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 cinemasin 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
If you exclude actual buildings, I’d wager that there are few 1930’s structures in England more famous than the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. Even those with a mere cursory knowledge of the UK’s key tourist attractions will be familiar with it. Famous in period, thanks to its innovative construction and wondrous sweeping lines, it has been celebrated as an ‘art deco’ masterpiece ever since. Poirot has been there, Bekonscot model village has a miniature recreation of it, and now, at long last, amorous starry-eyed couples can get married there; it’s nothing short of iconic.
This pioneering slice of inter-war design, featuring two unsupported intersecting spiral-ramps, descending into an azure pool, was designed by Tecton, an influential architectural firm headed up by Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin. Unveiled in 1934, it was Tecton’s second structure in the Zoo, following the previous year’s Gorilla House. Their pioneering early use of reinforced concrete (concrete set over a metal framework) allowed the construction of curvaceous adventurous designs not previously achievable through traditional methods.
Both structures are now justifiably Grade I listed and admired globally, but what of the firms follow up projects? If the Penguin Pool represented Tecton’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, are you familiar with their “Sgt. Pepper”?
The success at London Zoo led to commissions for various projects, including, most notably, one from The Earl of Dudley, wishing to realise his dream of creating ‘The Most Up to Date Zoo in the World’. Built on a 40 acre site between ‘35 and ’37, and centred on the remains of Dudley’s C11th Castle, Tecton created thirteen innovative structures in a similar vein to those at London. This winning combination of exotic concrete experiments paired with exotic live animals proved a roaring success, with over 1 million visitors attending within the first 18 months. It is worth noting that in addition to the five key members of the Tecton Group, the celebrated structural engineer Ove Arup was also involved in the project (later famous for his work on Sydney Opera House).
Twelve of the original thirteen structures (now referred to simply as Tectons) survive, and somewhat ironically, it’s the penguin pool that is no more. Following the onslaught of forty years worth of corrosive salt water containment, it was condemned and demolished in 1979. The others all remain, seven with grade II listed status, and five granted the coveted grade II*. The site was collectively given World Monument Status in 2009, and a £1.15 million heritage lottery fund grant followed in 2011, allowing the zoo to begin restoration of the Tectons one-by-one, a process that continues presently.
My eldest daughter had been petitioning for a trip to a zoo for quite some time, so in January, on a bleak and near freezing morning, I obliged by treating the family to a maiden visit to DZG: Animals for the kids, Tectons for dad!
Most of the structures original purposes have changed over the years, and many of the walkways and steps have been cordoned off in the interest health & safety. Kiosks once used to serve refreshments, now act as unusual huts for informative displays, and generally, the Tectons remain more as monuments than functional buildings. Never the less, it is fascinating to get up close and personal with these impressive chunks of concrete. One has to keep reminding oneself that they are from the ‘30s, when this type of Brutalist construction is more typically associated with the flyovers and multi-story car parks of post-war redevelopments, some twenty to thirty years later.
In the winter, the place is virtually empty with most attractions closed for the down season. Great for unobstructed photos, less so for family enjoyment! Here follows a series of photographs from our adventure.
Spoiler alert, if you’re hoping to see exciting shots of the residents, please click away, as they were all sensibly hiding inside. This is purely about the architecture.
It’s unspeakably cold and bleak, but myself and my long suffering sweetheart have been granted a night away without our ‘charming’ offspring, so despite the weather, we’re determined to enjoy a mini-break. The destination of choice is Stratford upon Avon. No, we haven’t got tickets to a play, yes yes I know, because it was sold out. Never mind, it’s the Theatre itself I’ve come to see, and it’s certainly quite a place. A monstrous living-breathing red brick memorial to the bard, that has caused a fair bit of controversy ever since it’s construction in 1932. Despite some undeniable flaws in the original design and the unsympathetic nature of its scale in this historic riverside town, it has grown to be treasured within both the theatrical, and architectural communities. Admiring it from the frosty riverside gardens is one thing, but to understand what you’re looking at requires a look into the building’s, and its predecessor’s, past.
The first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built in 1879, perched in a picturesque setting on the banks of the Avon. Designed by Dodgshun & Unsworth, the building was said to be “a delightful and fantastic blend of Mediaevalism, combined with Elizabethan or ‘Old English’ elements”. Contemporary reports of both its appearance and practicality aren’t hugely favourable. But despite not being the faithful Globe recreation that some had hoped for, it was not entirely without merit, and was certainly unique. It would not survive though.
