Photographs kindly provided by the author, Philip Butler.
ODEON: ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’ through not only the joy of cinema and moving pictures, but also the temples of modernist architecture in which Deutsch worked his cinema wizardry.
Never in my lifetime has the magic of cinema been missed and appreciated so dearly as during lockdown. The bold movie posters, patterned pile carpets, scoops of sweet popcorn, and the squeak of the theatre seat as it folds and welcomes you to settle down, are things that will only seem all the more delightful when cinemas can open safely again. Cinemas, in an essence, can be missed even further than the longing for visits: as streaming services boom and the arts are hit hard by lockdown, Britain’s modernist Odeon architectural masterpieces are slowly falling into the background of towns and cities – an unfortunate change that has been happening since even the 1960s, a mere thirty years since many of the buildings were constructed. Through his 2019 book, ‘Odeon Relics‘ published by Art Deco Magpie Publishing, however, Philip Butler has immortalised the façades of over fifty Odeon cinemas: be they in their original glory, altered, or set for imminent demolition.
An introduction by Jason Sayer vividly sets the scene of 1930s inter-war Britain, with its sights firmly set on blooming out of its art nouveau era and coming into the modern age of Europe, embracing art deco and modernist styles. This introduction is a read that is fascinating not only for its background into cinema in the UK, but also for bringing answers to questions that arose on first glance – why would it would be that there were only three Odeon cinemas constructed in Scotland at that time? Scotland’s economy was still feeling the brunt of the First World War. The only remaining original Odeon cinema in Scotland is found in Ayr: lacking the same glamour and detail of some of its English counterparts, after years of decay, though still in use.
The pages that follow Sayer’s introduction share the sights of curving corner cinemas, towering fins paired with faience tiles, bright neon strips and intricate brickwork adorning Odeon structures from across the UK. The photography of these buildings by Philip Butler acts as a sympathetic snapshot of how these institutions are found today, be it converted into bingo halls, pubs, or snooker halls. The images would not look far out of place on the original advertising campaigns for each cinema: Butler has expertly found the best angle for each venue, to highlight not only how it stands today, but also its booming past. The book’s large, square format and glossy pages allow the photographer’s craft and expertise to come to the forefront, accompanied by informative snippets of the story of each location and the architects behind the marvels. A particularly poignant read for me, was on York’s Odeon, perhaps for my long love of the city. York is arguably one of Britain’s most historic cities, and to bring a magnificent modernist monument fronted with bright tiles within its ancient walls would be out of place, to say the least. In order to bring Deutsch’s cinematic empire to the city, a brick-fronted homage to cinema was designed by Harry Weedon Architects and built on the outskirts of the city walls, opening in 1937. It’s architecture was not the only aspect of the Blossom Street building influenced by York’s deep sense of pride in its history: the Odeon logo which adorns the front face of what is now an Everyman cinema, retains its original 1930s design, unlike the rest of the logos seen throughout ‘Odeon Relics’, which have been modernised considerably through the years. Odeon’s new, blocky, octagonal logo was deemed too contemporary in style for York, and so, the thin, delicate art deco lettering of the original Odeon logo still sits proud atop of the entrance today.
Though the scenes depicted throughout ‘Odeon Relics‘ are of the modern day – and in some cases, of sadly decaying architectural masterpieces – a peruse through the book and its breathtaking imagery transports the reader back to the early 1930s, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of people in smart jackets and frocks, crowding inside these institutions to get a taste of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Perhaps even further than this, the collection is an important documentation of how towns and cities in Britain lie today.
Many of the buildings featured have been listed, with the exception of those who were once listed, but were quickly de-listed: Chorley cinema for example. At the time of publishing in 2019, the old cinema was being used as a bingo hall, decorated in bright blues and reds of bingo posters, a lit entrance hall welcoming dozens of people. Today, in 2021, however, the Chorley Odeon is set to be demolished. This is just one example of all-too-many of Britain’s architectural wonders from years gone by falling victim to the wrecking ball.
I do, however, have an ounce of hope that the magic of cinema will be re-found in post-lockdown life, and that in being found, such buildings from the Odeon’s heyday will be appreciated and treasured as they should be. Working from home may cause less of a squeeze for offices and workspaces in cities, which often comes to the detriment of historical buildings which are quickly dismissed as unfit for use. I hope that these spaces and modernist buildings can be opened up and revitalised with sustainable uses, bringing variation and excitement to city centres – bringing life into the places that we almost take for granted. We are lucky to have photographers such as Philip Butler to capture our towns and city centres so sympathetically, and with such promise of what our old buildings (that even I am guilty of taking for granted) could be, with the right appreciation and investment.
‘Odeon Relics‘ is a must-read for lovers of cinema and modernist architecture alike.