Tom Pate: Long campaign to save iconic Odeon venue

The story in the Evening News last week that Edinburgh’s old Odeon cinema is to find new life after nearly ten years lying idle is a wonderful outcome to a long campaign by opponents of the plan to demolish the A-listed building and replace it with a hotel.

Developer Duddingston House Porperties has always insisted that the building has no viable future with the historic art deco auditorium retained.

This was never true, but persuading the relevant authorities and the wider public that half a dozen street-wise (their only qualification) campaigners were right about this, and DHP and its expert advisers wrong, was no easy task.

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Contrary to popular myth, the Odeon was profitable when it closed ten years ago.

Like other city centre cinemas it had been affected by the emergence of out-of-town multiplexes, but it was the decision by its then-owners to concentrate exclusively on the multiplex formula that led to its closure, not red ink in the profit and loss account.

When our campaign took flight five years ago, many thought we were too late and that the Odeon was already a lost cause.

But we knew there were people still interested in buying the building and restoring it, so we persevered.

One of several interested parties was Elim Church.

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A glance at Elim’s balance sheet and wider activities showed clear credibility.

Their plan was to return the two downstairs cinemas to full-time public cinema use (on a commercial basis, copying their successful operation at the Coronet, Notting Hill in London), restore the main auditorium for church and multi-
purpose use, and use ancillary spaces for community activities.

But after several years of trying to buy the building and getting nowhere, and still without a home for their local congregation, they finally threw in the towel and moved on.

By this time other credible buyers for the building had also given up. Without one, DHP’s planning application for demolition would almost certainly have been granted, so it was a relief when Alan Scobie, who had co-ordinated Elim’s bid for the building, decided to submit a private offer to run it as a cinema/arts venue.

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Funding was arranged and proof provided to DHP, but no agreement was reached.

In the circumstances, it is ironic that the deal between DHP and Gerry Boyle, as reported by the Evening News, will see the Odeon restored along similar lines to those proposed by Alan Scobie.

This seems rough justice on Alan, as his interest in buying the building has been the single most significant factor in its survival over all these years. But perhaps that’s life, and Gerry Boyle is a credible and experienced entrepreneur, so his involvement is welcome.

Running a successful cinema in the middle of student land should be a doddle and the big auditorium upstairs has the potential to be a real money spinner, whether as a Las Vegas style cabaret venue or something else.

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Fringe promoters will be queuing at the door to rent out this space during the Festival.

There are still risks ahead. The proceeds of the development at the rear of the building – replacing the old stage house and the vacant land behind it – must be used to finance the upgrade of the historically significant spaces at the front of the building.

The concerns of neighbours must also be taken into account during and after development.

So a bright new future for the Odeon? I think so.

For those who have supported our campaign, including MSPs Sarah Boyack and Shirley-Anne Somerville, who both raised questions in Parliament on our behalf, many MPs, MSPs and city councillors from all the main parties (except one), and Hilary McDowell, chairwoman of the old Southside Community Council who led a spirited public campaign to preserve the Odeon, this is a sweet moment. But we are not complacent and there will be no let up until the building is reopened.

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It could and should have happened years ago, but better late than never.

n Tom Pate is a member of the Save the Odeon campaign.

To the Boyle

GERRY Boyle – brother of singing sensation Susan – wants to overhaul the Odeon by turning it into a Las Vegas-style cabaret and entertainment complex.

The Instant Arena would stage “spectacular” live shows in the building’s main art deco auditorium. The plans would also see a champagne bar, restaurant and coffee lounge created. Films would be shown in the two ground-floor cinemas and game shows, talent competitions and celebrity concerts would be potentially broadcast live around the world. The old stage house facing Buccleuch Street to the rear would be demolished for student accommodation.

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