Lost Edinburgh: The Odeon, Clerk Street

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SINCE its sad closure in August 2003, the old Odeon on Clerk Street has been left to face the threat of decay while a decision is agreed on its future.

The Clerk Street cinema showed thousands of motion pictures during its 73-year existence. The art deco fronted cinema first opened its doors on the 25 August, 1930, a date that happens to coincide with the birth of Edinburgh’s most notable film actor, Sir Sean Connery.

It was known then as the New Victoria, a name it would bear for over 30 years before becoming the Odeon in 1964.

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With a capacity exceeding 2,000 seats, the vast and lavishly appointed auditorium resembled a Grecian amphitheatre due to the long curve of its stalls – a style that was prevalent in many British cinemas of the era. A film theatre in the true sense, it initially displayed a mix of movies, variety acts and newsreels.

The ceiling lights installed in 1960, designed to give the impression of a starlit night sky, further enhanced the open-air amphitheatre feel.

The 1970s saw the cinema begin to lead a double life as a popular music venue. Deep Purple, The Kinks, The Who, Thin Lizzy, and AC/DC are among just a few of the well-known performers to have graced the Odeon’s stage over the years. However, the conversion of its cavernous auditorium into a triple screen cinema in two separate stages during the 1980s saw its time as a gig venue come to an end. The last 20 years of its operation saw the cinema remain a popular choice for movie-goers, despite the intense competition from the new multiplex cinemas that began to crop up in and around town towards the turn of the millennium.

The Odeon’s ability to still turn a profit meant that the announcement of its closure at the beginning of 2003 came as a shock to those who had frequented the busy cinema.

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In the last decade since the cinema’s closure, the building has suffered badly from neglect, although it was used for brief spells as a Fringe Venue in both 2004 and 2007. Owners Duddingston House Properties (DHP), who also purchased the Renfield Street Odeon in Glasgow as part of a double swoop in 2003, have been forced to revise their plans for the building on a number of occasions. Substantial public resistance to the flattening of the former cinema has been one of the overriding factors that has prevented its redevelopment so far. The decision by Historic Scotland to upgrade the art deco structure, from the Category B listing that it obtained in 1974, to Category A in April 2012, should ensure the retention of the original architecture at the front end of the building. Student accommodation is planned to be built to the rear of the auditorium, with owners DHP keen on exploring viable options to resurrect the old Odeon as a live entertainment venue in the near future.

The notion that the former Odeon on Clerk Street may be lost forever appears to be fading. The people of Edinburgh appear intent on a happy ending.

Is the absence of this wonderful old film theatre merely an extended intermission? Only time will tell.

• David McLean is the founder of Lost Edinburgh, a site dedicated to documenting the capital’s ever-changing landscape over the years. For more on Lost Edinburgh, visit their Facebook page.