Despite the sensible addition of a water tower in the design, on the afternoon of Saturday March 6th 1926, fire would tear through the building, leaving only a shell, and the slightly later museum wing (attached by a wooden bridge seen in the above image) in its wake. The cause of its ignition is still unknown to this day, but threw up the question of how to replace such an important structure.
The following year a competition was set to design the new theatre. Of the 72 entries received, the winning design was by 29 year old Elizabeth Whitworth Scott. Scott, an early graduate of the Architectural Associations’ new London School was somewhat of a trail blazer. Female architects in this period were extremely rare, but then, Scott had an exceptional pedigree. Her great-uncle was George Gilbert Scott (a prolific gothic revival architect) and she was second cousin to Giles Gilbert Scott, who had a glittering CV including design of the iconic K2&3 red telephone boxes, Liverpool Cathedral, and the consultant architect duties for the construction of Battersea Power Station. Having such a talented and respected family behind her must have been a huge boost in confidence for Elizabeth, and no doubt helped her overcome some of the many gender related obstacles she must have faced. The Memorial Theatre was to become the first major public building to be designed by a woman, and Scott’s only theatre.
The winning design caused a huge amount of controversy in both the theatrical and architectural worlds, but was said to be the only genuinely modern submission in a sea of “Mock-Tudor and Post-Gothic horrors”. HRH the Prince of Wales cut the ribbon at the grand opening held on April 23rd 1932, Shakespeare’s birthday (he would have been 368). Sir Edward Elgar, who was due to be the new theatres musical director, was so furiously upset with that “awful female” and her “unspeakably ugly and wrong” design, that he wouldn’t even enter the premises and had nothing more to do with it. The Manchester Guardian’s review labelled the structure “startling, monstrous (and) brutal”, while others have been known to cite its similarities to industrial buildings of the period, and moan that its huge bulk is far too overpowering for the quaint site. In my humble eyes at least, this seems to be far too harsh a criticism, and simply shows the adverse reaction to the refreshing modernist approach of the period. Even Scott herself admitted that the design had “not intended to conceal the functionality of the building”. Gone were the fancy decorative adornments of the previous era, to be replaced by function in its bare form, which in itself, is surely a thing of beauty? Thankfully English Heritage also held it in high regard, and granted the theatre listed status in 1971 (its currently grade II*).
If externally Scott’s theatre was unduly criticised, perhaps complaints of its internal layout were more valid. The auditorium was of proscenium arch design, seating an audience of 1400 in three tiers (stalls, circle, and balcony). This sheer scale and relatively plain decor, created a lack of intimacy, rendering it extremely hard for the cast to ‘connect’ with the audience. Consistent complaints about the lack of audibility from the back rows, and comments such as “reciting from the stage was like addressing Calais from the white cliffs of Dover” led ultimately to an inevitable redesign.
In the mid-1980s, the remaining walls of the original 1879 theatre, which for six decades had been left as an empty shell following the fire, were used to house a new smaller theatre christened The Swan. The intimate auditorium, seating 450, was designed with a deep thrust stage and galleried viewing, essentially a slightly modernised take on an original Elizabethan theatre-in-the-round.
Proving to be a huge success with both cast and audience alike, this approach was to be adopted in the main theatre. After abandoning initial plans to completely replace Scott’s building, the RSC commissioned Bennetts Associates to re-imagine the complex, bringing all the facilities into the C21st. In 2007 work commenced on the three year project, with initial performances held from November 2010, and a grand opening by HRH the Queen & the Duke of Edinburgh in March 2011.
Externally, almost all of Scott’s design remains as intended, bar the odd bricked up window and loss of the riverside colonnade. The most prominent and decorative aspect being the North facing frontage and entrance, overlooking Bancroft Gardens. Its near symmetrical frontage is gently curved, with five bays separated by vertical angled brick fins. Double doorways in each are given shelter by one continuous stepped canopy clad in copper. Tall windows above this illuminate the bar area and sit directly below some marvellous brick relief sculptures (by Eric Kennington RA – an English sculptor, illustrator and official war artist) depicting Treachery, Jollity, Life Triumphing over Death, Martial Ardour and Love. To the left is the polygonal tower, with brick bond windows inset at irregular intervals. What was originally an open rooftop terrace above the entrance is now glazed and covered, home to the RSC rooftop restaurant (in which we had a delightful candlelit evening meal… I digress).
To the right of the original frontage is the most prominent addition of the C21st revamp. A glass fronted welcome centre and gift shop (which also acts as a connecting corridor to The Swan) adjoins ‘The Tower’ – a 36 meter red brick monolith rising up into the grey Warwickshire sky. Square, with chamfered corners housing continuous glazing and multiple globe lanterns. On top, a glass observation booth with overhanging zinc clad awning. While I’m a natural sceptic when it comes to ‘blending’ different eras of architecture, the tower is undoubtedly a resounding success. It acts not only a distinctive landmark in the town, guiding lost tourists to the playhouse threshold, but creates a focal point, adding drama to the substantial mass of the complex.
The riverside terrace is a continuation of Scott’s frontage. Five smaller bays, with tall windows (tea room & bar) lead to two double doors with marvellous streamline canopies. Beyond this another significant modern addition in the form of improved dressing room facilities. Riverside balconies from the red brick block are encased by a grey steel exoskeleton, and finishing with what I can only describe as a unit resembling two ‘zinc clad shipping containers’.
The South face is made up of the aforementioned Swan Theatre, a feast of Victorian era nostalgia, that is no doubt cited as many to be the ‘prettiest’ wing of the complex.
The new primary entrance is via the gift shop and box office. Turn left into the main building and you find yourself circling the huge brick silo housing the new performance space on wonderfully patinated oak floorboards, reclaimed from the original stage. The original back wall of the auditorium remains, with parts of the old render giving clues as to its previous layout.
Continue round and you’ll encounter Scott’s foyer, bar and stairway, all remaining virtually untouched. A wonderful Jazz-Age cocktail of chrome, marble, brick, and rich dark veneers greet and delight the eye upon entering. The ticket booths, an unusual amalgamation of the machine age meets medieval armament, are available for all to goof at and pose through. Pass under the giant integral ‘1932’ clock, through the giant chrome doorway and you are greeted with the green marble spiral staircase. Tactile geometric slabs to the centre, and a smooth chrome banister to the outer.. reminiscent of Oz’s Emerald City. The original 30’s features continue on the first floor in a similar vein, beautifully preserved and oozing with charisma.
The new, smaller performance space has a reduced capacity of 1040, with the desired effect of creating the intimacy that its predecessor never possessed. Members of the front row sit with their noses mere inches from the edge of the stage, with two gantries, allowing cast to enter from three separate locations. Behind the internal rear walls, the circular auditorium corridors transform once the performance beings, curtains drawn to reveal hidden dressing rooms and storage space in one orbital back stage area.
There is so much more to be said about this wonderful iconic theatre, its past present and future, its vital role within the local economy, and the unique international allure it holds for tourists. Hopefully at some point the RSC will publish a full blown hard back history of the theatre, packed with lots of juicy archive photographs and first hand accounts. In the mean time, I highly recommend a visit, we’re already planning a return trip.. and next time, we’ll be sure to get tickets for a performance.
Community run projects staffed by volunteers seem to be becoming more and more common. Trust owned public houses, post offices, village shops and rural shuttle buses all appear to be on the rise as it becomes less financially viable to run them for profit. My dear old mother donates large chunks of her time to a little shop, set up when the village post office and convenience store closed its doors a few years back. It’s truly commendable, and I take my hat off to those willing to spend half a day or more sat behind the till on the off chance Mrs Kendle from Ivy Cottage unexpectedly runs out of Sheba. I’m not sure when I retire I’d be quite so keen to while away the hours in this fashion, but what if the community project wasn’t a little village shop? What if perhaps it involved re-commissioning and running a 1930’s cinema? I like to think I’d be first in the queue to help, and thankfully I’m not alone, as that’s exactly what the good folk in Tenbury Wells have been doing.
On July 29th 1937 this riverside town would see the opening of a brand new cinema; The Regal. Operated by local firm ‘The Craven Cinema Group’, who owned two other picture houses and managed a further three, Tenbury Regal was a costly project for the small company. Rather than purpose build a new venue, Craven chose to commission established theatre designer Ernest S. Roberts to convert an existing Victorian structure. Positioned in the centre of the town, the building originally housed a couple of shops with living accommodation upstairs. Alterations were made to the houses to create the projection room and foyer, while the 300 seat auditorium was built on land directly behind.
