Last Of The Giant ‘Super Cinemas’

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Why is the Bradford Odeon (formerly, the New Victoria) important? Why is it worth saving? There is more than one answer to these questions; one of which is simply because of its musical heritage: Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones all played here. But just as important, and often overlooked, is the building’s place in the history of cinema in the UK.

In the 1920s, cinema promoters and venue operators decided that the future for cinema lay in huge picture palaces, that often, as well as screening films, would host large theatre shows. Going to the cinema was to be ‘an event’; with the building itself often playing as big a role in customers’ experience as the film itself. Throughout the country, giant ‘super cinemas’ were built, often at huge expense. This was indeed, ‘entertainment for the masses’.

The fifteen largest super cinemas ever built in the UK are shown in the table below. They all had a capacity, when first opened, of over 2,750, and were all built within a short period of time; from 1927 to 1937. Four of these giants, including Bradford’s New Victoria, were opened in the peak year of 1930; and indeed, from August 1929 until December 1930, a super cinema was opening at the rate of one every 10 weeks!

A look at the Table reveals the fate of these giants. Out of the original fifteen, six (40%) have been demolished. Two (Finsbury Park and Gaumont State, Kilburn) are now used as churches; one (Edinburgh) as a big theatre for touring productions; one (Granada, Tooting) for Bingo; and another (MGM Leicester Square) to host smaller cinemas and a casino.

There are three that are now used for live music and entertainment: the Brixton O2 Academy; the Hammersmith Apollo and the Troxy. Each is thriving and enjoys a national reputation. This is because the size of these super cinemas, when converted to modern live entertainment, works exceptionally well: big enough to entice major performers; yet intimate enough to give an experience often lost at the much bigger modern arenas. It is to this illustrious trio that Bradford Live wants to add the former Bradford Odeon.

The table reveals one final fascinating fact. Of the fifteen giant super cinemas, eleven were built in Greater London. Three were built in Scotland, of which only one survives. That leaves Bradford’s New Victoria. Outside of London, it is the largest super cinema ever built in England. That reason alone makes the building worth saving.

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