The Curse of Clerk Street: What next for the Odeon?

Gordon Barr 15 April, 2010 9
The Curse of Clerk Street: What next for the Odeon?

With a cast of characters including councillors, architects, public bodies and an ex-James Bond, Gordon Barr and Gary Painter discovered that the plot surrounding the closure of Edinburgh’s former Odeon cinema remains as complicated as anything which once graced its screens.

It was a move once considered inconceivable when, in 2003, Odeon announced that their former flagship cinemas in Glasgow’s Renfield Street and Edinburgh’s Clerk Street had been sold.

Even though it had been a long time coming – by the time Odeon started building multiplex cinemas in Scotland, starting with Glasgow’s Quay complex in 1997, only a handful of the company’s older cinemas remained, all having been subdivided into multi-screen complexes, with varying degrees of architectural sensitivity – it still came as a shock to film fans around the globe.

Prior to closure as a cinema, the news of the impending final curtain at this site was enough to prod a myriad of Edinburgh celebrities into action, including actors Sean Connery and Ewen Bremner. Even now an online petition exists to try to resurrect the building to its former glory.

So where did it all go wrong?

From B-movies to B-listed

By the time World War II broke out, the name Odeon had become almost a generic term for a cinema, many of Scotland’s towns and cities featuring an Odeon as a prominent feature in the streetscape.

The Odeon cinema in Edinburgh’s Clerk Street was actually erected in 1930 for the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (PCT) chain, although they had been taken over by Gaumont Cinemas by the time the cinema opened. Their house architect, WE Trent, supervised the design, with Edinburgh-based architect John Jerdan overseeing the work locally.

The original name for the cinema was the New Victoria, with the Odeon name not being adopted until the mid-1960s. The auditorium seated just over 2,000, and was unusual in adopting a semi-atmospheric design, which emulated sitting outside in front of a Grecian temple, with a pedimented proscenium arch.

Odeon interior 1982

The Odeon interior in 1982, courtesy Alistair Kerr

Sadly, the growth of television and other entertainments meant that, from the 1960s onwards, Odeon, in common with other cinema companies, started to reduce their estates, and the least profitable cinemas succumbed to other uses such as bingo and nightclubs, and most have now been long demolished.

The Odeon was B-listed in 1974, eight years before it was first subdivided. As a result, work done to split the auditorium was relatively sympathetic and reversible, and the original two screens inserted under the shallow balcony were later supplemented by a further two screens in the former stage area “ the building having been fully equipped with extensive stage and fly-tower facilities from new.

Changing priorities

By 2003, the Odeon chain was owned by a succession of venture capitalist groups, and newer city centre multiplexes had considerably affected the profits of the traditional older sites.

Since venture capitalists exist to extract as much money from their investments as possible, even those older properties which were still turning a moderate profit, both the Renfield Street and South Clerk Street buildings fell victim to the fact that they were situated on long since paid-for pieces of prime city centre freehold real estate.

Only a few months after announcing the potential sale of both the Edinburgh and Glasgow Odeons, both of them were sold to Edinburgh-based developers Duddingston House Properties (DHP). Edinburgh’s cinema was first to close, in August 2003, to take advantage of a new Odeon miniplex in Lothian Road, to which staff could transfer.

Pick n Mix

The pick 'n' mix stand on closing night, courtesy Graham Hughes

The Glasgow cinema soldiered on for almost three years after being sold, finally closing in January 2006.

Vocal opposition in the Scottish press wasn’t enough to save the cinema, but the saviour of the auditorium in 2005 came when DHP withdrew the application for student flats after realising that the application did not sufficiently demonstrate that all alternative uses had been sought.

A succession of marketing exercises ensued, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to procure a late licence for live music use. DHP then invited architects to submit competition entries to come up with a solution, but sadly these all involved the loss of the auditorium too. The one chosen, by the MAKE studio, was for the removal of the auditorium interior, to be replaced by a hotel and courtyard complex within the original walls. This was to be known as the ZED concept.

