The 1920’s and 1930’s were the heyday of the cinema and Art Deco cinemas were built in cities and towns across the county. Many of these have been demolished or their interiors ripped out when they were converted into multiplexes or bingo halls. This week the planning committee in Kensington and Chelsea in London rejected proposals which would have meant the loss of one the largest surviving cinemas in London, the 1300-seat Odeon in Kensington High Street, London. The developers have a formidable cast of campaigners protesting against their proposals to demolish this 88 year-old cinema, with many figures from the world of film and TV including the late Michael Winner, who was a frequent visitor when he was alive, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Curtis, Sir John Hurt, Colin Baker, Dave Prowse and Derek Fowlds. In 2012 the car used in Tim Burton’s Batman movies turned up to highlight the protests, with a march led by film-maker Paul Wiffen. This cinema is the “local” for Kensington Palace and members of the Royal family enjoy watching films there with Prince and Princess Michael of Kent also giving support to the campaign..
The developers proposed redeveloping the cinema and adjoining buildings into a residential and cultural complex. Although the distinctive cinema façade would have been retained, the cinema would have been lost and replaced with smaller screens in the basement and the logic of the entrance would have been compromised, with the existing cinema entrance becoming that of the residential flats.
Caroline McLean, who leads the Save the Kensington Odeon campaign, said: “I hope that they will go back to the drawing board and come back with a scheme that gives us the cinema we deserve, with the facade for all, and the affordable housing we need.”
There have been successes elsewhere. In St Albans, Hertfordshire, the former Odeon Cinema, described as ‘one of Britain’s most stunning art deco cinemas’ and which had been derelict for 19 years, reopened in December. £1m had been raised in three months in 2010 by local people to allow a consortium led by James Hannaway to buy the building, followed by a £2 million refurbishment with funding achieved through shares, advance booking membership, sponsoring seats, donations or small loans. James Hannaway had previously restored and re-opened the Art Deco Regal cinema in Melton Mowbray.
The St Albans cinema, which had been converted to a four-screen multiplex and was in poor condition due to roof leaks and 19 years of disuse, has now been restored as a 500 seat cinema, with bars, foyer, and ancillary facilities. It is reported that hundred of people queued for tickets for the opening events.
In Warrington in northwest England, another former Art Deco cinema was saved from demolition in October with a £3m funding package from Warrington Borough Council to convert it into “one of the UK’s largest youth clubs”. A further £1.5m of support is being been provided by local businesses towards future running costs.
A spokesman for the Pervaiz Naviede Family Trust, who owned the cinema, said: “We’d always maintained that the original decision to clear the site was a last resort as we understood how the building held many happy memories for the people of Warrington”.
Each of these projects recognises the role that these cinemas played – and can still play – within cities and towns and that their loss is not just the loss of a building; it is the loss of a much-loved part of the community. They have the potential be retained and restored either for their original use or new community facilities. The story of the Odeon in Kensington High Street has still some way to go. Imagination is needed – the building is opposite the former Commonwealth Institute, which will soon re-open as the new home for the Design Museum. This will bring new visitors and change the dynamics of the area – what potential does that provide?