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▶ The BFI Southbank’s Dream Palace season runs throughout May.

In May, BFI Southbank reopens with a celebration of the cinemagoing experience in the shape of our Dream Palace season, inspired by Sight & Sound’s regular column and recent editorial campaign. From 17 May, filmmakers and creatives introduce films born for the big screen. Book a ticket to Black Narcissus, Car Wash or Beau Travail in the newly refurbished NFT1 and you’ll share your seat with 70 years of cinema history on London’s South Bank.

In 1951, the 410-seater Telekinema, a temporary building with “a gay façade and bold modern stare”, was a popular attraction at the Festival of Britain. Its foyer, featuring a mural by former costume designer John Armstrong, doubled as a TV studio. Then-BFI director Denis Forman lobbied for it to be used as a National Film Theatre, a “shop window” for the institute’s “main stock-in-trade”. It played this role from 1952 to 1957: open to the public on Saturdays but members-only midweek. Films were shown without trailers, or interval snacks. It was here that the Free Cinema documentary movement was launched, with a screening in February 1956.

Plans for the National Film Theatre

The concrete National Film Theatre building that we know now opened on the bank of the Thames in time to host the first London Film Festival in October 1957. To help raise funds for its construction, Chaplin supplied a print of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) for a rare week’s run. The opening night was attended by filmmakers including John Ford, René Clair, Akira Kurosawa and the British film pioneer G.A. Smith. Princess Margaret cut the ribbon but the evening’s host, Lindsay Anderson, refused to wear a tie and insisted on technical staff joining the celebrities on stage.

Exteriors of the National Film Theatre

Many cinematic titans have appeared at the NFT since [see picture gallery below], and gossipy anecdotes abound. Embarrassingly, François Truffaut was denied access to his own film because he didn’t have a ticket, and Jacques Tati once relieved himself on an exterior wall having failed to find the toilets. In 1971 the Austrian director Otto Muehl was dissuaded from killing a chicken live on stage.

Inside the National Film Theatre

There have been dicey moments, though. A serious nitrate fire, which luckily claimed no casualties except the projection box, broke out during a 1968 screening of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), and Jean-Luc Godard started a punch-up at a screening of One Plus One (1968). After falling off stage, he invited the audience to another screening on the bridge outside.

The NFT has always been a place to see films not easily found elsewhere – in 1960, for example, it hosted a season of Chinese cinema, the first of its kind in the West. The Southbank Centre has expanded around the building, and the NFT itself has continued to expand, too, adding its second screen in 1970, and subsequently a third and the capacity to show a succession of ‘new’ formats, from VHS to Dolby Surround Sound.

Since reopening in 2007, the renamed and enlarged BFI Southbank comprises four screens, a mediatheque, library and gallery space. NFT1 refurbishments include a new screen, sound system, accessible stage and soon a laser projector. But for British cinephiles, no matter how much it changes or improves, BFI Southbank will remain the beloved NFT, a ‘shop window’ on to a world of cinema.

Special guests at the National Film Theatre

Further reading

“Savour the NFT”: Gurinder Chadha on watching and shooting films at her favourite cinema

By Gurinder Chadha

“Savour the NFT”: Gurinder Chadha on watching and shooting films at her favourite cinema

My dream palaces: Edgar Wright revels in a life at the movies

By Edgar Wright

My dream palaces: Edgar Wright revels in a life at the movies

Gallery: five new London cinemas

Gallery: five new London cinemas

The Cinema Travellers – first-look review

By Ben Nicholson

The Cinema Travellers – first-look review

Remembering Penelope Houston

By David Robinson

Remembering Penelope Houston

Lorenza Mazzetti obituary: a survivor from war-torn Italy who took Free Cinema to Cannes

By Henry K Miller

Lorenza Mazzetti obituary: a survivor from war-torn Italy who took Free Cinema to Cannes

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy