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Why it's too late to save the Paramount / Odeon Cinema Manchester

Article by Michael Savage
On the 15th Feb Manchester City Council will sit down and decide the fate of the Odeon Cinema on Oxford Street. We already know that the head of planning recommends that the cinema is demolished and a new office block is constructed in it's place, so will the outcome of this meeting surprise us? Can the cinema be saved? Is it worth saving? Is the new office block a suitable replacement? In this article I set out my own thoughts.

Is the Manchester Odeon a significant building?

Yes. Although not the first theatre opened in this country by Paramount, it was the first to bear the studio's name. The first of fifty planned cinemas by the newly formed Paramount Publix chain, the company fell victim to the depression and over-expansion, and so only a further six Paramounts would be built.

To be honest, the example inManchester is the least impressive of them, space was already at a premium when the cinema came to be built and there were no colossal frontages, foyers and stairways that were such a hallmark of the examples in Newcastle or Leeds - there just wasn't room.

Nevertheless the building did encapsulate the class and style associated with Paramount, with a lavish interior with a huge seating capacity.

Odeon took the Paramount over in 1939 (it was often cheaper to buy cinemas than to build them) multiplexed the interior in 1973, 1979 and 1992 and closed it in 2004 when they merged with UCI who controlled the Filmworks nearby.

Can the building be saved?

The only organisation that has any real legal clout to stop the demolition of an old building is English Heritage, who could list it.

Recent requests have been made to EH to make an urgent spot-list for the Odeon, but are unlikely to be successful.

EH inspected the building shortly after it closed and did not consider it suitable for listing, citing too much internal alteration.

I don't know how thorough their inspection was but that is their decision and we must abide by it.

Manchester City Council did consult EH when the plans for the new offices came in, but they declined to get involved. However they do say they do not object to the demolition of the Odeon, and they also approve of the planned replacement.

That to me does not sound like an organisation that will be in a hurry to spotlist the building anytime soon, irrespective of what new evidence is put in front of them. If the leading authority on old buildings do not see a reason for preserving it, why should the council?

Although the frontage of the building is much as it was, the real argument seems to be how much of the original interior survives, and as far as I can tell not much, if anything.

The former Paramounts at Newcastle and Leeds were multiplexed first, and here the work was well done, with attempts to blend the architecture of the old building in with the new screens. There were no such favours when it came to redevelop the cinema in Manchester, eye-witnesses and photographs attest that the cost-cutting conversion was brutally done, with scant regard for the original interior.

It should also be noted that Rank had already 'modernised' the interior prior to the conversion, including the ripping out the beautiful silk Commedia Dell'arte tapestries by Vincent Mondo, which were such a feature of the side walls.The end result was a spartan and unlovely auditorium and putting all this right would be a major reconstruction job costing millions.

If the building was saved, what could it be used for?

Ah, now there's a real problem. Any building that sits on such a prime city centre site will have to earn its keep.

The Odeon was built as a cinema/theatre, so that would be the most likely re-use. Unfortunately Odeon thought of that and slapped a covenant on the building before leaving, prohibiting any such use in the future.

Adapting old cinemas for alternative uses is notoriously difficult, any future use for the Odeon would have to address the problems of the subdivision, its restoration and finding a viable, self-sustaining new use - and I can't think of one.

Reading through the objections received by Manchester City Council regarding the fate of the Odeon, no one else could come up with one either. This is the main reason why so many campaigns to preserve derelict cinemas have failed, the lack of a viable plan for their future.

They might be beautiful buildings, but looks aren't everything. This was the undoing of the long, bitter battle to save the Bradford Odeon from demolition, in the end saying " Noooooooo!" wasn't enough. Mothballing the cinema isn't an option either, Manchester does not want a repeat of the absurd situation that persists in Grays, Essex, when in 1989 a new multiplex opened the old State cinema closed, and closed it's been ever since. As it's listed it can't be demolished or redeveloped, but nobody wants to.

The heritage lobby praises its art-deco detailing and architecture, but the residents of Grays have spent eighteen years looking at a boarded-up building they can't use even if they wanted to, a situation that benefits nobody.

