Oxford Odeon branch closes: is this the end of cinemas?
The venue on Magdalen Street is just one of 5 branch closures for the cinema conglomerate this week.
On Monday, the future of cinema suffered another hit as the major UK cinema chain, Odeon, closed five of its branches.
In Banbury, Oxford Magdalen Street, Blackpool, Weston-super-Mare and Ayrshire venues, the ushers checked their last tickets, viewers took their last seats, and the end credits did just that and ended, rolling for the last time.
Cinemas have been hanging in the balance in the last few years, as COVID-19 lockdowns meant they had to close doors for extended periods of times. And to make matters worse, as the restrictions eased, audiences didn’t seem to return as quickly as one might’ve hoped.
You can understand why viewers aren’t flocking to the big screens anymore; tickets aren’t cheap, cinema food and drink has always been nerve wrackingly pricey, and thanks to streaming services such as Netflix you can have access to endless films and tv shows for the same price as one cinema ticket per month.
Nonetheless, it is a loss for the industry, not just because it shows the decline of physical viewings but because these venues hold so much history and personal memories. We spoke to Fred Connelly, a previous employee at the Oxford Magdalen Street venue and Adam Oldroyd, who had grown up visiting the cinema in Weston-super-Mare about what made these cinemas so special.
Oxford Magdalen Street:
‘One of the things that was really special about this cinema was its scale and, for a time at least, how it stayed connected to its past. For several decades it still had rising red curtains, and ushers in waistcoats (for a while, I was one of them!) and right up until around 2000 it felt much the same as it would have in the 1950s’, says Connelly.
From the outside it looks like the smallest cinema in existence, and this seems to be the case as you head inside realising there is only two screens. But the magnificance of the main auditorium cannot be understated with its dress circle to elevate that golden cinema feeling. It’s so theatrical, one would wonder whether it showed plays and musicals before adding in a screen but it first opened in 1924 as a cinema- a sure contrast from what any newly built cinema looks like today.
You may note the date here, being opened in 1924 this cinema was so very close to its 100th anniversary. This makes this particular closure that bit more heartbreaking. For 99 years, it has captured the hearts of people of all ages.
’I went to screenings in the 80s and 90s that were just packed, and even worked at the cinema for some of them. Jurassic Park, for example, was absolutely rammed on opening night’, says Connelly, but this kind of business was unheard of for the cinema in recent years. I myself had visited the cinema on one occassion sitting in the main auditorium with no more than 10 others. It was eerie, to say the least, sitting in such a large room with a small bunch of strangers- I was just thankful not to be watching a horror film.
Connelly recalled other screenings that attracted similarly huge audiences such as Batman in 1989. ‘I joined the queue at about 8am and there were three or four people ahead of me,’ he said, ‘So when the first screening started, somewhere in the 11am hour, hundreds of us were packed in, really excited. There's nothing like this today. It's rare that films sell out at all, and when the do, there wasn't a queue around the block for hours before, all sharing in the excitement.’
’I helped run a bunch of promotions for Interview With the Vampire we wanted to get in the papers so I went to a local gaming shop and asked for players of the role playing game Vampire: The Masquerade. They put them in touch with me, and I had them come and pose in the graveyard that's *exactly* opposite the cinema doors. One of them was so into vampires he had his teeth filed down into pointed, fang-like shapes. Another time we made an "Oxford Twinned With Bedrock" sign to promote The Flintstones and put it on the ring road.’
‘I first visited Weston-super-Mare Odeon in the late 1970s, when I was just five. At that time the Screen 1 seats formed the circle of the theatre auditorium, looking out over the stalls to the flickering image projected beyond. If you were brave enough you could peer over the balcony down to the unused seats in the shadowy stalls below and see the chunky outline of the giant Art-Deco Compton organ gathering dust’, said Oldroyd.
The organ in question played its first notes in May 1935, and remained, until the cinemas closure, as one of three of the only orginal Comptons playing in its intended location. In May 2023, the final notes rang out as Michael Woolridge played a farewell concert for the grand instrument. What will become of the organ now is unclear, but it sure had a good run.
‘The Odeon was the place where I discovered my love of cinema, during the blockbuster era of the 80s, when films could still offer more scale and spectacle than television ever could.’ Like Connelly, he also experienced queuing in excitement for a new cinema release.
‘In 1980, when ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ was released, I queued on the pavement, around the block, with my Mum, passing the hours of waiting by trying to imagine what secrets the square tower, rising from the top of the Odeon’s striking cream exterior might contain.’
‘There are many, many similar memories of fond times spent at the Odeon; today whenever I smell pick & mix or hear Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’, which always seemed to playing on a loop in the Odeon’s lobby, I’m instantly transported back to those spacious interiors, where you could pace the vast blue carpets, buzzing with excitement at the possibility of discovering another cinematic gem.’
It’s this all encompassing, immersive aspect of the cinema that appeals to so many, from all different ages. As Oldroyd grew up, he explains that he started taking his kids to that same cinema that expanded his own imagination as a child, ‘I think perhaps it is that continuation of tradition that made the Odeon so special. It was a place that was passed on from one generation to the next over many decades.’
Despite new cinemas being opened nearby, this cinema ‘clung on’ for a while. ‘I’m certain there are many people in Weston who share my love of this place, who grew up watching films there and for who, the soulless, corporate interior of the nation’s multiplexes, will never match the charm and romanticism of the Odeon.’
‘I wasn’t surprised by the news of the Odeon’s imminent closure; after the economic hardships of the Covid pandemic, it felt inevitable, but I was surprised by just how sad it made me feel. I went for one last visit on its final weekend, as if to say goodbye to an old friend. It was 45 years on from when I originally set-foot in Screen 1 and experienced the magic of cinema for the very first time.’
Both Connelly and Oldroyd now have careers in the film industry, and there’s no doubt that these cinemas and others along the way would have contributed to this path. Cinemas have undoubtedly been a huge part of many others’ lives too, and we hope that no more have to close down too soon.