The Odeon, Northampton

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This is the first cinema I ever went to, the Northampton Odeon. Just there, at the back of my hometown’s historic Market Square, the building with the awning and the “CAFÉ” sign on top. As old as you think I am, it wasn’t as long ago as the year this charming photograph was taken. The cars didn’t look quite so Laurel and Hardy when I crossed the picture palace’s threshold, although if they had, I wouldn’t have minded. I was taken there, possibly by car, by my granddad – my mum’s father, known to us as Pap Reg, who worked for the Amalgamated Engineering Union and needed a car for the job. I was taken there to see the 19th Walt Disney feature animation The Jungle Book, released in the United States in October 1967 after a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, but not until March 1968 in the UK, around the time of my third birthday. It seems like a very young age, but evidence points in that direction. (It must have been on that first theatrical outing as records show that The Jungle Book wasn’t sent back out into cinemas here until 1983.)

Thanks to the website Cinema Treasures, and specifically to contributor Ken Roe, I know more about the Northampton Odeon than I did in 1968. Originally a Corn Exchange, it opened on 29 March 1851, and boasted a “barrel vaulted wooden ceiling” and an organ, which was upgraded at various stages. Mainly used for meetings and functions, it hosted its first travelling film shows from 1900 and became a fully-fledged cinema on 2 August 1920, with seating for 2,020 in stalls and circle. Improvements over the decades included lifts, a roof garden and tea room. The Exchange Cinema, as it was then known, was the first outside London to put on a talkie, The Singing Fool.

The Exchange became the Gaumont, then, in March 1964, the Odeon. It was converted into a Top Rank bingo hall in 1974, a seismic event I remember vividly.

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Photo: Paul Bland

This was the first act of cultural vandalism I had encountered in my short life, equivalent in its power to chip away at a nine-year-old’s existential innocence as the death of James Beck, Private Walker on Dad’s Army, had been a year earlier. Thankfully, Northampton still had the ABC, which served my cinemagoing needs until I left for London in the mid-80s.

In the 90s, the former Odeon was sold off again and transformed into some kind of Rock Café, albeit Grade II listed.) The website Playing Bingo (a “UK Retail and Online Bingo Resource”) has a Press Cuttings section that contains pleasingly grainy newspaper clippings relating to bingo. On it, I found these testimonies to the heinous closure of the Odeon from our local paper the Chronicle & Echo (presumably less heinous to the booming bingo sector).

My memories of the inside of the Odeon cinema are quite murky. I was very young. The past coagulates. I remember the dark. I remember the B-picture, a Disney live-action yarn called Charlie the Lonesome Cougar (which was technically the first film I ever saw in a cinema). And I remember The Jungle Book. Its famous songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (except its most famous, The Bare Necessities, which was written by Terry Gilkyson) quickly felt like standards, excerpted and featured on Disney Time on the BBC throughout the 60s and 70s and thereafter. From ’67, rarely did one of these celebrity-hosted Bank Holidays clip compendiums go by without a dose of The Jungle Book. This film was in our DNA.

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I feel like I was given the Storyteller version of the soundtrack LP concurrently with being taken to the film, as the two merge in my mind. That this handsomely packaged record’s narration was not even by Sebastian Cabot (who narrated the film as Bagheera), but another actor, did not dim its vitality for me. I was too young to notice, or care. From the booklet I learned all the dialogue and most of the lyrics off by heart, through repeated plays, and it took The Aristocats to knock it off my personal number one spot in 1970. I remember for a birthday treat, my dad borrowing Uncle Brian’s cine projector and renting some spools of Disney cartoons – where or who from, I cannot imagine; I trust they were legit – which included a substantial clip of The Aristocats (the part where Roquefort the mouse has to locate Scat Cat and his gang in some scary alley, and the English, guitar-playing cat with the shades and the beads appears upside down at the end of a tunnel created by a dustbin). That must have felt like a significant seizure of the means of production: being able to show a film on a bare wall through a whirring, glowing, overheating projector. And, perhaps more importantly, show it again and again, and, when we got bored, spool it backwards to bottomless merriment.

I’m off at tangents because my first steps inside the carpeted foyer of a picturehouse are lost to me, other than I know I made them, it’s Collins family lore. I remember the film being big and loud, and being swept up into it, more than swept along by it, and I remember the LP as it was my personal stake in the franchise. But I also accept that I’ve come to memorialise and perhaps mythologise this momentous visit in the years since. I know now how important a step it was.

My other granddad, Pap Collins, took my younger sister Melissa to see her first film at the cinema some years later, presumably the Odeon. The film was the remake of the Shangri-La musical The Lost Horizon, released in 1973, when she must also have been three. She complained to Pap that it was too loud and they had to leave the cinema. One imagines that three-year-olds today are more media-savvy than we were, and are probably already watching feature films on their parents’ phones.

Here, thanks to the armchair archivists at Cinema Treasures, is the Odeon again, by the looks of the Instamatic photo, snapped in the 70s. Already behind an armature of scaffolding, it is doomed to a future of clickety-click and hot wings. (I wish I could read the titles of the two films it was showing.)

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Today, Northampton is amply served by two out-of-town multiplexes, and two smaller cinemas, the suburban Lings Forum (which we’ll cover in a separate post, as it also weaves into my childhood), and, closer to the centre of town, the splendidly named Errol Flynn Filmhouse, which opened in 2013, has one screen with room for 90, and boasts leather seats. I have never visited it, but know its subterranean location as it’s housed with the impressive Derngate Theatre complex. Note to self.

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Neither have I ever patronised the nine-screen Cineworld in the west, which heralded the new American age of car parks, escalators and a two-for-one cocktail in Frankie & Benny’s in 1995, located amid a redevelopment called Sixfields which also encompasses Northampton’s football ground of the same name, a bowling alley, all the big branded eating and drinking holes, a gym and some big shops. (Cineworld started out as an MGM, then turned into a Virgin, then a UGC, as is the bloodless, boardroom-shuffling way of corporate entertainment conglomerates.) There is also a Vue (formerly a UCI) multiplex, with ten screens in Mare Fair in the centre of town. It used to be the headquarters of Barclaycard, one of the big employers in Northampton, which moved out of town to Brackmills in the east, ironically like cinemas usually do. The Vue’s in the Sol Central complex, which also boasts a hotel, spa and gym. It’s walking distance from where the Odeon used to stand.

(Thanks for Dave Thacker for the detail. I don’t get back to the town as often as I once did.)

And that, in a redevelopmental nutshell, is progress. To quote The Jungle Book, “Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found.”

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