film premieres in the UK take place here.

Before purpose-built cinemas, films were shown in theatres and public meeting rooms. The first time they were screened in Leicester Square was in 1896 at two variety theatres, the Empire and the Alhambra. Both were notorious as places to meet prostitutes. The upper balcony of the Empire had to be remodelled two years before that film show by order of the local council to prevent prostitutes from parading up and down to show their wares. The Alhambra’s bar accepted unaccompanied ladies as early as 1854 when elsewhere a lady in a bar, even with a man to accompany her was scandalous. The Empire was replaced by the Empire Cinema in 1927 and the Alhambra by the art deco Odeon designed in November 1937. Both have been refurbished many times since to keep pace with the evolution of cinema technology.

It was the Cinematograph Act of 1909 that began the regulation of film screenings and the building of cinemas, mainly because of the danger of the highly inflammable nitrate film that was used. Two of the first real cinemas in London were the Electric Cinema, Portobello Road and the Electric Pavilion, Brixton (now called the Ritzy). Both opened in 1911 and they are both still in use.

If you love cinema and enjoy looking at artefacts from the industry, we have a fabulously quirky Cinema Museum south of the Thames. Two cinema buffs, Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries put the collection together. The museum archive is the go-to place for film companies looking for photos, film reels etc. I was among a group of London Blue Badge Tourist Guides to visit it about a year ago and we loved it. We were given a private screening of some old newsreels. Our favourite was the journey of the last tram in London, probably not everyone’s cup of tea but we are nuts about London minutia (in case you are wondering, the journey was on 6th July 1952).  Sadly the museum location is wanted by developers but there is a petition to save it so sign it and take a tour there when you can.

STOP PRESS STOP PRESS STOP PRESS Join me on my virtual tour, A Walk Around the Gherkin. Details and booking : highlight the link then click go to eventbrite

About the author: Gail Jones