The Duke of York’s Picture House came into existence in 1910 and has been recognised by the Cinema Theatre Association as the oldest surviving purpose-built cinema in the UK. On 22nd September 1910, a crowd of 2000 people brought Preston Circus to a standstill for its opening.
The Duke of York’s cinema was built at the cost of £3000 by actress-manager Violet Melnotte-Wyatt. It opened on 22 September 1910 and was one of Brighton’s first picture palaces and also one of the first cinemas in the world. It was built on the site of the Amber Ale Brewery, the walls of which still form the rear part of the auditorium. The architects were Clayton & Black. The building remains largely unaltered, it even retains one of its boxes in the balcony area. The original colour scheme was red and cream.
The Duke of York’s was always a quality cinema for the more discerning patron, its marketing tag-line for many years was “Bring her to the Duke’s, it is fit for a Duchess.” The name came from the West End theatre which its first proprietor Mrs Melnotte-Wyatt was also associated with. Being slightly outside the town centre, the Duke’s catered for its local audience and this has been its saving grace. While other cinemas in Brighton came and went, The Duke of York’s has remained in continuous operation.
The cinema has operated as an arts cinema since 1981 and has passed through several owners and hosted illegal punk rock concerts. The cinema was in a shabby state when it was purchased in 1994 by Picturehouse Cinemas who have invested in the building and returned it to its former glory.
It houses one single screen with 278 seats, including a luxury balcony. It originally seated over 800, but modifications have been made to the inside of the building to create the café/bar upstairs, a concession space downstairs, and to allow for greater comfort.
In 1991, a 20 ft pair of can-can dancer’s legs were acquired from the recently closed Not The Moulin Rouge Theatre in Oxford, and were installed onto the outside front balcony. These were later moved to their current position on the roof during a refurbishment in 1995.
The building is a Grade II listed building.
In 2007, it launched an appeal to replace its leaking roof. Over £25,000 was raised from public donations, benefit concerts (from local band The Go! Team), benefit screenings and ‘sponsor-a-seat’ programme. The roof was replaced in April 2008. The balcony was remodelled at the same time to create luxury sofas and armchairs.
You can even get married there!
Brighton’s reputation as a home for LGBT communities had become established by the 1970s and the Duke’s programme responded appropriately with the screening of controversial queer classics including Saturday Night at the Baths, Sebastiane, and Scorpio Rising. In 1988, we hosted a protest event against Section 28, in which Derek Jarman screened his film Caravaggio and held a talk. The Duke’s very own queer film strand Eyes Wide Open Cinema continues this legacy to this day, screening LGBTQ-related films every month.” It also has a massive party every year when it shows the Eurovision Song Contest on the big screen!
It plays host to the Brighton Film Festival each year, CineCity, organised between The Duke of York’s and the University of Brighton. It counts as patrons Brighton residents Nick Cave and filmmaker John Hillcoat, as well as actor/comedian Steve Coogan.