CREAKING SEATS AND CROWDED AISLES
Navigating the regulation and appropriation of the Biograph Cinema as a space of queer socio-sexual contact (1905-1985)
Illustration by Bronte Allan, 2020.
Cinemas, by design, are places of darkness. This darkness has a technical purpose in that it facilitates our viewing of the film, whilst also projecting the viewer into the action on the big screen. Whilst darkness is an intrinsic characteristic of a visit to the cinema, the absorbing warmth of the darkened auditorium has, since the beginnings of the cinema in the early decades of the twentieth century, provided gay men with the anonymity under which to participate in social and sexual meetings.
The dualism of the ‘straight’ audience member and the gay cruiser is clearly evident in the case of The Biograph Cinema, located in Victoria, London from its opening in 1909 to its demolition in 1983. As well as managing to maintain a considerable audience at a time of the increasing urban presence of cinema chains, by the 1960s The Biograph Cinema had become one of London’s queer ‘landmarks.’ Known colloquially as ‘the Biogrope’ amongst its queer clientele, the cinema ‘sustained a sexual culture like no other.’ At the time of its closure and subsequent demolition, the Biograph was the only operating cinema in the Victoria area, as well as being an infamous location on London’s gay cruising circuit. The ‘queer acts’ that occurred in The Biograph – primarily the practise of cruising – stand as evidence of the ‘queer lives, powers, and possibilities’ in twentieth century London. The gestural history and ephemeral traces of cruising at The Biograph from the 1950s to the early 1980s, reinforce the cinema as an important location in the establishment and remembrance of queer urban spaces, thus substantiating its landmark status despite its omission from queer academic literature. This dissertation considers the history of the cinema as a queer space, the influence of darkness on practises of cruising within these spaces, and the appropriation and methods of contact that manifested between gay men in London’s cinemas throughout the twentieth century.
Taking into consideration The Biograph as a key example of a ‘gay cinema’, this dissertation explores the cinema as a historic example of the informal inhabitation of mainstream ‘normative’ spaces by the queer subject. By tracing the origins of instances of queer socio-sexual contact to the ‘national subculture’ of the Victorian music hall and the growing commercialisation of queer venues, the inhabitation of heterosexual space by the queer body appears as a significant factor in the development of place-making and subcultural sexual practises such as cruising. Using The Biograph as a case study for the practise of urban queer place-making, a conflict presents itself. This conflict emerges between the process of establishing queer identity through the re-imagining and appropriation of ‘straight’ commercial spaces and the need to regulate the ‘deviant’ behaviour exhibited by the increasingly visible queer community in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Through individual encounters in spaces such as cinemas and public toilets in the West End of London, men began to establish themselves within a larger queer community, this public queer life offered many a ‘potent sense of companionship’. Sexual encounters and social interactions in cinemas ‘highlight the precarious balance between danger and possibility that pervaded every encounter between boys and men’; the darkness of the cinema presented gay men with multiple opportunities for sexual and social exploration, establishing the cinema as an important queer space for the development of queer networks and changing concepts of queer urban identity.
As a literal and metaphorical term, ‘enlightenment’ is aligned with the progressive function and moral desirability to colonise dark urban spaces – by establishing a normative dualism between illumination and darkness in the city, these spaces were increasingly determined by ‘authoritarian practises of control through establishing curfews and intensifying surveillance.’ By taking advantage of darkness’s ability to mask transgressive behaviour, persecuted minorities and marginal groups were able to participate in subaltern nocturnal practises that were ‘conducive to conviviality, intimacy, experimentation, and excitement.’ The cinema and the darkness that is intrinsic to its operation afforded members of minority groups, such as gay men, the opportunity to meet in spaces of fantasy and intimacy. Through the introduction of illumination inside the cinema with the intention of making audience members more able to monitor the behaviour of those around them, the queer subject was therefore limited in their ability to engage in sexual transgressive behaviour that did not subscribe to the heterosexual social and sexual norms.
The use of the cinema as a cruising space illustrates the structural hegemony of a society that privileges heterosexuality and inhibits public displays of alternative sexualities. As a cruised space, the cinema blurs private/public divides, contesting the socio-political relations that have highlighted these acts as particularistic and idiosyncratic. By identifying the significant role of leisure and entertainment spaces in gay lifestyles of the twentieth century, this dissertation explores the symbolic meanings attached to experiences and spaces by urban queer communities, which offer gay men the opportunity to ‘be themselves’, in opposition to the forced adoption of identities or roles deemed ‘appropriate by heterosexual mainstream society.’ As a dynamic site for sexual and social emancipation, the cinema and other semi-private leisure spaces present gay men with the ability to resist, subvert, and destabilise conventional sexual and power relations – the cinema therefore emerges as a site for resisting hegemonic domination.
 Ken Roe, ‘The Biograph: 47-48 Wilton Road, Victoria, SW1V’, cinematreasures.org, (2009)
 ‘Close Down this Cinema of Vice’, News of the World, (date unknown).
 José Esteban Muñoz, “Ephemera as Evidence”, Women & Performance, Vol.8, No.2, (London, 1996), 6.
 Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006), 3.
 Faulk, Barry J., Music Hall and Modernity: The Late-Victorian Discovery of Popular Culture, (Athens: Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004), 1.
 Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasure in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 58.
 Tim Edensor, From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 169.
 Craig Koslofsky, Evening’s Empire: A history of Night in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 5.
 Kevin Markwell, “Space and place in gay men’s leisure”, Annals of Leisure Research, Vol.1, No.1, (London, 2013), 21.
Copyright of image: © Bronte Allan