Although films of interwar Britain occasionally had interest in illicit gambling activities (for example, this one), and illegal gambling clubs certainly existed in real life, the London Casino was not, in fact, a casino. Originally it opened as the Prince Edward Theatre on Old Compton Street in 1930, with the intention of putting on Ziegfeld Follies-style revues. This, however, proved commercially unsuccessful. According to a 1938 Picture Post article, the theatre then became the regular host of trade shows for talking films, as it was fully wired for sound films. Trade shows allowed cinema managers and buyers from cinema chains to view films before they hit the market, and decide which films to purchase for exhibition in their own cinemas.
Showing trade films was not necessarily a profitable occupation, however, particularly as the theatre was not being used for anything else. Around 1935, therefore, two investors decided to work together to refurbish the theatre to the tune of (then) £25,000. They renamed the venue the London Casino, and came up with a concept which was entirely new for the British capital at that time. All the theatre seats were stripped out and replaced by rows of dinner tables – in the stalls as well as on the dress circles. The seats nearest to the stage were removed entirely to create a dancefloor. Big staircases led down from the circles to this dancefloor. The space below the stage was converted into kitchens. Going forward, Casino guests would be able to ‘eat and drink inside a London theatre a full-size dinner.’
The Casino operated two shifts, one for dinner and one for supper. According to an early advert for the Casino, guests were served a five-course meal during their stay. During the meal, they could watch a show on the stage. After the show and dinner were over, guests could take the dancefloor – as long as they were dressed appropriately. ‘Evening Dress Optional but Essential for Dancing’ states the advert; and the Picture Post article notes that for seats on the balcony you did not have to wear evening dress. The advert suggests that all patrons paid the same price of 15s and 6d during the week and 17s 6d on Saturdays. By the time the Picture Post article was published, however, it was noted that some guests paid only 7s 6d, or less than half price. Presumably these were the balcony seats, right at the top of the theatre, which were ‘viewing only’.
Either way, the London Casino was a high-end night out; guests were only allowed to stay for 3 or 3.5 hours on weekdays, as their ‘slot’ only lasted so long. For comparison, West End cinema seats could only cost 1s 6d during this period, and suburban cinemas would be even cheaper. To spend 15s 6d a head on an evening’s entertainment would have been out of reach for many Londoners. Nonetheless, the Casino boasted of weekly revenues between £6000 and £7000, which would be ‘more money than any other entertainment in London.’ Clearly, by the end of the 1930s, there was sufficient disposable income at the top end of British society to sustain an innovative high-end club such as this.
In terms of the shows that patrons were treated to, the ample photography provided with the Picture Post article reveals a heavy reliance on ‘female beauty.’ Indeed, one can presume that the opportunity to publish photographs of scantily clad young women was one of the reasons why the editors of Picture Post decided to publish this article. Through the images in the weekly magazine a whole additional audience, who would not ordinarily be able to visit the Casino in person, were able to enjoy the ‘personal attractions of the dancers and show-girls.’
A dance episode called ‘The Butterfly Hunt’ shows three young, thin, white women; two in bikini tops and gauzy skirts, the third appearing almost nude except for a bra and knickers. Dancer Maurice Brooke performed a stunt which required him to have one woman sitting on his neck and another (again in underwear) being swung round by him. Other scenes included ‘A Slave Market in Algeria’ (female slaves wearing minimal beaded outfits) and ‘The Bird of Night’ (women wearing skin-coloured, skin-tight outfits that make them appear nude). The final page of the article includes a photo of four showgirls backstage playing cards – they wear slinky dressing gowns and show their legs. The caption gives their names, as if to shrink the gap between them and the reader.
Although the Picture Post article exploits the female bodies for the visual pleasure of their readership, the article also cleverly juxtaposes these photos with an equal amount of photographs of audience-members viewing the stage. The article contains six photographs of audience members, most of them medium close-ups showing two or three patrons gazing intently towards what we presume is the stage. There is only one photograph of the guests dancing on the dancefloor after the show. It is implied that passive spectatorship, or ‘ogling’, is the main reason most people visit the Casino. The active participation in the dancing is secondary.
The article’s conclusion confidently states that the Casino ‘appears to have established itself as a permanent feature of London’s night life.’ The reality was different. The outbreak of the Second World War put an end to all performances, and by 1942 the theatre was repurposed as an entertainment venue for troops on leave. After the war, the theatre reverted back to being a cinema screening room, this time for ‘Cinerama’ films – films projected across three adjacent screens for a wide-screen effect. In the mid-70s the venue was once again converted back to a theatre, and it has been in business as the Prince Edward Theatre ever since.
 ‘A Night Out in London’, Picture Post, 10 December 1938, p. 21
 Ibid., p. 24
 Ibid., p. 21
 Ibid. p. 24