Duke of York’s: Brighton’s 106 Year Old Cinema

Published On August 25, 2016 | By Nikol Dekazos | Features, Homepage, Only in Brighton!

We Love Brighton got the chance to meet the lucky people working at Duke of York’s Picture House and discovered the fascinating story behind Britain’s oldest cinema.

The building is hard to miss with the iconic rooftop giant pair of show girl legs, a gift from a London arthouse cinema when it closed in 1991. The quirky legs are in keeping with Duke of York’s 106 year old personality. “We are more rock and roll while Duke at Komedia’s [the other Brighton-based Picturehouse cinema] is more pop,” says manager Felicity Beckett.

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As Brightonians know well, Duke of York’s is an arthouse cinema showing documentaries, foreign features, vintage/classic films, and other independent flicks as well as big releases.

Its opening day was in September of 1910 – at a time when films were still being played in church halls or converted shops. A well known actress, Violet Melnotte Wyatt, a stage performer in operetta’s and comic opera’s in the 1870’s, envisioned Duke of York’s as a place dedicated only to film, a place to give film the same respect live theatre received in the early 1900’s.

“I want an electric theatre,” are the famous words Melnotte Wyatt uttered to her husband and luckily for us, he obliged. The Duke of York’s was, and still is, the result to Mrs.Wyatt’s five word request.

Built on the site of an old brewery in Preston Circus, the early ‘picture theatre’ sat up to eight hundred people, allowed smoking after 6 pm, and sold confectionery that was often thrown at the screen in the midst of yelling, heavy laughter, and a small orchestra accompanying the silent films.

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The opening night of The Jazz Singer in 1930

From decade to decade, the cinema has evolved alongside the film industry and audience alike. In 1930, a new era dawned with the first showing of a talking picture or ‘talkie’ – the film The Jazz Singer. For this, Duke of York’s installed a sound system and new interiors.

In the mid 1950’s, there was yet another new introduction to the world of film – coloured pictures using CinemaScope. This called for more renovations; the eight hundred seats became four hundred, the screen was refitted to become twice the width as before, and an upstairs cafe area was built where customers could enjoy cake, tea, beer, and wine.

After the introduction of coloured films, the next shift for the Duke of York’s did not come with major renovations, but rather, with a new spin on the business of cinema.

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In the 1980’s, Duke of York’s started calling itself an art house. The manager at the time, Bill Heine, declared that the “Duke of York’s cinema club is to present the best of world cinema and to bring films to Brighton direct from their London premier run.”

Today’s manager, Felicity Beckett, first went to Duke of York’s at that transformative time. In the 1980’s Duke of York’s was still smokey and housed people mostly in tight jeans and Doc’s. Felicity was just a wide-eyed teenager on those first mesmeric trips. “I’ve been in love with Duke of York’s since I was fourteen,” she says. “I remember walking in [to the cinema] after taking a train from London, and the first step inside was like a wave of magic.”

“Real magic in real life,” Mrs.Beckett goes on to say. “is quite extraordinary these days, and it’s still there every morning when I unlock the doors.”

Though still headily reminiscent of a time long past, Duke of York’s is up to date with today’s film culture and audience. Smoking is no longer allowed inside, but you can buy pizza instead. It’s even possible to have a wedding at the Duke of York’s – this trend started six years ago when a couple offered to buy a wedding license for the cinema because of their love for the Preston Circus gem.

They make an effort to cater to every niche: From documentaries to music related films, foreign language to live theatre and even half-hour cartoon episodes just for kids and their parents.

As well as niches, there’s a focus on audience diversity: special screenings accommodating patrons over 60 (discounted tickets plus a biscuit with tea or coffee), parents with children under one year old (any adult film can be played, but crying babies are expected), autism (lower volume from speakers and anticipated audience interaction), visual impairment (audio assistance available), hearing loss (subtitles). The next stage is to introduce dementia friendly and wheelchair friendly screenings as well.

Keeping in spirit with the history of Duke of York’s, there are vintage screenings at least once a month which use a film reel rather than a digital projector. And, to top it all off, there are many screenings followed by live Q&As with director and stars.

At Duke of York’s, there is always something going on and if you’ve never been, one of Brighton’s best treasures is waiting.


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About The Writer

Nikol Dekazos is a freelance writer, creative writer currently getting an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Brighton. Greek-American, she has lived in Texas, Greece, and now England.