While it may be more common, not all cinemas built in this period had auditoriums decorated with modernist geometric designs and heavy plaster reliefs. Some, particularly smaller ones like The Regal used murals to enhance the escapism of a night at the flicks. Scenic artist George Legge of Bryan’s Adamanta was responsible for several cinema interiors across the Midlands, and Craven chose him for their trio of picture houses. The rear and side walls of the auditorium show Italian rural scenes with lakes, flowers, trees and mountains in the distance. Traditional buildings sprout up, the ventilation system neatly disguised in their arched windows. The odd monkey can even be seen perched on the dado that ascends the space in three horizontal waves.
The Regal CInema (1937), Tenbury Wells
Craven Group ran Tenbury Wells Regal until 1966 when it simultaneously closed it along with their Craven Arms cinema (below). The latter would become derelict 5 years later and be demolished in 1977. Following unsuccessful attempts to revive Tenbury’s Regal, it was put up for sale in 1970. On the brink of demolition Tenbury Town Council stepped in and bought the stricken building for £12,500 and adapted it to meet the needs of the community. The stage was extended to allow for theatrical performance, and a community centre with kitchen and toilet was built behind. For the next 30 or so years various groups used the two spaces to meet their needs, while film enthusiasts still continued to show movies in the main cinema.
Craven Arms Regal prior to demolition
Interior also by George Legge
Situated between two rivers, Tenbury is prone to the odd flood during heavy rainfall, but in 2007 the town (like much of the county) experienced catastrophic flooding and the Regal found itself partly underwater. The ingress was so bad that it completely covered some of the lower seats in the auditorium and caused serious damage to the flooring and walls. Rather than try to simply make good the damaged areas for a quick return to use, it was decided that the rather tired old cinema needed a complete restoration.
The funding, which came from a number of sources including a substantial Heritage Lottery Grant took four years to put in place before work began. This included completely restoring the mural, terrazzo flooring, artex wall coverings and reinstating the iconic neon signage outside. Vital structural works were carried out while a new roof was fitted to the auditorium.
Up until this point the cinema was still under council management, but ultimately limited resources resulted in the venue being closed more often than open. To coincide with the post refurbishment grand opening in 2012 The Regal Trust was founded. A not for profit organisation run entirely by volunteers aiming to bring the cinema back into regular use. The Regal is now open daily, with films or live events every evening with community and private use during the day.
I recently visited to take some photos for my Streamline Worcestershire project and was instantly won over by this charming little cinema. In addition to the wonderful auditorium, the foyer is an Art Deco delight, with its original curved glass paybox and gold banding spanning the space. Original light fittings, doors, illuminated signage, balustrades and poster frames are all present and correct, just as they were 80 years ago.
The delightfully friendly lady in the booking office also pointed out their free museum upstairs. Full of old film reels, interactive displays, artefacts and framed prints it’s a wonderful addition to the venue. In a small back room you can see the old 35mm ‘Peerless’ projector on display (it’s now all digital) and there’s even a wall of fame for all the projectionists who have served since it opened.
With a mixture of live and celluloid events, many of which I’m told are sell outs, it looks like this little 1937 venue is going to be the beating heart of the town for many years to come. Well done Tenbury Wells, you’re doing both the community and us Art Deco obsessives proud, I salute you!
A huge thanks to Ian and the trust for giving their permission to photograph the building and for being so accommodating. For further information please visit their website www.regaltenbury.co.uk
Nestled in a fairly nondescript area on the north-westerly drag out of Worcester sits one of the most iconic 1930s buildings in the city: a towering symmetrical red brick monster called Northwick.
Appearing from virtually out of nowhere, it can catch the unsuspecting motorist by surprise, surrounded by a patchwork of different period houses and business’s, one couldn’t say it blends in with its environment. A huge neon lit fin soars into the sky flanked either side by robust angular wings. It’s almost fortress-like appearance is enhanced by narrow outer windows running virtually the full height of the upper storeys (looking more like arrow slits than anything designed to let light in). Below this there is a more traditional 1930s curved canopy with long wide steps leading up to a row of double doors.
Northwick (1938), Worcester
Designed by Charles Edmund Wilford to be used as a theatre, it was quickly converted into a huge 1109 seat cinema. Run by an independent operator that also ran the Scala cinema in town, it opened its doors on 28th November 1938.
