The Odeon; the ABC, Canterbury

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By Martin P

Growing up in small town East Kent, I was spoiled for choice with two cinemas. Two! One, the old Canterbury Odeon, betrayed its theatrical roots, with a balcony and actual stalls at the rear of the lower tier. It was by far my favourite place to see a film. The first I can remember seeing was the Walt Disney animated version of Robin Hood – I vividly recall being given a poster of the titular fox in the foyer afterwards, which I proudly took home and Blu-tac’ed to my bedroom wall. I also remember another time, going with my school friend Alex’s family to see a James Bond film, probably For Your Eyes Only. The film clearly was lost on me.

What wasn’t lost on me was the fact that my friend’s older sister, Denise, on whom I had a prototype crush, sat next to me. This may or may not have been a factor in what happened when, during the interval between supporting and main feature, a collection box for the Red Cross was passed around. Now although Alex’s family had taken me out, my parents had not wanted me to go empty-handed, or with empty pockets, so had packed me off with a crisp new £1 note. When the collection box came to me, I felt pressured to put something in, just like everyone else – it seemed the right thing to do, the grown-up thing to do. And I had no change. So the whole £1 went in.

Had I hoped to impress Denise? Maybe. Was I subsequently unable to buy a Kia-Ora? Definitely.

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Anyway, whilst the old Odeon is now the Marlowe Theatre in The Friars, the grubby old ABC is now the marginally less grubby Odeon, in Upper St George’s St. Though the Odeon was my favourite, it’s the ABC I need to talk about. I didn’t like the ABC as much. It felt a bit tatty. And whereas the Odeon has a circle and stalls, the ABC was just an enormous terrace of seats for its single screen. To give you an idea of how things were, my last visit there was in the ’90s for a late-night screening of Reservoir Dogs. They let the audience sit there for nearly an hour before cancelling and offering refunds because the bulb in their projector had blown and, incredibly, they didn’t have a spare.

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So, we’ve established I didn’t much like the ABC but in those days, when there was far less choice, you took what you could get. And what I got, one day, was The Waterloo Bridge Handicap.

Now IMDb tells me this film was made in 1978. If I Googled hard enough, I could probably find out what films it was shown as the support feature for in the years that followed. But I’m not too bothered about that; the very fact that I can’t remember what the main feature was tells me all I need to know. But The Waterloo Bridge Handicap stuck.

It’s a simple tale of commuters, haring over the eponymous river crossing in the style of a horse race, complete with commentary from a young Brough Scott. He’s not the only notable name on show either. Leonard Rossiter plays the lead, Charles Barker, whilst Lynda Bellingham, Patricia Hodge, Gordon Kaye and Zoot Money all put in appearances too.

The reason this film stuck, and that I’ve been thinking about it lately, is that I now have a 10½ minute walk from where I park to my office. Note, 10½. Not 10, not 11. That’s how much I’ve refined the walking leg of my commute. And the thing is, if there’s anyone further up the path than me, I try to walk them down. I have a notional finishing line. I even talk to myself about it (in my head, not aloud – don’t panic). It becomes a little race for me. I know how that sounds, but when you walk the same 0.8 miles twice a day, every day, well, what would you do to make it interesting?

I’m going to embed the film now, courtesy of YouTube. Even if you think I’m a bit sad with my walk to work, this is worth a watch, partly for its time-capsule illustration of how much things have changed: in film, with the leisurely (pedestrian, you might say) pace of the opening; in London, with buildings and street furniture that are consigned to history; in transport, with British Rail rolling stock; and in people, not only in dress but in technology, with not a mobile phone in sight and people either talking to each other or, at least, looking where they’re walking. And if the Thames station ident at the start of the clip doesn’t get your nostalgia muscle flexing, nothing will.

Martin has been blogging on issue cultural, musical, cinematic, political and otherwise at New Amusements since 2005. This blog entry was first published there in May 2016. I include it with pleasure.

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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.”