In the meantime, it had become apparent to architectural experts and Historic Scotland that, thanks to nationwide losses of other UK cinemas through demolition and insensitive alterations, the building was now much rarer than it was when it was B-listed over 30 years ago. Taking into consideration the reversible nature of the alterations at Clerk Street, it was now a candidate for upgrading to Category A-listed status.

This process was well underway when, in January 2008, the application for the ZED arts hotel was submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council by DHP, invoking Historic Scotland’s policy of freezing any new or upgraded listing decisions where a live planning application is present.

Nonetheless, both Historic Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council have confirmed that, were it not for the planning application, the building would now be Category A-listed, meaning the building should be considered to be of international importance.

The curse continues

Despite a much more thorough approach than had previously been submitted, the new planning application was still badly flawed in several ways. As an example, there were several interested parties who had repeatedly tried to buy or lease the building to use it in either its current or a restored form, but who found the marketing process to be vague and frustrating, with constantly moving goalposts.

As part of the application, DHP had commissioned a conservation report by Simpson & Brown, but it was drawn up after the ZED plans were made, and seemed not to inform them in any way whatsoever. Indeed, the part of the building which the report concluded to be the most important was the part which required demolishing to realise the ZED concept.

Auditorium rear

Then and Now inside the main auditorium

The application took many months to be considered, and was finally put in front of Edinburgh’s planning committee in October 2008. To aid their decision, planning officials had commissioned an independent report which was mysteriously deemed so sensitive that even the councillors on the planning committee were not allowed sight of it before voting on the matter.

Officials were simply informed that the report concluded that there was no financially viable future for the building with a retained auditorium. The decision was passed, albeit on a rare 6-4 split vote narrowly in favour.

The matter was now in Historic Scotland’s hands for listed building consent, which is often a mere formality “ once again, however, the curse of Clerk Street ensured that this was not the case.

A strong local campaign had begun to gather momentum after the planning committee’s decision, and over 5,000 signatures were gathered in an online petition.

A Freedom of Information request finally wrestled the confidential report from the council’s hands and found that it had been compiled solely on evidence supplied by DHP and the council, and absolutely no contact had been made with the various other parties who had tried to buy or lease the building “ a limitation placed on it by the terms under which the council commissioned it.

In light of the growing public clamour for the decision to go to a Public Inquiry, Historic Scotland then commissioned their own independent report, which rather threw a spanner in the works by coming to entirely the opposite conclusion to the council’s report!

In summary, the Historic Scotland report stated:

It is clear the significance of the building is not in doubt and we consider that it is, indeed, of national or international importance, fundamentally on the basis of the uniqueness of the main auditorium. The present condition of the building is fair and as a result, this is not seen as a barrier to its disposal or letting. We are of the opinion that demolition is not the minimum necessary to retain the building. Indeed, we do not believe the demolition of the auditorium is justified.

In light of such contrasting claims, it was perhaps not so surprising when Historic Scotland announced in June 2009 that the decision was being called in by Scottish Ministers for review.

Odeon modern exterior

The Odeon today

This review took the form of a written inquiry by an Independent Planning Reporter, who compiled a report after reviewing the mass of documentation, and visiting the building in the company of both the owners, and other interested parties. This report and its recommendation was passed to the Scottish Ministers in November 2009.

Normally, following such an inquiry, Ministers will issue their decision (which may or may not be the same as the Reporter’s recommendation) within around two months.

For reasons that have been put down the complex nature of the case, as of mid-April 2010, no decision has yet been issued. The content of the report remains confidential until the Minister issues their decision.

This entire process has been going on for a depressingly long time. The most frustrating thing has been that the building has been sitting empty and decaying in the meantime, despite the best efforts of a number of organisations to purchase, or lease the building for use in its current form, with no need for the damaging and irreversible demolition of the unique auditorium planned by its owner.

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the closure of Edinburgh’s former Odeon cinema, it seems the end of this particular story has yet to be written.

Images courtesy Stuart Kelly (top) and ScottishCinemas.org, unless otherwise stated. Visit ScottishCinemas.org for more photos taken behind-the-scenes of the South Clerk Street Odeon.

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What are your memories of the Odeon Clerk St? Does it deserve to remain closed or has its time passed? Have your say below.