No cultural tour of Glasgow could be complete without a visit to the Britannia Panopticon, the world’s oldest surviving music hall. “Converted from warehouse to music hall in 1857 and licensed in 1859, the Britannia Music Hall entertained Glasgow’s working classes for nearly 80 years,” says its about page. “By the time it closed in 1938 it had also accommodated cinema, carnival, freak show, wax works, zoo, art gallery and hall of mirrors,” and it had also changed its name to reflect the fact that every conceivable form of entertainment could be seen there. Thanks to an ongoing conservation effort, the building still stands today, and its details have gradually been returned to the look and feel of its glory days.
In 2016, the Britannia Panopticon marked 120 years of showing film in that building. Part of the celebration involved uploading, to its very own Youtube channel, this 40-minute compilation of real footage from 1896, the year its cinematic programming began. (Ambient sound has been added to enhance the sensation of time travel.)
In it you’ll catch glimpses of life as it was really lived 126 years ago in places like Manhattan’s Union Square, London’s Piccadilly Circus, Budapest’s Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Rome’s Porto di Ripetta, and Paris’ Bassin des Tuileries — as well as the Pont Neuf and Arc de Triomphe. The preponderance of Parisian locations is unsurprising, given that most of the footage was shot by the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, pioneers of both the technology and art of cinema.
The sons of a family involved in the nascent photography industry, the Lumière brothers patented their own motion-picture system in 1895, the same year they gave their first screening: the film was La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon, whose 46 seconds show exactly that. A few months later, they put on a public program including nine more films of similar length, each also consisting of a single shot in what we would now call documentary style. This proved entertainment enough to launch a world tour, and the brothers took their cinématographe to London, New York City, Bombay, Buenos Aires and elsewhere. This presumably gave them their chance to shoot in such cities, suggesting that a wide variety of locations and cultures could become captivating material for motion pictures: a proposition more than validated by the subsequent century, but not one in which the Lumière brothers, who quit cinema less than a decade later, seem to have put much stock themselves.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.