As with many cinemas of this era, the increasing popularity of television in the 50s & 60s meant it struggled to continue attracting sustainable numbers to the box office. On September 10th 1966 Northwick closed its doors as a cinema, screening Dean Martin in ‘The Silencers’and Audie Murphy in ‘Arizona Raiders’ on its final day. By the end of the month it had reopened as a bingo hall, changing hands several times until finally shutting again in 1982.
Concerned for its future, in January 1984 Historic England gave Northwick grade II listed status. The building then stood empty for almost 10 years until it was resurrected, opening in June 1991 as a venue for live entertainment and the occasional film on a temporary screen. This only lasted until 1996 when once again it was boarded up.
In August 2003 a planning was made to demolish the building and construct flats on the site, but these were objected to by the Cinema Theatre Association and were thankfully rejected by the local council.
Its current owners, David and Helen Gray purchased Northwick in 2004 and extensive restoration works began to return the building to its original glory. After 18 months of collaboration with local and national heritage conservation departments, Northwick reopened as Grays of Worcester, a high end interior furnishings showroom.
While you can’t help but be impressed by the exterior, it does nothing to prepare you for what awaits inside. As you stand at the back of the auditorium you are greeted with the last remaining complete work of interior designer John Alexander. Moulded from fibrous plaster, either side of the proscenium arch are trios of over-life-size mythical figures ascending a golden staircase. They point skyward while surrounded by a feast of scrolls and curls, all up-lit from the treads. Standing below them one feels almost intimidated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the odd visiting child has been concerned by their presence over the years!
Looking up further, the ceiling still features all the original light fittings surrounded by yet more decorative plaster work, painted scroll borders and intricate golden air vents. Exploring around you’ll find original signs for the toilets and stalls, correct doors and handles along with the odd glimpse of period Art Deco carpet.
Wilford designed 10 theatres in England, as of 2016 only 4 including Northwick survive. Cineworld in Chelsea is the only one still operating as a cinema, The Regal in Bridlington is a Gala bingo and the Century cinema in South East London is reportedly derelict and vacant. These facts alone make it a privilege to be able to visit Northwick in 2016 at all, but what’s more astounding is that it’s managed to survive virtually unmolested these last 78 years.
Last month our annual family holiday led us to the Gironde region of France, specifically the windswept Atlantic west coast just North of Bordeaux. It’s a well known haunt for surfers, but also has endless sandy beaches, and thus was the perfect location to crack on with some serious sandcastle construction. Thankfully we were able to slot some exploring into our beach packed itinerary. So it twas on the third day we hopped into our woefully under-powered Fiat 500L hire car and set out in search of some vines. I’m involved with wines as part of my day job, so I was eager to see first hand the infamous rolling hills of the Medoc region and as always, keep an eye out for any interesting pieces of architecture.
The first thing that struck me as we headed through various small rural settlements enroute to the grape growing areas was the water towers. Huge imposing concrete beasts that dominate the otherwise quaint towns and villages. Each one seemed to have a slightly different design to the next, with some more impressive than others. One would assume they’re of mid-twentieth century origin going by the overall brutaslist appearance. I’m sure they were a godsend, providing running water to dwellings and irrigation to the vines, but I couldn’t help but think of H. G. Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ when staring up at their menacing form. Unfortunately, being the designated driver meant I was only able to photograph this one, a fine (but not outstanding) example in Hourtin.
As we drove further into the heart of Haut Medoc I was expecting a feast of picturesque chateau’s with long alluring tree lined driveways, and it didn’t disappoint. What I wasn’t expecting, plonked right in the middle of the region, was this….
Apparently empty for some years this delightful piece of inter-war architecture looks to have been used by a now defunct co-operative called Cave de Vertheuil. The facade is reminiscent of an art deco cinema or garage and one wonders what the locals must have thought of it when it was first built. It appeared to be structurally sound, but not in use? It’s such a crying shame when buildings like this are abandoned and left to fend for themselves. If I were the entrepreneurial type with bags of cash I’d be tempted to buy it and convert it into a swinging jazz age restaurant and wine bar. A beacon of sophisticated 20c modernity in a predominantly rural area. With the existing strong tourist industry there surely must be a market for such a place? Or maybe it’s just me?
We also saw a lizard lounging in the sun on some steps. So that was good too!
Some post holiday research has revealed further examples of this type of architecture being used by co-ops in the area, and has also unearthed this photo of the building in period before later extensions were added to both sides.