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.

Add your name to the Help Save the Odeon online petition and Facebook group.

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

  • chris scott

    Gosh! Things have progressed somewhat since i last looked into this farce. Disappointing to see it’s still not getting anywhere though :(

  • Jonathan Melville

    Where to start with Odeon memories? Firstly it’s hard to forget how impressive the place was in its day. Before we had Fountainpark or any Omni’s, the Odeon was my first choice of cinema and I spent many a happy hour there. It was an impressive place to visit and there’s not much in the city now to compare to the size of the screen and auditorium.

    My earliest memory is probably going to watch Return of the Jedi with my cousin in 1983 – I was only seven and those were the days when queuing around the block to see a film meant just that.

    Over the years those visits racked up, but standout moments include going to see Die Hard with a Vengeance in 1995 only to discover the screening clashed with a celebration of Sir Sean Connery’s birthday, complete with red carpet. Sean wasn’t there himself, but his brother took his place. That was also the year I went to watch Braveheart on a cold Sunday afternoon, after the buzz had died down and there was hardly anyone in the place.

    I also remember taking a half day from work to attend the Entrapment premiere in 1999. The arrival of Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones in the city was big news and, armed with my trusty disposable camera, I stood on a closed South Clerk Street with the crowds to see Big Tam come home. Upstairs from the cinema, some students held a portable CD player and kept playing the James Bond theme everytime a limo pulled up.

    Sadly, for the most part it was celebrities such as Aly McCoist who turned up first, each one getting the Bond treatment as the car door opened, only for the music to stop when it was revealed who they were. Finally Sean did arrive – much to the delight of those students – and spent time shaking hands with his fans. After vanishing inside it was Catherine Zeta Jones and Michae Douglas’ turn to arrive. They gave a cursory glance and a wave to the crowd and vanished inside, only to have Sir Sean appear moments later, having grabbed Zeta Jones by the hand, to wave to the assembled throng once again. Good man.

    Unless the memory cheats I also won a ticket to a preview of Die Another Day at the cinema, though that’s maybe not worth boasting about.

    So it’s sad to see the place lying empty now, sad that a generation of kids will miss out on the experience of spending a Saturday morning at that grand old cinema. Here’s hoping someone sees sense and takes some time, money and effort to reopen the Odeon sometime soon.

  • http://www.reelscotland.com Richard Bodsworth

    I too remember waiting hours to see the beautiful derriere of Zeta Jones. Am I wrong in thinking Velvet Goldmine premiered there too?

  • Tony Makos

    I only moved to Edinburgh in 97, so don’t have any childhood stories about the place, but I do fondly remember a number of EIFF Galas there, including the Velvet Goldmine and Thomas Crown Affair premieres (complete with requisite stars).

    Also, on a guiltier note, it’s where I saw The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones on the morning they were released ;) In fact, I went back in to see TPM again the same night. It was inconceivable that you would go and see such an “important” film anywhere else in Edinburgh.

    Oh, and I saw Almost Famous in Screen 2 with the sound up far too loud. It seemed so appropriate that absolutely no one complained.

  • Ross Maclean

    As trite as it sounds my earliest cinema-going memory is at that cinema. I remember going to see a re-release of The Fox And The Hound when I was 5 or 6 and vividly remember queuing up in the rain outside beforehand.

    Just writing this now I’m remembering all the time spent in the carpeted ‘holding-pen’ foyer area up the stairs, before you reached the screens themselves. It was usually littered with a liberal dusting of popcorn.

    I have to admit I stopped going when multiplexes opened closer-by. Architecture was no match for the convenience of not having to travel to the opposite side of town for a cinema jaunt. I think my last visit there must have been shortly before it closed to see Pirates Of The Caribbean in the summer of 2003. It was only due to its proximity to a post-work watering hole that I chose to see it there.

    After it closed it was put to relatively good use in the summer of 2004 when it was used the Pod Deco venue at the Fringe. I saw a few shows there, including Richard Herring, and it was a pretty solid venue.

    Hypocritically it may not be a cinema I’m ever likely to visit very often but I would like to see it as a cinema once again, no longer a pale shadow of its former glory.

  • http://home.freeuk.net/alistairkerr/index.htm Alistair Kerr

    Gosh, I must be as old as Methuselah (well, 63!). I can vividly remember goint to the New Vic (later Odeon) to see many epics in the 1960′s and 1970′s. The one I recall with most affection was “Cleopatra”. Richard, my school pal, and I were great fans of the film, and went a few times to see it there; as well as having copies of the poster, heralds, etc. We even went as far as painting a wall of my bedroom with a reproduction of the poster on the bare plaster, before it was re-decorated (wonder if that’s still there?)

    But the cinema, as well as the films, impressed. I also went just before it closed as a single-screen cinema, and spent a morning taking photos and wandering round the vast space.

    I’m sure most Edinburgh folk will have fond memories of that majestic auditorium, with its plaster statues in the alcoves, and the “private” boxes at the rear of the stalls.

  • http://Facebook John Clark

    I remember when I was small living in Rankiellor Street just oposite the “New Vic” ( Odeon ) and going to the Saturday club every morning. Also “The Sound of Music” played in there for over 9 months, and it’s there I saw the movie over 60 times! All the main movies showed at the Odean first before going to either the Playhouse or the La Scala.
    As the cinema audiences are increasing all the time, it would be great for one of the big cinema chains to buy this building and return it to it’s former glory.

  • Neil McEwan

    The Odeon wasn’t the first place I saw film in Edinburgh but it became, alongside the ABC (now of course the Odeon) in Lothian Rd, the place where my love affair with cinema began.

    Unlike any other cinema you could tell when a film was about to start not by the house lights dimming but by the going out of the stars in the ceiling which was usually followed by the cheering, whistling and stamping of small feet.

    It’s from the Odeon that I exited out into Clerk Street blinking in the sun and battled my way down the bridges with my lightsaber after seeing the original Star Wars trilogy. It was from the Odeon that I flew after seeing Christopher Reeve battle Gene Hackman in Superman and its where I first fired my Walther PPK after seeing Roger Moore as Bond.

    I’ve seen the best of films and the worst of films there but it never once failed to feel like a dream palace and a place of escape from the humdrum world around me.

    The solution to its current state seems obvious – perhaps too obvious – and that is to encourage the Filmhouse to move it’s operation over to the venue after all the Odeon was created for the sole purpose of showing films whereas the FH has had to uncomfortably squeeze itself for 32 years into what is after all an old Unitarian church.

    So lets lets save one local institution by pushing for another – the centre for the most interesting films and film related events in town – to work out of a truely suitable venue.

  • Andy Simmonds

    Would not it just be wonderful if the building could be fully restored to it’s original state, that including the removal of the modifications for 70mm that reasoned the need for all that hideous curtain and pelmet which covered over the original proscenium. Hopefully our devolved parliment and all the good politicians who debate there will lend a hand to make this happen, sooner rather than later.
    If it does re-open as a cinema/theatre then give it back it’s original name also ‘New Victoria’ not Odeon who closed, sold and abandoned it.