National Film Theatre sign at the BFI, Southbank

Restoration of the 1950s National Film Theatre sign

The National Film Theatre (NFT) – renamed BFI Southbank after a major redevelopment in 2007 – was established in a temporary building on the Thames’s south bank in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. The Festival saw the bank between Waterloo Bridge and County Hall cleared and transformed for a number of new attractions created by leading British architects and designers. The success of the Festival prompted the LCC to redevelop the area from 1953, with new permanent homes created for the NFT, the Royal National Theatre and an expanded Southbank Centre. The National Film Theatre was designed by LCC architect Norman Engleback, who created some of London’s most distinctive post-war buildings, including the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery complex, which were constructed after the NFT was finished.

As part of his design for the NFT, Engleback included a distinctive Perspex and metal sign on the side of Waterloo Bridge. This was in place when the NFT opened in 1957, and lit up to display the NFT’s name animated with a colourful cascade effect. The original sign is believed to have been made by Strand Electric (now part of Philips). One of the metal work techniques used suggests the sign was made by Strand employee called Bill Hinton (tutor of the conservator from Newman Display, conservators examining the sign). It is a distinctive feature highly visible to the (approximately) 70,000 people who pass through the South Bank every day.

Before HOLT’s restoration, the sign was in a poor state of repair and no longer lit up. The fixtures were severely rusted and the Perspex sheet which it was set was warped and broken. Newman Display specialises in neon and LED lit displays at architecturally important London venues. Restoration included rubbing down, cutting out and replacing corroded patches and strengthening the frame, sanding down and re-painting the sign; white inside to help reflect the light and black on the exterior as the original, and repairing and replacing the coloured Perspex face panes. The original pane of the arrow was retained to ensure continuity in the colour and design, but the white Perspex in the lettering was replaced. A new clear Perspex backing, new internal wiring and reconnection to a fused power supply were all added. A new lighting control system replicates the sign's original cascade effect.

The restoration has returned the BFI sign to its former eye-catching and dynamic appearance, preserving this iconic 1950’s design and adding to the vibrancy of the bridge zone.

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