Amongst the wealth of ground-breaking architecture that saw construction across these isles during the 1930s, the cinema must surely be considered to have had the greatest impact. No other type of building could have managed to get away with imposing such outlandish, extravagant and radical exteriors on the average British high street. Whether it was the appeal of the escapism they offered, the allure of the gorgeous charismatic stars projected on the screen, or the fashionable kudos these places bestowed on the locality, they won over both town planners and punters a-like, springing up in their 100s throughout the decade.
Of all the operators, and there were many, ODEON is undoubtedly the chain whose legacy is most enviable. A chain that not only managed to tick all the technical boxes required for a great cinema, but whose founder commissioned some of the most unbelievably modern, daring, and unusual structures ever seen in this country.
The first ODEON opened in 1930 in the Perry Barr area of Birmingham. Designed by Stanley A. Griffiths & Horace G. Bradley, it had a fashionable bright white exterior in a Moorish style, with an elaborate slightly unorthodox interior. Further openings in subsequent years, showed no obvious house style, and arguably little genuine flair, until construction of South Harrow in 1933.
This bold multipurpose block clad in buff faience tiles, featured integrated retail units and a recessed front wall, up-lit from the entrance canopy. It perhaps doesn’t look that spectacular in light of later designs, but South Harrow set a new benchmark in British cinema design, and paved the way for the ODEON chain’s modern house style.
Despite this early promise, it would take the appointment of the Birmingham based Harry Weedon Partnership in 1934 to achieve a more consistent approach to the design of the rapidly expanding circuit. For the remainder of the decade, all designs would go through Weedon in one form or another, ultimately yielding a whole estate of masterpieces.
I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the brand of late, and decided to investigate and catalogue a few statistics covering what was built, and what remains in 2017. Below follows a summary of the findings.
Between 1930 & 1939, ODEON opened 258 cinemas (a few early ones didn’t bear the brand name at first, but later adopted it). Of these, 140 were new, purpose built venues, whilst the others consisted of older cinemas and theatres, benefitting from a revamp. From the 140, 83 have been demolished, and a further 7 only have elements remaining; façade, foyer or adjoining café still present, whilst the rest is lost.
That leaves 50 surviving buildings, only 19 of which are still open as cinemas in one capacity or another, the remainder being used as bingo halls, churches, nightclubs, conference centres and retail outlets. It’s also worth noting a further 4 were built, but not opened until after the war (2 survive, 1 as a cinema).
So where are these miraculous survivors I hear you ask? Cue the Led Zeppelin sound bed, here’s the countdown in chronological order, complete with grainy period shots, of all those still functioning as cinemas (images copyright Historic England, but via the excellent Cinema Treasures website).…
Use them or lose them folks. Support your local original ODEON cinemas (not all are still run by the chain, but all still show films) while you can. Even if the movie is naff, you can sit back and soak up the history!
The statistics used in this post were compiled using a combination of information from Allen Eyles excellent book ‘Odeon Cinemas 1: Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’, the Cinema Treasures website, and Google.
If you appreciate this era of architecture (and live in or are familiar with Worcestershire & the West Midlands), you might well enjoy my new book ‘Streamline Worcestershire’. More information at www.streamlineworcestershire.com