The Twentieth Century Society

Building of the month

Bradford Odeon

Bradford Odeon (formerly New Victoria/Gaumont)
Words and pictures by Mark Nicholson

The Bradford Odeon building currently faces a very uncertain future on two counts. Disused for eight years, the submission of a planning application to demolish it completely and replace with a “mixed use” commercial/residential scheme is believed to be imminent. Conversely, the DCMS is currently assessing two separate review cases appealing against a decision to not grant listed building status in March 2008, with the welcome backing of many theatre experts. The reversal of that decision could effectively protect the building.

Constructed with two million bricks and a thousand tons of steel at a reported cost of £250,000, the New Victoria (as it was originally known) was the largest theatre on the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres circuit, and the first purpose built cinema for “talkies” in the country. In addition to its vast 3,500 capacity auditorium, it also housed a grand ballroom and a stylish restaurant within its white terracotta block and Flemish Bond brickwork walls. The incorporation of two octagonal tower entrances was a design masterstroke, forging an undeniable visual relationship with the domes of the adjacent Alhambra theatre. This stunning streetscape group value still successfully survives today.

Dubbed “The Wonder Cinema of the North”, the New Victoria offered its patrons a complete entertainments package of a feature film on a 50 ft by 30 ft screen, plus lavish shows on the 70 ft by 45 ft stage, accompanied by an in-house orchestra and the mighty Wurlitzer organ.

In September 1950, the theatre became the Bradford Gaumont. This particular era is arguably the building’s most celebrated as it was during the fifties and sixties that numerous big pop stars of the day, including legends such as Buddy Holly, The Beatles and Tom Jones, all appeared on that vast stage.

A nationwide decline in cinema audiences towards the end of the 1960s led the Rank Organisation to include the Bradford Gaumont within its radical “twinning” conversion programme. Closed in November 1968, the following nine months witnessed a three-way subdivision of the huge auditorium with the entire stalls area (plus the former restaurant) converted to a bingo club with twin cinemas installed above at approximately circle level. The doors reopened in August 1969, and the building was henceforth known as the Bradford Odeon. The former ballroom was later converted into a third Odeon screen in the summer of 1988, offering a greater selection of film choice.

However, the synthetic appeal of multiplex cinemas in the surrounding district eventually distracted filmgoers away from the more traditional Bradford Odeon during the 1990s. Consequently, the bingo club called “house” for the final time in the summer of 1997 and the cinema eventually closed in July 2000.

In 2003 the regeneration body Yorkshire Forward purchased the Odeon building for £3 million, identifying its position in the city centre as a “key site” for their regeneration plans for Bradford. Controversy has raged ever since. The public’s general reaction towards the seemingly pre-determined demolition of the Odeon can be easily gauged by the sheer volume of bitterly opposing readers’ letters that have continually flooded the local newspaper during the last five years. Without doubt, the greatest demonstration of public opposition took place on Saturday 14th July 2007 when the Bradford Odeon Rescue Group (BORG) invited the public to participate in their “Hug the Odeon” event. A thousand supporters reportedly took part in the gentle, but determined protest!

However, regeneration chiefs are undaunted and remain defiantly steadfast to their plans. They insist the proposed scheme of offices, apartments and a hotel to replace the Odeon will “kick start” the commercial market in Bradford, but many recently constructed purpose built office blocks still remain not fully occupied elsewhere in the city centre. BORG recently unveiled their own plans to reverse the 1969 conversion work and re-introduce the original auditorium space that remains intact beneath lightweight materials, with financial backing to fund it. This scheme has been widely supported by the 10,000 strong readership who have viewed the plans in BORG’s newsletter, but the Odeon is apparently not for sale…

The final decision of the DCMS Minister is therefore eagerly awaited by those on either side of the argument!

Worth Saving? The Case For The New Victoria Bradford as featured in the 2008 edition of Picture House (Cinema Theatre Association).

Full building history is available at: http://www.kingsdr.demon.co.uk/cinemas/newvic.htm

Further information relating to the campaign to save the Bradford Odeon is available on BORG’s newly constructed website: www.bradfordodeonrescuegroup.co.uk, which also includes links to an Odeon MySpace page, Facebook profile and online petition.

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