The best I had hoped for in Manchester was that the new development would incorporate the admirable frontage of the old building, just as they did at the Free Trade Hall, or even at the Paramount cinema in Leeds, but these frontages were listed and so the decision was foisted on the developers.

The Odeon's frontage is not listed and isn't likely to be, furthermore it occupies what is quite a small site in a very expensive place to build. Any new building here would have to substantially increase the square foot commercial space, and as they can't go outwards they must go upwards, far taller than the original cinema was.

But what about the Stockport Plaza, an old cinema with a new life, couldn't that happen in Manchester?

Probably not. I salute all the volunteers that have made a success of this beautiful building, its rebirth quite rightly cited as a benchmark by many campaigns to save their local cinema, but there are differences.

Firstly, the Plaza had never been subdivided or substantially messed about with, and although it took a lot of work to get it back into business, there were no major structural alterations to address. It could start welcoming patrons (and making money) quite quickly, putting cash in the bank for its eventual refurbishment.

Secondly, its major income is from theatrical productions and visiting acts, and here it has no local competition. Just prior to the building coming on the market, the Davenport had closed leaving Stockport without a theatre and local groups without a home, it was this that became the major catalyst for the Plaza's regeneration.

Among the proposed plans for building in 1998 was an application to turn it into a pub/nightclub, an application that may well have been successful had the Davenport not gone.Thankfully the council had some foresight, but listed or not, beautiful or otherwise these buildings still have to compete in the modern marketplace for patrons who will still go elsewhere if it's easier.

But isn't the building that will replace the Odeon horrible, and isn't the attitude of the council just one of chasing easy money?

Well I'm not an architect, but to me the new building has all the charisma of chipboard. Yes, it's yet another steel and glass tower, how original!

But what do I know, according to Manchester City Council educated opinions have been sought on the quality of the proposed structure and apparently it's "very good", and at that price it should be.

Criticisms of a "quick buck" are not altogether fair, to accept that then you would have to believe that the cinema it will replace was opened as a philanthropic gesture to Manchester as a whole. It wasn't, in the cinema mad days of the 1930's erecting a picture palace was one way of amassing a fortune - they were built for profit, operated for profit, altered when necessary for profit and finally closed when they stopped making a profit.

The corporate buildings/blocks of flats/hotels that are replacing them may seem soulless by comparison, but today that's where the money is. If Oscar Deutsch, Arthur Rank and all the other cinema developers were operating nowadays, then offices/flats/hotels is exactly the line of business they'd all be in. It's capitalism, and capitalism doesn't care about yesterday's trends but where the next "buck" is coming from.

So what can we learn from the loss of the Odeon?

That if a private company wants to close one if its premises, it can and will do. It is the closure of these buildings that is really the bad news, not the demolition - it's too late for regrets then. There was hardly anyone in the Odeon towards the end, so that should tell us something, but it's gone now and there's not a lot we can do about it.

However we can support those old cinemas that are struggling to survive, make an effort to go and see a film at the Urmston Curzon for instance, or the Heaton Moor Savoy, both will be pleased to see you. Plus I won't have to read yet another "Save The (fill in cinema name) & Stop Greedy Developers Getting Their Way!" in a few months hence.

Cherish what has survived of the Odeon. When it was opened back in 1930 the theatre came installed with Publix 1 Wurlitzer organ, one of the largest, most prestigious and most expensive Wurlitzers in Europe - and it still is.

Fully restored in its new home of Stockport town hall, this instrument is the envy of theatre organ enthusiasts across the globe, yet the Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust who lovingly maintain it have noted a sharp decline in concert attendances recently, prove you care by attending the next concert on the 22nd of April.

So that is my rather lengthy say on the matter, I have tried to state facts and not rumours and give an honest appraisal of the situation, although I imagine that few will agree with me! A couple of days ago I arrived too early for a performance at the Library Theatre, and so went to have a (last?) walk round the Odeon building. Rainwater was pouring down the walls, (a blocked gully somewhere I suspect) adding to the general appearance of tatty, faded grandeur, yet the building still managed to look elegant and proud. I don't want to be around when they pull it down, but I hope it's sooner rather than later.

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